The Minor Miracles of Will Eisner
The Last Knight
Last Day in Vietnam
Dark Horse ($10.95)
DC Comics ($29.95)
by Eric Lorberer
It's a platitude that has been repeated often, but it bears saying again: Will Eisner is one of the great masters of narrative sequential art, a.k.a. the comics. A generation after pioneers such as Winsor McCay and George Herriman laid the foundation for the art form, Eisner further explored its breadth and potential in the 1940s with his newspaper insert comic book, The Spirit. Currently being archived in hardback editions, The Spirit is a monumental achievement that alone would secure Eisner's legacy--its innovative layouts and strong storytelling have influenced generations since--but Eisner's claim to fame also rests with his graphic novels, books that place emphasis on humanity over heroics. Beginning with the 1978 A Contract with God (widely credited as being the first graphic novel, though it is really a set of four interconnected stories), Eisner showed just how literary the comic format can get. Now in his eighties, he remains as prolific and profound as ever, as these three new releases attest.
Surely no-one but Eisner, for example, would have the audacity to adapt Cervantes' famed novel Don Quixote into a 32-page comic book, but this is exactly what Eisner has done in The Last Knight. It is nothing short of astonishing that this children's redaction is so enjoyable; while his condensed version (labeled "an introduction to Don Quixote" on the book's cover) sidesteps many of the details and complexities of Cervantes's picaresque, it remarkably conveys the spirit and passion of the book. In the best tradition of children's books that instruct and delight both young and old, The Last Knight will offer young readers access to this timeless tale of idealism, while dazzling those readers familiar with Don Quixote with the fluidity and panache of its adaptation. It is thus a pleasure to report that the publisher promises more classic works as rendered by Will Eisner.
A collection of stories with a much different audience and agenda, Last Day in Vietnam is equally impressive. On hiatus from the more public world of comics, Eisner produced educational tracts for the military in the '50s and '60s--most notably in his P.S. Magazine, a technical manual that provided "maintenance advice in comic-book form." Yet flying into Korea and Vietnam for information gathering field trips also gave Eisner an unencumbered look at the human side of the military equation, and the six stories here pay tribute to individual persons. Eisner may employ a comic touch to some of his scenarios, but all are invested with the tragic sense of life during wartime as well. In the title story, Eisner puts us in role of the camera eye as we are led about by a soldier whose final duty before he ships out is to escort a reporter through the camp; with no editorial intervention, Eisner conveys the contradictions of war with real pathos. In the volume's last story, "A Purple Heart for George," a beauracratic snafu sends the supremely-unfit-for-war lead character into battle, earning him not only his posthumous award, but the more heartfelt remembrance here. Between stories, Last Day in Vietnam presents full-page photographs of camp life, reminding us that these comics are indeed based on real events.
Minor Miracles, Eisner's latest work, is a graphic novel of urban life that provides a perfect bookend to his groundbreaking A Contract with God. Like the earlier book, this one offers four stories connected by setting and theme--the latter in this case is the presence of the miraculous within the everyday--and like most of Eisner's graphic novel work, including Last Day in Vietnam, it is presented in sepia tones that enhance the feel that these are pictures from the past, stills recovered from memory and strung together into sweeping narratives. The stories themselves are in the folklore tradition, tales that enigmatically offer morals about conduct, lessons in love and life. In "A Special Wedding Ring," for instance, Reba and Marvin enact a marital drama worthy of O. Henry, while "A New Kid on the Block," the saga of an abandoned child who changes a neighborhood, reveals a touch of I.B. Singer. But comparing Eisner to the narrative masters of yore is simply to say that he is one of them. His pacing is exquisite, his portrayal of character deft, and his sense of setting enfolds his stories in a world of challenges, heartbreak, compromise and joy--a world we know.
Whether rewriting the classics, revisiting the war, or remembering the lessons of his childhood, Will Eisner is a consummate comics artist, one who strives to connect with his readers with every word and brush stroke. It is a minor miracle that we live in a time when his early work is being reprinted and reappraised while new work continues to appear--we have greater access than ever to the full panoply of Will Eisner's carefully crafted sequential art, and all we need do is sit back and enjoy.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000