The Super Fun Kids' Graphic Novel Sale

Saturday, August 20th, 2005



by Will Eisner and Frank Miller

A review by Chris Bolton

Imagine Alfred Hitchcock sharing a conversation with Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen chatting with Jack White, or Saul Bellow conversing with Jonathan Franzen, and you begin to understand the significance of Eisner/Miller for comics fans. Frank Miller and Will Eisner are two of the greatest talents ever to put pencil and brush to a piece of paper divided into eight square panels; each can arguably be called the leading light of his generation. To have the two of them sit together and discuss their work, the comics medium as a whole, and the history of the comic industry is a minor miracle; to be able to read the edited transcripts is a major one.

Will Eisner is perhaps best known for creating the Spirit, a masked crimefighter (Eisner takes pride in the fact that he wasn't a costumed superhero; in fact, he only added the mask on the insistence of a publisher) who first appeared in newspaper strips, then in comic books, until 1952. Eisner then became CEO of his own company until the mid-'70s, when he returned to comic books and possibly made his greatest contribution to the field: his Contract with God (1978) is often cited as the first true graphic novel, and Eisner frequently credited as the inventor of the form. As comics have crept toward mainstream acceptance in the past decade, thanks largely to high-profile graphic novels like Maus, Ghost World, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy in the World, Eisner's contributions seem more valuable than ever -- but it would be a grave mistake to dismiss his work merely as academically significant. Eisner is a first-rate draftsman and consummate storyteller whose work is as passionate as it is personal. His Spirit splash pages are legendary for their intricate detail and gorgeous symbolism; in fact, the term "splash page" was coined as a tribute to Eisner, who often utilized the movement of water to convey a sense of urgency and motion to his full-page artwork.

Frank Miller is just a child next to Eisner, but his achievements are equally, if not more, significant. Miller's early work as a penciler for the comic series Daredevil reveals his debt to Eisner's Spirit, but the impact of Miller's signature creations, from The Dark Knight Returns to the creator-owned Sin City, can be felt throughout the comics medium every month. It's telling that current runs of Daredevil have a tendency to feel like little more than a rehash of Miller's work. His artistic ownership of the character is so distinctive that it's almost impossible for any other writer or artist to evade it. More recently, Miller has received mixed reviews for his Dark Knight sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which veered from the grim-and-gritty style of his earlier work in an attempt to put some of the fun back in the superhero genre.

"In the time I've been in the field," Miller notes in Eisner/Miller, "one of the most significant things that's happened is that [older comic work] has come back into print. All of a sudden we have an accessible history of comics." In the past few years, especially following the success of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- inspired by the experiences of many early comics innovators, namely Superman creators Joe Siegel and Jerry Schuster -- that history has come into strong relief, and rarely more strongly than in Eisner/Miller. It's one thing to read a history of the medium like Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow, however lively and informative, and another thing entirely to read Will Eisner's personal reflections of that era, and of the people who toiled beside him in an industry that flourished, then floundered: legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Harvey Kurtzman, and more.

Eisner/Miller is a transcript of several conversations between Miller and Eisner, conducted by Charles Brownstein in May 2002. Now that Eisner is no longer with us, it proves even more crucial as his final contribution to the medium he helped develop. The two friends, who didn't see eye-to-eye on a great many issues, discuss and debate matters that will vary in relevance to the reader. I was interested in their discussions of what sorts of materials they draw with -- but as someone who is not an artist, I couldn't fully relate to the discussion (I was more interested in passing those tidbits on to my younger brother, who is an artist).

On the other hand, as a longtime comics enthusiast, their debates on the business side, as well as the past, present, and future of the comics medium, were lively, informative, and a little addicting. A lifelong Spider-Man fan, I was particularly intrigued by their discussion of the relationship between writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, the former having long been credited almost solely with the character's creation, while Ditko's contribution has been neglected for too long (he "gave Spider-Man all its romance," according to Miller). Eisner has had personal relationships with a great many legendary comics figures, and his wife's description of Eisner's sometimes contentious, often competitive relationship with Stan Lee is priceless.

This is the sort of discussion that adult children have with grandparents, once they're old enough to appreciate the significance of having a relation who, for instance, personally witnessed the Hindenburg tragedy. Eisner lived and breathed comics history, and his anecdotes and wisdom are irreplaceable. Similarly, Miller is one of the most influential comics figures of the past quarter-century, and his insights are equally as valuable. Throw the two together, sometimes against each other on issues like artists' rights versus publishers' ownership, and the result has the urgent thrill of eavesdropping behind a thin wall.

Between them, Eisner and Miller have witnessed and shaped the entire history of the comics form. Their conversation is crucial to anyone who loves to read or wants to make comics, and will be of great interest and education to anyone who admires the form and wants to learn more about it. We are fortunate to have this document that pays tribute to Eisner even as it lets us view the industry through his wise eyes.

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