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Jewish Journal

A Graphic Anniversary

by Michael Aushenker

July 10, 2003 | 8:00 pm

During the Golden Age of comic books of the 1930s-1940s, cartoonist Will Eisner broke ground, both commercially (by founding the first comics production studio) and artistically (with his cinematic storytelling). When San Diego ComiCon 2003 convenes July 17-20, the industry's most prestigious convention will honor the 25th anniversary of yet another Eisner breakthrough -- the graphic novel.

Beginning with the 200-page "A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories" in 1978, Eisner created the first of many books peopled with Jewish characters from his Depression-era Bronx youth. In the process, he launched what has become a lucrative comics format -- adult-oriented, book-length comics he dubbed "graphic novels." "The Dreamer" (1986) captured his beginnings in the immigrant-dominated comics industry. "To The Heart of the Storm" (1992) told his Austrian Jewish parents' story.

"It started out as a book on anti-Semitism in the generic sense," Eisner, 86, said of "Storm" from his Florida studio. "A third of the way through, I found that I was drawing on my own experience. I gave up doing a third-person novel."

More graphic novels, set in old New York, followed including "Dropsie Avenue," "The Building" and "New York: The Big City."

"What the graphic novel has done is make it clear we're dealing with an art form," said Maggie Thompson, editor of Comics Buyer's Guide.

The format's genesis came about while Eisner hatched his classic 1940s masked-detective series, "The Spirit."

"The reason I took the risk to do a newspaper feature like 'The Spirit' was to write to adults. [Decades later] I was still in pursuit of the adult reader [with 'Contract']," he said. "I chose a subject not traditionally done in comics and attacked it."

Eisner never intended his art form to include trade paperbacks, which collect previously released issues.

"I'm a little concerned when a publisher has a superhero series and calls it a graphic novel," said Eisner, whose Dickens-inspired "Fagin the Jew" (Doubleday) bows in September. "I hope graphic novels will grow up and become a distinct and separate genre."

For information on San Diego ComiCon, July 17-20, call (619) 491-2475; visit www.comic-con.org .

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