Tuesday, March 06, 2012

My Small Tribute to Will Eisner

Today would have been Will Eisner's 95th birthday. (If you don't know who Will Eisner was, [1] Shame on you; [2] Go visit his official website.) I had the honor to meet the great man several times, and when he died on January 3, 2005, it was a blow. I got to pay Will back in a small way when Jon B. Cooke asked me to help him out a bit on a special tribute issue of his magazine, Comic Book Artist. I helped proofread the issue, for which Jon generously gave me the credit "Special Contributing Editor."

This issue of CBA was double-sized, and chock-full of features on and testimonials to Eisner. On this, the anniversary of his birth, I felt compelled to rummage through the attic and find that issue again; I'll be reading it tonight and for the next several days. Anyway, here's what I had to say about Mr. Eisner in November of 2005.
Will Eisner: An Appreciation
Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
published in Comic Book Artist 2.6 (November 2005), page 151

My first exposure to Will Eisner and The Spirit was in Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. The Spirit didn’t exactly fit into my eleven-year-old mind’s conception of what “comic books” were — back then, if someone wasn’t wearing a garish costume, the story wasn’t a “real” comic book to me. Still, I read that Spirit story over and over again, and it has stayed with me ever since. Prophecies, exotic locations, violence… and that silent panel in which the beggar erases his sand-drawing of “the man with the hidden face”: the story wasn’t as flashy as the others in the book, but it was moody, deliberate, affecting. And looking at the story again, now, I can see and admire the careful craft behind the narrative.

Many years later (after “giving up” comic books not once but twice), I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on comics; and like any good graduate student, I decided I need to read everything in the critical literature. (And back then, it was almost possible to do that, at least for the English-language writing on comics.) If Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art wasn’t the first book about comics that I read and obsessed over at that time, it was certainly in the top five.

And it was a book that I returned to continuously. Eisner’s clear, direct essays about storytelling were eye-opening; intended as a collection of lessons for would-be cartoonists, the book let me, a non-artist, peek inside the creative process and gain valuable insight from the experience. Eisner helped me think about comics as comics. Though I never studied with him formally, I consider him one of my formative teachers and mentors — his work, both creative and critical (and for him, the distinguishing line is thin at best) has been a part of my thinking for decades.

I was lucky enough to meet the man a handful of times. The most memorable was at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association in 1998, where he was a special guest of honor for the Comic Art and Comics Area. Not only did he give an evening talk (which was attended by hundreds of folks, including many who only knew of Eisner from reading The Spirit in their newspapers in the 1940s and 50s), but he also attended many sessions, participating from the audience when he wasn’t on the dais.
For one of those panels, I was honored to serve as the moderator. I got to sit at the same table as Will Eisner. Right next to him! And on my birthday! The only thing marring the experience was a cold I had trouble shaking, so I probably looked more than a bit queasy up there. Which, I suppose, covered up for the fact that I otherwise would have spent most of the time grinning like an idiot. “I’m sitting next to Will Eisner!”

The topic was “Comics and Technology,” and he was an active, thoughtful participant. Hell, he was more invested in the possibilities of technology than practically anyone else in the room, with an enthusiasm augmented by a lifetime of experience with change. He knew that nothing was static, and he wanted to make sure he would never be left behind. (As if that were possible.)

He shook my hand as the session ended; being too old at this point to consider “never washing that hand again,” I managed to do something more permanent (and meaningful): I liberated the piece of paper on which Eisner had been doodling. Being an impecunious academic, I own very little original art; this doodle is one of the few pieces in my “collection,” and a precious one.

Will Eisner’s art was inspiring, his work ethic was inspiring — his whole life was (and continues to be) inspiring.

[Caption: "Above: While attending a conference together, Will Eisner doodled on a piece of hotel stationery and Gene Kannenberg, Jr. snagged it before Will threw it away. Art © 2005 the Estate of Will Eisner."]
I miss you, Mr. Eisner, but you live on through your work.

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