Towards the end of his life, witnessing the rise of the graphic novel as a format, Will Eisner commented on the fact that his books formed a subsection of the graphic novels display at a large bookstore by clarifying that his desire was to see his books shelved in the literature section alongside works by Jewish-American novelists of his generation (as expressed in an interview with David Hajdu). It’s enough to make you chuckle that he wasn’t pleased enough with the impact his books had on pushing the graphic novel format forward in American comics, but at the New York Comic and Picture-Story Symposium on the 11th of March, an Eisner-Week event critiqued the comparison between Eisner and his generation of fellow writers to see if his work stood up to his own claim of similarity. Speakers Jeremy Dauber (Professor in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University) and Danny Fingeroth (educator, author, former Marvel Comics editor and Chair of the Organizing Committee for Will Eisner Week) investigated Eisner’s use of setting, dialogue, and themes, as well as common cultural references he shared with his generation, to place Eisner in context and challenge the divide typically assumed between prose and comics media.
[Dauber and Fingeroth]
Dauber pointed out, in opening, that Will Eisner’s work is not usually considered in comparison to novels. He’s known for his prose, and often narrative-heavy work, but close textual comparisons between his writing style and those of his contemporary prose-writers is sparse, or even non-existent. Born in 1917, and “coming of age” in the 20’s and 30’s, Eisner, Dauber said, “was present a the foundational moment of Modern American Jewish Literature” and surrounded by the same influences and trends of major novelists of the period. Abraham Cahan, for instance, who fled from Czarist Russia to become a longtime editor of Yiddish newspapers in New York, was a “break through writer” in establishing Jewish-American literature. He often described the “urban landscape” as “something that’s alive”, as artist Andrea Tsurumi observed during audience participation. In comparison, Eisner’s CONTRACT WITH GOD gives a strong sense of place, and often speaks in a “high register” of prose, like Cahan’s work.
Another prose writer who became a “household name” during Eisner’s childhood was Anzia Yezierska, the “Cinderella of the tenements”, who often found herself in conflict with her parent’s generation, forged her high school diploma in order to attend college, and found herself exploring the conflict between the old and new world in her prose. Her use of dialogue, contrasting idiomatic Yiddish-English with her own more formal style of English speaks to a tension also visible in Eisner’s dialogue. Dauber presented novelist Henry Roth’s work as a final comparison in the use of dialogue to show differences in cultural background also found in Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue inhabitants. Dauber also pointed out a similar fascination with religious experience as a “transforming” force between Roth and Eisner.
While Dauber explored prose comparisons between Eisner’s work and other Jewish-American novelists, Fingeroth took a more visual approach to putting Eisner in context. He addressed the fact that many of the novels of Eisner’s generation and milieu found their way into film adaptation, like Philip Roth’s GOODBYE COLUMBUS (1969). This forms a visual link to Eisner’s own graphic novels and work as an artist. Like Saul Bellow, Eisner also embraced a strong sense of comedy in his work, whereas authors like Bellow didn’t seem to acknowledge comics as an expression of their generation. In a video clip Fingeroth played for the audience, Eisner described himself as “growing up in an environment of prejudice and exploration of identity”, a theme certainly visible in many of the Jewish-American novels of the period. Eisner’s injected his characteristic humor by adding that writing was “inexpensive long term therapy” for these issues.
Fingeroth described the “Jewish-American assimilation experience” as a common feature of Eisner’s work and his novelist contemporaries. CONTRACT WITH GOD, the “first thing” Eisner created in his long career that “wasn’t an actual assignment” allowed him the freedom to revisit these very personal experiences. Fingeroth also noted that a common cultural reference among these writers was Baseball, as seen in Philip Roth’s THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and in Eisner’s artwork on “The Adventures of Rube Rooky”. Writing about baseball, Fingeroth explained, was a “leveling process” between cultures that became part of the assimilation process. Visually speaking, Fingeroth said, Eisner was a “master of this craft of depicting urban life” found in celebrated Jewish-American novels. Particularly in A CONTRACT WITH GOD, Eisner, “given the freedom to do what he wanted to…came up with stories based on the Bronx of his youth”, like other writers of his generation.
Fingeroth reminded the audience that exploring Eisner’s prose shouldn’t take away from Eisner’s own assertion that he “wrote with pictures”, though. According to Dauber and Fingeroth’s research, Eisner wrote “as well as anyone” else prominent in his generation. To understand Eisner’s legacy, we have to keep in mind that he “thought of himself as someone who wouldn’t be complete without pictures”, Fingeroth said. So, after this careful textual and cultural comparison between Eisner and the Jewish-American novelists of his day, what was the verdict? Could Eisner’s works be placed in the “literature” section of a bookstore next to the novels he felt expressed the same messages? “Will made it”, Fingeroth confirmed, “He belongs there, too”.
During the question and answer period, discussion turned toward Eisner’s overwhelming drive to raise awareness of comics as a medium. Fingeroth described Eisner as being on a “mission to explain his own life and to legitimize comics”. It’s a puzzling thing that Eisner apparently wanted graphic novels to be seen as “mainstream” literature rather than as a separate format, but the answer may lie in his sense that graphic novels were still being segregated from literature and therefore not treated as equal creative achievements. The double presentation of Eisner’s work in context from Dauber and Fingeroth made a strong argument for Eisner’s status alongside novelists of his day, especially in terms of subject matter and prose style. Dauber and Fingeroth presented reasonable evidence that Eisner’s work could be reshelved in the literature section at any bookstore, but it might cause quite a tug of war with those who see his work of “legitimizing” comics as most at home in a separate graphic novels section of books. “Ideally, all sorts of books could be shelved in more than one section of a bookstore or library,” Fingeroth added in a follow-up comment, “but a variety of practical reasons make that unlikely for the time being. Online venues seem to be able to do it, though, so hopefully some version of that will come to brick-and-mortar outlets, too.” So, why not place Eisner’s books in both locations? It might remind readers, for one thing, to view Eisner as a cultural peer of many of the novelists he revered.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.