June 1, 2008

Frank Miller on Will Eisner (Myspace Interview)

For the complete interview follow this link : http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=92159514&blogID=387641412


Since his death a couple of years ago, Will Eisner, creator of many things, including THE SPIRIT, has been the subject of many a well-deserved, well-intentioned eulogy. None of these eulogies, however, paint a completely accurate portrait of my mentor, the man I loved. Allow me to throw in my own two cents.

Will was a suave man, no doubt, and when he chose to be, a disarmingly charming fellow. Most who met him discovered this quickly. The rest saw only a grandfatherly figure on stage, exuding a Burl Ives level of grace and goodwill that turned the crowd into butter as he handed out the comic-book awards that bear his name. There's no doubt he cultivated that image as successfully as he achieved everything else he set his mind to. And he was, to back that up, a very good, generous man.

He also happened to be one tough son of a bitch.

If he hadn't been one tough son of a bitch, the comic-book industry would've swallowed him whole. And we'd all be much the poorer for it. There'd be no SPIRIT movie, just as a for instance—at least not one so bold.

It was behind closed doors that Will Eisner revealed the side of himself that made THE SPIRIT possible. That tenacious, scrappy street kid, that brass-balled Bronx Jew—that's the kind of man who could not only face a blank sheet of Bristol board with a sable brush and revolutionize an art form, but also, and almost as astonishingly, defy comic-book culture and maintain total ownership of his work.

That the same man would, some three decades later, reappear with A CONTRACT WITH GOD is only further testimony to Will's ruthless, unforgiving vision.

I maintain that A CONTRACT WITH GOD will prove Will's most influential moment in comic-book history. Out of nowhere, the master reappeared on the scene, stabbing his sword in the sand, declaring with format, content, and its self-description as a "graphic novel" (a term I don't like, but more on our disagreements later), that comic books need not be ephemeral things with a shelf life measured in weeks, but, if worthy of it, capable of literary permanence. It changed the way artists, then publishers, viewed comics. Back then, in the dog years of the early seventies, Will charted a map for the future that may have saved comic books from self-induced extinction.

A CONTRACT WITH GOD was not the work of a humble man. To say the least. Nor were any of his works to follow.


It sure as hell wasn't a humble man I first met, back in the late seventies. That was at a party held at the legendary Continuity Studios of the equally legendary comics artist Neal Adams. He introduced me to my idol with a typically gruff "this kid might make it, after all". (This, after Neal had spent several years telling me how much my work stunk, how I should give up—and teaching me, step by generous step, this very difficult craft. But there's no need to eulogize Neal, here. He's relatively young, still very much alive, and still knocking everybody's socks off with his own comics and enterprises. Leave us say mentors tend to be gruff.)

At his first glance at my comics, Will offered up gentle enough bromides and set about dazzling the room. I figured that was it, my first encounter with my idol was going to be a wash.

Then along came Jim Shooter to jump-start the whole conversation.

Jim Shooter was, back then, Marvel Comics' Editor In Chief, and had fomented an arresting change in the whole Marvel line. Jim's chief issue was visual storytelling itself: a primary passion of any comics (or movie) artist. I was one of his favorites.

Jim just wouldn't let up on Eisner, showing him page after page of my latest issue of Marvel's DAREDEVIL, proud as punch, until Eisner finally broke down and read the first page. Then he glared, first at the page, then at me.

"That caption down there is utterly redundant," I recall him growling, "You've already shown everybody where the hero is. Why beat them over the head with it?"

I offered some vague defense about the necessity of underscoring the blind hero's conclusion, but Will Eisner would have none of it. He excoriated me, and did it with a voice that, at will, could use a single word as a stiletto blade or a blunt lead pipe. Suddenly it was a street fight, one for whom this twenty-something was ill prepared.

His eyes showed a glint of interest. I pursued him, in the weeks and months to come, with a mix of vigor and existential fear. We talked a fair amount, in coffee shops and at his studio, as I produced each new comic and laid the poor baby bare to the scrutiny of a master. He was not kind to any of them.

Will Eisner was not a nice man, not when it came to comic book storytelling. He forgave no laziness, to traditional "outs", to easy solutions. His love of the art form was absolute, greater than politeness could allow. When it was a page of comic art in front of him, he had no charm—and showed not a stitch of mercy.

Will and I would argue about the function of gutters (those white spaces between panels) until both of us were reduced to exhaustion and not-occasional vulgarity.

He was tough. He was rude. When it came to telling a good comic-book story, his "Burl Ives" persona went south and one nasty taskmaster took over. I lived with that, and learned from that, and took my bruised artistic ego back to my drawing board where it belonged.

Then, while I was finishing my first original comic-book series, RONIN, he gave me the acid test—tour, or, more precisely, one mean twist of that stiletto of his: Will invited me to guest-teach his comic-book class at The Art Students League in New York. He was, of course, in attendance himself. How else to make his point? His sharp, sharp, serrated point…

At that class, which was filled with fans of mine, he interrupted a round of cheering for me to first praise a particularly bold two-page, mostly-black image I'd used. "This is the atom bomb," he said. He then went on to show how genre-driven—indeed, how borrowed from current popular culture—my dear RONIN was, to his eyes.

(I still disagree with him about that. Here his Humanism collided with my Romanticism, to unpleasant effect. What I saw as rumination on heroic fantasy-making, he saw as beside the point. I had similar complaints about his later works, most markedly INVISIBLE PEOPLE. But then, Will and I wore no gloves when we boxed.)

After that class, once he'd torn my RONIN a new asshole, Will and I sat down. He advised me to move to France, get my heart broken, and inform my work with real human experience. I didn't mention to him that I'd been married for several years. That didn't make him wrong.

Years later, after much life experience, I produced my SIN CITY series, and I honestly believe I gained his grudging respect. But we still had so very much to debate…

…the debate lasted many years ("Graphic novel? Sequential Art? What IS this pompous shit, Will?"), until a few weeks before we lost Will Eisner. He won most of the arguments: I'm proud to say, he won not each and every of them, but most.

What I must add here is that in his unguarded moments, when the crowd wasn't watching, I got to know a very angry man. Angry, because past publishers had screwed him financially, and most angry that the practitioners of his beloved art form seemed so lacking in creative ambition. But, like every soul I've ever cherished, Will Eisner would never express self-pity, nor countenance its presence. This remains my marker for a true mensch.

And a better word for Will Eisner than mensch, I will never find.

I miss our fights. God rest you, my dear friend.

More on the movie next time.


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