(This is the talk I gave during the academic conference at the recent Billy Ireland Museum opening festival, part of a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of the publication of A Contract with God. Assigned the title, “Eisner as Author: Will Eisner as the Writer of His Graphic Novels,” I’d been asked to make it informal and personal, which made mine a sort of outlier among a lot of that week’s scholarly papers. And, of course, it was delivered to an inside-baseball audience guaranteed to catch my references without providing a lot of background, so you won’t find any footnotes here. Since I agreed to post it, I’ve reproduced the text as originally written – for the spoken word – instead of recasting it as a more formal piece. I have added a few illustrations here and there, but the original presentation was delivered without any visual aids at all.)
Will Eisner, ladies and gentlemen, the Dean of Comics:
…from a piece of work published in 1939 called “Muss ‘em Up – A Complete Story.” And I think I can say without contradiction that no one reading that story when it first appeared in Keen Detective Funnies would have believed that we’d be discussing its author’s work all these years later.
Will once told me that he’d never thought of himself as a writer. Now, Will was an old-school gentleman, and I think he was mostly being polite, since writing was the only thing I could do in comics. (My daughter did think I could draw a world-class Godzilla, but she was eight at the time.) Will, of course, could do it all…but, like a lot of people of his generation, I think he had the feeling that “pure” writers were on a different, higher, artistic plane than mere commercial cartoonists.
I remember him specifically mentioning “Muss ‘em Up” as an example of the goofy stuff he turned out early in his career. He wasn’t ashamed of those old stories, but he largely lumped them together as commercial piecework, widgets cranked out to fill a quota.
They really couldn’t have been anything else. Will was one of the pioneers of the comic book assembly line back in the ‘30s, a setup that demanded fortitude and rewarded technical development, but sophisticated literary expression was strictly optional.
In the illustration and cartooning world of that day, comic books were pretty much the bottom of the barrel. Unlike the big names who drew and painted for the Saturday Evening Post, or those artists whose work was syndicated in the daily newspaper, comic book people had no one to despise but their own readers. Naturally, the most ambitious comic book creators aspired to more.
Will regretted his lack of formal education, and became a voracious reader to fill in the gaps. And when he got his chance to move up and began producing The Spirit, he turned the assembly line into something approaching the platonic ideal, turning out material that slowly became more and more ambitious. Even in its silliest period, the pre-World War II years, he was determined to make it more than just another widget. – Bob Powell, who did the “Mr. Mystic” backup strip for years, never managed to break out of the back of the section and sell a Spirit script. The Spirit had to be something special, something to aspire to.
In the stories written after he returned from active duty, you can see Will starting to flex his creative muscles in new ways – not just the inventive design work for which the postwar Spirit is remembered, but in his willingness to draw on more than just other comics or kids’ adventure serials for inspiration. It seemed as though he was processing new sources constantly, and refining them for his own ends faster and faster – The Spirit reflected the movies he saw, the radio dramas he heard (it was still a commercial property), but also reinterpreted the news of the day, and the plays he saw, and the literature that he devoured.
It’s true that it was young Jules Feiffer who wrote or co-wrote some of The Spirit’s finest moments – “The Haircut,” drawn from a Ring Lardner story; the wonderful “Ten Minutes”; and “The Story of Gerhard Schnobble,” a fable of superhuman abilities that ended not with a bang
but a shrug –
but it was that atmosphere of striving for more which Will created, that made that work possible.
A lot of those influences stuck with him; years later, when Will asked me to write a prose novel about The Spirit, he let me know that he hoped I’d “make it funny, like Sam Spade” – a character who’d never been funny except on the radio series that ended before I was born.
But his influences and points of reference had also continued to expand and mature…and by the time Will returned to comics with A Contract with God, he was no longer the master of the assembly line, but a one-man show. Whether he’d admit it to himself or not, he’d also become the kind of writer he’d always aspired to be. And he carried the graphic novel upwards at the same time.
A Contract with God certainly wasn’t the first graphic novel – it wasn’t a novel of any kind – but it was the game-changer. Some talented people had created their own long contained comics narratives from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, but they were all genre pieces. A Contract with God, by contrast, was Will Eisner daring to work without a net…neither pulp nor parody, but a serious personal work that carried the achievement of Lynn Ward and his predecessors’ silent allegories into the modern day, and it influenced the true graphic novels that would follow it for years to come.
Nobody was influenced by that book more than Will himself. Some of the finest work he would produce in the years that followed revisited A Contract with God’s Dropsie Avenue setting, fleshing out its history and the inner lives of its citizens – a little patch of the Bronx made into his own Yoknapatawpha County…but with laundry drying on the fire escapes.
Coming from such a beloved figure, Will’s graphic novels often display a surprisingly jaundiced view of humanity. A Contract with God is filled with worthless bastards, and the book that followed, Life on Another Planet, seems dedicated to proving that the entire human race consists of chumps and assholes.
Yet it’s all tempered by his understanding of what makes us this way. A Contract with God’s Frimme Hersch is both villain and victim: he’s endured unbearable pain, the same loss of a child which Will revealed, years later, that he had suffered. Even more than To the Heart of the Storm, A Contract with God may be his most personal and bravest work.
So…was Will a good writer? He certainly never claimed to be a prose stylist. The pages of text that he occasionally incorporated into his graphic novels could be so straightforward and prosaic that they seemed absolutely artless. – In his multi-generational stories he was perfectly capable of effecting a transition by having a character walk into a room and essentially say, “Hi, it’s World War I now!” Will was a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, and at times you can hear him thinking, Let’s get this exposition crap out of the way and get on with the important stuff. His book The Name of the Game has a number of text passages that could and really should have been deleted entirely…or, better, turned into actual comics pages. In Will Eisner’s case, one picture was often worth a hell of a lot more than a thousand words.
Where his books sang and soared was in the interaction of his characters, who loved and hated and ignored each other vividly. Frimme Hersch’s big moment, where he repudiates God for welshing on their deal, is a thunder-and-lightning climax straight out of the Yiddish theater of Will’s childhood – a role that Boris Tomashevsky would have eaten with a spoon. Though he never attempted to recreate those fireworks again, those sentiments and the urge to pull out the stops reappear throughout his career as a graphic novelist…perhaps most effectively in Jacob Schtarka’s bizarre low-key monologue to a cockroach in A Life Force.
Beyond the bravura moments, though, were the countless and gorgeously realized little portraits of homely lives filled with fleeting joy and quiet frustration…bitter victories and life-shattering defeats that could only be greeted with a shrug.
And yet, on the opening page of To the Heart of the Storm, Will could describe young men going off to war like this:
“It was a time to reflect, to take inventory, not as dying men – for they had still to face that – but rather to shore up their strength against what lay ahead. They knew instinctively that their values and prejudices would soon be tested and that perhaps not again in the rush of living would there be such a moment as this.”
So yeah, despite his quirks and infelicities, he was a damned good writer.
No other graphic novelist has equaled Will’s achievement in chronicling the depths of the human heart, an achievement whose centerpiece was A Contract with God. That’s why we still remember and celebrate it 35 years later.