Friday, January 07, 2005

COMICS (commentary)


Comics culture gets a nod of approval
Will Eisner's life helped influence a generation of storytelling artists
CommentaryBy ANDREW DANSBYCopyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
The flurry of obituaries written for Will Eisner, who died this week of complications from quadruple bypass surgery, won't be the last you'll hear this year about this artist of inestimable importance. For nearly 70 years, he was a vital contributor to the art of comics, doing more than anyone else to legitimize a marginalized form.

It's a shame he'll miss 2005, as it could conceivably be a crossover year for his medium, one of those periods when geekdom is embraced by greater numbers than the gaggle of outsiders who start threading a strand of subculture.

The timing certainly seems apt. Periods of intense affiliation — say those associated with a tight presidential election or a culture war triggered by a Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction — breed and feed subcultures. As die-hardom dies hard, fringe pop cultures speak to those weary of rah-rahing for a polarized side and curious cultural nomads often discover outsider art formerly championed by only a few purists. EDITOR'S NOTE: A SMALL PRICE TO PAY IF NATIONAL POLITICAL SUICIDE LEADS TO INCREASED EXPOSURE TO PROFESSIONAL SNARKDOM?

Folks have buzzed about adult comics making mainstream inroads for several years now, but the format has doggedly avoided overexposure or, for that matter, mass commercial success.
Beyond the attention stirred by Eisner's passing, two cinematic projects — Art School Confidential and Sin City — are currently in post-production stages, and they could nudge comics culture closer to cultural acceptance.

Neither film has the home-run potential of upcoming comics-turned-films like Elektra and The Fantastic Four, which will appeal to the broader superhero set.

But Will Eisner sought a way to extend the comic beyond strips for adolescents. His Spirit series, about a superhero with no superpowers, had an impact that can't be overstated.

"He established much of the visual language that comics artists have used for the last 64 years when he created Spirit," says Scott McCloud, author of the essential graphic narrative primer Understanding Comics. "His ideas about storytelling paved the way for most of what we know as comic book history."

Art School Confidential and Sin City are adapted from comics that carry Eisner's bloodline.
The former is directed by Terry Zwigoff, an eccentric and gifted filmmaker who has done more to feed comic book geekdom to cultural nomads than perhaps anyone in the past decade.
Art School Confidential (pulled from Daniel Clowes' 8 Ball comic series) is Zwigoff's second collaboration with Clowes, whose Ghost World was the basis for Zwigoff's 2000 cult film of the same title.

Clowes' biting work offers an inside glimpse of the outside, capturing the anxieties, cravings and other unspoken thoughts of an array of semi-functional oddballs. Zwigoff also directed a fantastic, well-received documentary about artist R. Crumb in 1994.

Zwigoff has done much to solidify a strange little microcosm populated by Clowes, Crumb and their characters, who share social and sexual alienation and a love of old blues recordings by the likes of Skip James or Furry Lewis.

Crumb's iconic style is carnivalesque on the surface. Clowes, on the other hand, often places a prim facade over grim subtext. The content of a Clowes comic can be brutally funny and is frequently mean-spirited. But such misanthropic territory is not a child's playground.
Eisner facilitated these styles of adult comics, advancing the form decades ago beyond a three-frame, daily narrative clip for children.

He was responsible for the elimination of thought or dialogue bubbles from some frames, allowing characters' expressions to convey their state of mind with elliptical intrigue. It's a tradition carried over to Clowes' forehead, oft-dappled with a trickle of sweat as one of his uncomfortable characters finds himself in an uncomfortable position.

Eisner is credited with coining the phrase "graphic novel" during an attempt to sell his manuscript A Contract With God to a publisher who wouldn't have given him the time of day had he pitched it using the word "comics."EDITOR'S NOTE: SO IT ISN'T JUST THE AD BIZ THAT BASTARDIZES THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE FOR FUN AND PROFIT, EH? (THE MARKETING DRONES RUN THE WORLD....SIGH).

In a thoroughly engaging 2000 interview with the Onion's Tasha Robinson, Eisner likened that book's creation to opening "a toll booth in an empty field, waiting for the highway to come through." EDITOR'S NOTE: WELL PUT, MR. EISNER!! (AND HOW MANY OF US FEEL THAT WAY ABOUT SOME ELEMENT OF OUR LIVES EVERY OTHER DAY)?! McCloud suggests that Eisner's vision was as profoundly crazed and prophetic as that of Bugsy Siegel when he had the idea of planting a hotel/casino in the middle of the Nevada desert.

In that same interview, Eisner was optimistic about the form's future, likening the graphic novel to jazz and suggesting that it had made progress and would continue to do so. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND LIKE JAZZ, WILL NEVER BE FOR EVERYONE. (AND WHEN IT BECOMES MASS-APPEAL, IT WILL BECOME THE EQUIVALENT OF NEW AGE MUSIC).

He was right. Through brute force, Hollywood intrigue (McCloud points to Men in Black, From Hell and The Road to Perdition as a few films pulled from graphic novels) and some literati acceptance (Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon is an uncloseted comics fan), the graphic novel has acquired some gravitas, though it still remains a relatively undiscovered species.
Art Spiegelman's Maus series wandered into wider cultural conscience, but the good folks at Fantagraphics Books or Dark Horse Comics, to name just two, continue to produce vibrantly detailed, narratively rich works of visual fiction by authors that don't receive the automatic hype and marketing muscle of Knopf's genius novelist-of-the-month.EDITOR'S NOTE: AMEN AND HALLELUJAH!

Veteran artist Frank Miller, another who effectively utilizes design theories pioneered by Eisner, could be the best bet for a bigger breakthrough this year. His Sin City series is among the more popular in the field, of a like with noir scribes from pulp master Jim Thompson to James Ellroy.

For starters, some of Miller's Sin City titles are being reissued this spring by Dark Horse with a new package by design whiz Chip Kidd, who revolutionized book packaging in the '90s.
In another natural pairing, Miller is directing a Sin City film with Robert Rodriguez. The cast is loaded with a neo-noir dream team (Mickey Rourke, Michael Madsen, Rutger Hauer) along with talent like Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba and Elijah Wood. EDITOR'S NOTE: AMAZING CAST.

Of course, the folly of trying to pigeonhole any such "trend" is the mashing together of apples and oranges under the wider fruit banner. The art of Miller and that of Clowes is fundamentally different — visually, textually and culturally — as much as each is different from the superheroes of Marvel Comics. It's presumptuous (and wrong) to assume that they share fan bases.

But the medium does hook a type of fan and a type of cultural nomad, and a sea change of acceptance could honor Eisner's spirit, since he couldn't see such a development during his lifetime. EDITOR'S NOTE: HE CERTAINLY SAW A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF RESURGENCE AND EMERGENCE IN HIS LIFETIME. ENOUGH TO SEE THE POSITIVE HAND-WRITING ON THE WALL.

Such baby steps could have residual benefits for other artists like Jaime Hernandez, famous in his circle, unheard of among your average culturally literate folks, despite having started a career nearly 20 years ago.

They can also make quiet heroes out of preservationists like Denis Kitchen, a 35-year comic vet who runs a publishing company and artist agency, helping to keep some classic comic art in print.

Whether the form is embraced by a loyal few or a fleeting many, Eisner's role won't be lost. Just about every comics-related Web site marked his passing as if he were the pope. The industry's annual awards ceremony already carries his name. And the art that comes will continue to bear his influence.


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