I’m sure there’s very little I can write about Will Eisner’s work that hasn’t already been written, quoted, reanalyzed, and expounded upon for about ten years by now. However, I haven’t read any of what’s already been written. There’s a reason this feature is called Amateur Art Appreciation, after all.
A few years ago, I knew Will Eisner as the “Guy that award was named after, you know, the award on the cover of some comics.” He had the same significance then as John Newberry had in fourth grade. Then I moved to Oklahoma City, and found a comic book store with a clerk who was into art, and old comics. I have spent several pleasant Wednesday afternoons (back when I was a dayshift worker) talking to him and several hundred dollars based on his recommendations over the years. It helped that we had similar tastes.
He tried to talk me into giving the archives a chance, though I resisted, insisting (even though I’d never read more than a couple reprints, and an All-Star Comics collection from that era) that Golden Age art was too crude for me, the stories too simple, the narration too heavy. One day, for one reason or another, the discussion turned to Eisner. Eisner, who I had never heard of before. He told me stories, good and bad. He told me a funny anecdote about how the Spirit was created, he told me about Will Eisner’s racism, he told me about his studio, about Jack Kirby studying there..etc.. It was, as usual, quite a sales pitch, with such enthusiastic emphasis on the good that he could even rattle off the drawbacks and flaws without hurting his position. He assured me I’d like the Spirit, and picked Volume 12 off the shelf.
“Here, Lisa, this is where it starts getting good.”
I flipped open to the first story, and found all of my assumptions about Golden Age comics completely invalidated.
Now, there’s a number of things you’d expect me to write about with this title image. The stark white background, the potential symbolism in the water, or the eerie buildings in the background. I’m sure there’s something to be said for the positioning of the walls, the lettering in the name “Spirit”, or the casual way that the Spirit’s origin is revealed in this opening picture.
Well, no, none of that really caught my eye. What caught my eye in this picture was Hildie.
Shifty looking character, isn’t she? You can tell from the start she’s up to no good. Her eyebrows are raised, and her pupils to the right, indicating she’s watching something. She peers around the post, just barely hidden from the something she’s watching. She’s in “tough guy” posture, shoulders back, head arrogantly forward, leaning against the post just slightly, with one hand on the post and the other irreverently in her coat pocket. Her legs are even insubordinate, one raised and angled to take up as much room as possible, the other straight. Both are tense and ready for movement, so that if she wanted to leap forward off of the ladder onto an unsuspecting victim, she could easily do so, especially if they were coming from the side of post that couldn’t view her (look at which way those legs are facing).
Of course, I was most impressed by her clothing. I can remember daydreaming a similar ensemble as a little girl when I played pretend games. It’s aesthetically perfect for a boxcar kid. She has adorable little boots, blue-black tights, and a slightly tattered skirt with a patch on it. She had a little barrette to sweep her hair back just enough for a forties bob hairstyle that curled under just at the ends. I could never get my hair that way, no matter how hard I tried as a little girl, but it was a fantasy of mine. But its the coat that makes the oufit. You see, that’s a woman’s style coat, not a girl’s style coat. It’s the collar, slightly upturned. It’s red, a grown woman’s color. That coat is something a little girl wears over her play clothes when she plays “grown-up” in pretend games.
And that, I think, is where Eisner got me. If you combined her dress up outfit with her “tough guy” posture, you get the impression of a little girl trying to seriously act like a grown-up. That sort of thing speaks to me.
I’m sure I could, if I really wanted to, examine the symbolism of this picture, or go further into the mechanics of the drawing, but my appreciation of this is very simple. I can relate to a little girl trying to act like an adult long before she is one, because, while the situation wasn’t nearly so dire and dangerous as in this story, I have been a little girl who thought it was more important to be a grown woman as fast as possible than to wait out her childhood.
It’s a simple truth to a simple image, and that’s all it took to sell me. This little girl cost me $49.95 and tax one day, and was worth every penny.