Like Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" Phillip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner's "Name of the Game" explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates "Name" -- a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences -- from the others, is that Eisner's work is a comic book.
Make that a "graphic novel" -- the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman's nonfiction Holocaust opus, "Maus," won the Pulitzer Prize.
"I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer," Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, "because it gave the medium the credit it deserves."
Eisner's latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It's a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. "Name" comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner's Jewish American experience.
"Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them," said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. "Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that's through marriage -- certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess."
Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark "A Contract with God," was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh's relationship with his Maker.
Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, "Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling," and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York's School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry's Academy Awards.
However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip "The Spirit."
Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, "The Spirit" told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day -- Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with "Citizen Kane": sophistication.
Both "The Spirit" and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics -- a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," for which Eisner was a consultant.
Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. "The Heart of the Storm," for example, tells his parents' story -- his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.
The Jewishness of Eisner's tale was never an issue for his publisher.
"They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content," Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.
Unlike DC's flagship characters "Superman" and "Batman," "The Spirit" never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC's parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn't believe "The Spirit" translates to other mediums.
Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.
"There would only be two reasons I would revisit 'The Spirit,'" Eisner said. "To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don't need either."
Learn more about Will Eisner at www.willeisner.com.
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