The Basement Tapes: Issue #22

Tue, January 11th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

Will Eisner was born in 1917. As a creator in comics' golden age, he created THE SPIRIT and, with it, the first hints at the larger world of artistic sophistication and mainstream acceptance that comics would one day find. 1978 saw the publication of A CONTRACT WITH GOD, which, while maybe not the very first graphic novel, was certainly the first one graphic novel that the world noticed. In one fell swoop, Eisner tore the training wheels off and set us on our way. His final work, THE PLOT: THE SECRET STORY OF THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, will see publication later this summer.

If Mr. Eisner's passing is the worst thing that happens in comics during 2005, it will still be a pretty devastating year. We may have lost our pioneer but, through his body of work, have gained his wisdom.

FRACTION: "This work is intended to consider and examine the unique aesthetics of Sequential Art as a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline, an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea." That's the opening line to Will Eisner's COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART, and literally a line that changed my life-- and I'd bet countless others, too. From A CONTRACT WITH GOD (published when Eisner was sixty-one years old...!) to the forthcoming THE PLOT, Eisner's third act in life was one not of quiet and retired reflection but rather one of wild innovation and a restless creativity. Would that we all could age with the intensity and invention as he-- would that we all could burn as bright and as long.

Neil Gaiman called him our Orson Welles, but I guess I've always thought of him as our John Ford- the guy that started out doing pulp trash and not only found the poetry, humanity, and soul of it all, but he found the science humming beneath the surface, and he dared to use them to create art in the most unexpected of places. Will Eisner, for all intents and purposes, showed the world that Batman wasn't the alpha and omega of comics and that we'd really only just started to scratch the surface of what Could Be.

I'm trying to figure out how you thank someone for that, you know?

CASEY: Yeah, I'm still coming to grips with this. It's weird to have such emotion for someone I didn't even know, yet I knew his work. And, if you follow the updates on the Net, it was just days earlier that the headlines were "Eisner recovering from heart surgery". Fucking hell…

It seems like ever since I was aware of comicbooks as an art form beyond the spinner racks at the drug store, there was Eisner. And now that he's gone, the vacuum is much more than I ever would've expected. The vacuum of talent, the vacuum of behavior, the vacuum of example. On every front, Eisner was the kind of artist and, from all indications, the kind of man that just makes it painfully obvious that the rest of us -- stumbling around as part of this latest generation of comicbook creators -- are just a bunch of jerks most of the time. As long as I've been aware of his existence, Eisner seemed to rise above the pettiness.

Yeah, his work was poetry... but I'm just now starting to realize that the man's life was poetry, too. Not even Kirby was as relentlessly dedicated to the art form, so tenaciously pushing its borders so the rest of us would have that much more breathing room. And so few of us take advantage of it.

Jeezus...

FRACTION: I know I've talked about this before, and I know I've talked about it in this very column, but being on the IDW panel with him this past summer was a total high point of my so-called career- it was nice to meet the guy and to shake his hand, but it was what he said that stuck with me most. The panel was a PR blitz for IDW's upcoming year, you know? New titles announced, Q's getting A'd, all that. And Eisner was there for JOHN LAW (a project he'd been working on since 2002 with the excellent Gary Chaloner). At the end our dog and pony show, he said something to the effect of how, after listening to all of us talk, he just wanted to go home and work harder.

I mean, think about that-- not to presume anyone on that stage had any sort of reinvention of the wheel in them or anything, but his impulse wasn't, you know, that of the stately king who sits back and surveys his kingdom but rather he was ready to get back down in it and keep working. And I know that he was being polite and all that, but still-- that was the pleasantry he chose to express. Time to work harder. Time to get better. And nobody doubted him. That he would, that he could.

CASEY: Oh, I think Eisner had a tremendous knack for wanting to stay in the game and stay competitive. And it was damned inspiring. He knew there were more barriers to break down with this medium. I think he knew there always would be.

Funny thing... when Charlie Adlard and I first talked about creating something together, our immediate common ground was Eisner's THE SPIRIT. From that shared appreciation (a word that only mildly describes how I feel about that strip), eventually came CODEFLESH. The short stories, the moody places where Charlie took his art, the graphic design of the original covers... all of it taken from Eisner.

FRACTION: That doesn't surprise me at all-- the last chapter of CODEFLESH is pure Eisner, through and through.

Here, I just found this line in the CNN.com obit:

"'I had been producing comic books for 15-year-old cretins from Kansas,' he told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview. With 'The Spirit,' he was aiming for 'a 55-year-old who had his wallet stolen on the subway. You can't talk about heartbreak to a kid.'"

That specificity-- that's Eisner to me. That real-world specificity he brought to his work, alongside the theatricality of his staging and characters are what makes his canon so thoroughly his, you know? Put aside the technical innovations and look at the work free of any greater context than its covers and there's his voice-- unmistakable and irreplaceable, an auteur if comics ever had one. Look at a book like DROPSIE AVENUE, to name a fairly recent work. As innovative and groundbreaking as his technique remained, his voice and, pardon the pun, spirit was very much of its own time and era, and it was so thoroughly his.

Removed from any other context whatsoever, you could have no problems believing that DROPSIE was published in 1955, not 1995.

CASEY: Absolutely. And, y'know, I think it's that voice that is the greatest artistic loss. More than any other creator you could name, Eisner was the greatest American voice in comicbooks that there will probably ever be. His OGN's were slices of distinctly American mythology that no one else will probably dare touch. He mastered an idiom that is so elusive to most creators, even those who are, in their own right, masters of the form. Eisner's tenement dwellers felt so real in their depictions and in the world they inhabited, I felt like I was living in there with them.

I wonder what Eisner thought of the current American comicbook market and where we've arrived at. Besides the fact that his influence on Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL alone makes Eisner one of the most influential creators on modern comicbooks that exists. To my eyes, simply through the work he produced, he was obviously out to enact at least some degree of change. His adherence to a certain type of subject matter (and, as you said before, his complete rejection of pure superheroes as an avenue for expression) was a way of leading by example. But like I said before, let's be honest, so very few followed him into the breach. Aside from Miller and maybe Paul Chadwick, just a handful of cartoonists from the alternative side of the tracks. Certainly, they share a definite kinship with Eisner and his work, but he really stood uniquely alone.

Then again, that's what giants tend to do, don't they...?

FRACTION: Yeah, that's perfect-- Will Eisner's work was pure Americana, both in its idiom and in its spirit. If ever an artist was infused with manifest destiny, it was he-- unapologetic and un-phased by the comic market's lack of vision. He made his own world and invited us along. He gave us the rulebook both literally and in the way he created.

His isn't just a legacy to honor, it's the legacy.

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