So I got to attend a nice comic-related event this weekend, when I was invited to check out a screening of Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist. Directed by Andrew Cooke and produced by him and his brother Jon, this documentary is a really interesting look at one of the patron saints of comics.
It’s funny, because I was first introduced to Eisner’s work at my very first journalism gig. My editor, after learning that I liked comics, loaned me a preview copy of The Plot — which turned out to be Eisner’s last work. Since then, I’ve read a decent amount of Eisner’s work, both in terms of the Spirit reprints, A Contract With God, as well as his now seminal textbooks on sequential art as a medium. But I’ve always found that by adding the human element, you learn almost by example, and the Cooke brothers’ film really strikes a nice chord with this.
Probably the most haunting thing about this movie is the fact that the Cooke Brothers managed to secure so much video footage of Eisner. It’s almost like seeing a ghost — but I think it’s a necessary experience for so many readers of our generation, who didn’t discover Eisner until he was already gone. Interviews with other late greats like Gil Kane and Jack Kirby (both of whom deserve documentaries of their own) are just as important, in my opinion, and give the film a real sense of weight. If nothing else, it’s probably one of the last artifacts of some truly great talent, worth seeing for that alone.
Of course, while I do feel that Eisner’s contributions to the medium might have been a touch underplayed, the examination of the medium’s effects on Eisner himself are illuminating. The son of a set painter and a business-oriented mother, the quote about Eisner creating a synthesis of both his parents’ hopes seems organic and natural. The liberal use of images from To the Heart of the Storm were exceedingly appropriate, and made me really want to check that book out once more. But for me, I think the film really sings when it discusses Eisner’s return to the medium after rising prices and creative wanderlust ended the Spirit’s run in 1952. Having creators like Art Spiegelman and Denis Kitchen — as well as video from the late Eisner himself — discuss the back-and-forth collaboration between Eisner and the growing Underground Comix movement was just fascinating, and touched upon a part of Eisner’s legacy that I think transcends the Spirit.
It’s a shame this movie hasn’t been released in any sort of DVD or televised broadcast, simply because it’s a valuable touchstone to a true master of the medium. If you do manage to hear of a new screening of the film — and when I asked director Andrew Cooke (who’s working on an Andy Capp biopic next, he said), he said he wasn’t quite sure when the next one might be — I would strongly suggest you check it out.