If you're a fan of Frank Miller, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, or any other artist of "adult" graphic novels, you probably already know who Will Eisner is. But for those of us who aren't comic book fanatics, Eisner's story is still pretty fascinating, from his youth as part of a lower-class Jewish family in New York to his constant innovations in the comic arts. His story is told in Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday.
I will admit this right now: I'm not a comic book reader. The extent of my comic book knowledge consists of enjoying Sin City two years ago and being a childhood fan of those dopey "Spidey" comics that were shown on The Electric Company. But I'm always interested in learning about a person who was influential to any art form, whether it's painting or sculpture or music or photography. And Eisner was more than just influential, as he was not only one of the first comic artists to base a periodic feature on a non-superhero and pioneered the use of comic art for industrial and corporate purposes, but he was also one of the first to use a more book-like format for his stories, even coining the now-familiar term "graphic novel."
Via a series of interviews with Eisner, who died in 2005, his wife Ann, and a number of his colleagues, a picture is painted of a man who always wanted to draw, even when he was growing up poor on the Lower East Side and other parts of New York City. But he had the wherewithal to know that comics were as much as business as an art. So, while he was in his twenties, he co-founded the Eisner & Iger, a company that had a stable of young artists crank out material for pulp magazines.
He then sold his half of the company and started drawing "The Spirit," a classic comic series that was inserted into Sunday newspapers. It was one of the first comics whose hero -- Denny Colt, a masked criminologist -- had no super powers, and it was also one of the first to explore grown-up themes and go in dark, noirish directions. Many of today's most influential comic artists, from Spiegelman to Miller and many others, cite "The Spirit" as one of their greatest influences.
Later in life, after spending his middle age drawing for military instructional manuals and other industrial and corporate publications, Eisner drew the first "graphic novel," A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, after the death of his teenage daughter. It, too revolutionized the form, allowing artists like Miller to think of comics as something "that can go on the shelf and stay there."
Director Andrew D. Cooke does a good job of mixing talking-head interviews -- with the likes of Jules Feiffer, who worked on "The Spirit," Spiegelman, Miller, Michael Chabon, and even the late Kurt Vonnegut, among other notables of multiple generations -- with audio tape interviews Eisner did in the eighties with the big comic artists of the early 20th century, including Milton Caniff and Harvey Kurtzman. He also gives non-comic viewers a good indication of what Eisner's work was like, from the brightly-colored, cinematic drawings of "The Spirit," to black-and-white biographical drawings that show how Eisner was able to draw characters that were cartoonish and realistic all at once.
The movie drags in a spot or two, mostly when Eisner and others are exploring why many comic artists from that time period were of Jewish heritage, but a fascinating exploration of Eisner's use of Ebony, a very stereotypical African-American character in "The Spirit," makes up for it. In this day and age of ultra-PC sensitivity, seeing a minstrelized character like Ebony in a mainstream comic is shocking. But Cooke effectively explores the from both sides; Eisner felt he was just going along with the times, while slightly younger and more liberal artists like Feiffer expressed discomfort with having to draw such a character.
The sign of any good documentary is if it makes a person who wasn't a die-hard fan of the subject or genre it's exploring want to learn more. And Portrait does just that. I definitely plan on seeing the movie version of "The Spirit" that Miller is set to direct. And, because of this, I may even read the comic first. That's saying a lot.
[Cover of "The Spirit" from WillEisner.com]