Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Spirit Behind Eisner

As graphic novels and comics in general gain more and more respectability, it's no real surprise for more book-length critical texts to start appearing. Since he invented and continued to re-invent the art of the graphic novel over the years, Will Eisner is an obvious but still excellent place to start. His recent passing only makes this book even more timely.

The Will Eisner Companion by N.C. Christopher Crouch and Stephen Weiner is part mini-biography and part summary of Eisner's major works. The Spirit, both it's creation and it's analysis, comprises the first third of the book. The history behind this seminal character warrants a full book to itself, and Companion provides some interesting details and analysis. Eisner's early desire to bring a new sense of realism to comics started in the 1940's, and developed in the unique strip of The Spirit by working in more realistic characters and problems day-to-day life alongside the action stories that were, and still are, the standard. The rest of the book focuses on Eisner's creation of and experimentation with the graphic novel. Companion attempts to explain the themes of character, religion and social awareness so integral to Eisner's stories, and it does a fair job in a Cliff's Notes kind of fashion.

Authors Couch and Weiner have both been strong advocates for graphic novels the last few years, contributing solid reviews to places like Library Journal and Comics Journal, the critical bible of the comics industry. Because of this, I did go into this book expecting a little more depth. The work is approached and described in pretty basic terms, and considering the credentials of the two comes off a little limited for anyone with more than passing knowledge. It is, however, a solid introduction to Eisner's very accomplished work and career. The collections of Eisner's work, spanning over sixty years, really showcase his skill as an artist and storyteller and will certainly inspire the unfamiliar to investigate him further.

In the 60's and 70's critic and author Damon Knight called for an increase in the quality and depth in the criticism of science fiction, and the time seems right for the same thing to happen with the graphic novel. And while I don't think this book in particular is the ideal, it is surely a step in the right direction.

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