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Opus posthumous
The legacy of cartooning genius Will Eisner
BY DOUGLAS WOLK

Call it the Ray Charles syndrome: when a beloved artist who repeatedly revolutionized his form dies and leaves behind one final big project, thereís a natural tendency to see it as a last masterpiece, no matter how good it actually is. Will Eisner, who died last January at the age of 87, was a brilliant cartoonist ó he and the late Jack Kirby are arguably the two most important American comic-book artists ever, and Eisnerís drawing, unlike Kirbyís, never went into decline. His weekly comic book The Spirit was decades ahead of the game in the í40s ó Frank Millerís designs for Sin City owe a lot to it. In the í70s, Eisnerís book A Contract with God was the first significant graphic novel (a term he popularized), and in the í80s, he published the first book of comics theory, Comics and Sequential Art. The comics industryís annual awards are called the Eisners, and the man himself always handed them to the winners, who universally adored him.

So thereís been a rush to applaud his final graphic novel, The Plot: The Secret Story of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." As always with late Eisner, the artwork is splendid: a crew of scraggly characters with scenery-chewing body language, idiosyncratic layouts and design, and a range of techniques from woodcut-inspired line work to impressionistic ink wash. It even has a scene with the torrential rainstorms he drew better than anyone else ó cartoonists call them "Eisenshpritz." The subject matter is potentially fascinating too: in Eisnerís last few decades, his comics moved first to explorations of old Jewish New York City and finally to a fascination with the roots of anti-Semitism. (His previous book was Fagin the Jew, a sympathetic view of the Oliver Twist villain.) This time, he took on the most persistent anti-Semitic libel, "The Protocols," a plagiarized, repeatedly discredited batch of murderous lies thatís still reprinted all over the world.

The Plot is one of the worst books Eisner ever wrote. Despite the title, thereís no plot to speak of, just a pile of undigested factoids about the Protocols arranged into scenes in which all the dialogue is exposition. In the middle of it, thereís an unfinishable 17-page scene in which passages from the Protocols appear side by side with the sections of Maurice Jolyís 1864 Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu that they paraphrase. (The story of the Protocols is in fact more complicated than that, and Umberto Ecoís introduction to The Plot mentions some sources for them that Eisner doesnít.) Eisner-the-writer has stuck Eisner-the-artist with an almost impossible task: turning a story with virtually no visual elements and no narrative drive into a sequence of images.

To understand Eisnerís particular genius, you need to turn to the work that first established his reputation: The Spirit, which DC Comics is reprinting in a series of archival hardcovers. The 16th volume, just published, covers the first six months of 1948, when he was realizing that his formal experiments werenít something he could sneak into his weekly seven-page story ó they were the selling point. The first page of every story is a spectacular little piece of graphic design; the "Spirit" logo is redesigned every time. Itís a headline on a newspaper, a cement structure in a sewer, a billboard on a building seen through a window whose borders form the pageís negative space, a bit of text peeking out from behind a fake Charles Atlas ad. One episode is narrated entirely in rhyme; another interrupts the story on every page for a fake ad for "Goopleís Cream Hair Restorer Shampoo." The Spiritís witty, clockwork-tight little crime stories are a continuing delight ó Eisner made it clear that his masked hero was just an excuse to draw metropolitan landscapes, gnarled city dwellers, and glamorous femmes fatales. And if bits of the series have aged (itís hard to discuss The Spirit without apologizing for thick-lipped comedy sidekick Ebony White), its insights into the uncertain culture of post-war America remain priceless.

Eisnerís actual last work was a six-page story in the new sixth issue of Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist (Dark Horse), a series inspired by the imaginary comic books in Chabonís The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Itís a final Spirit story ó a brief team-up between the Spirit and the Escapist, metafictionally involving a first edition of Kavalier & Clay, in which Eisner grouses that what heroes have to offer is "instant solutions and happy endings." That may be true, but with The Spirit, he turned that restriction into gems of storytelling and visual invention. The failure of The Plot is that it doesnít even try to work toward a solution, or to illuminate more than the outlines of the problem.


Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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