Some comic writers are just writing a story and that is all they are doing – for them it doesn’t, in a sense, matter the medium in which they are writing: the telling of the story is the be-all and end-all. Now this approach can obviously produce good work just by virtue of the writer being a good storyteller but is it necessarily a good comic book?
To my mind the best writers, the best film-makers, the best musicians, the best comic book writers, are the ones that are not just looking to tell a story but are also looking at what exactly the medium they are using does to the construction of the tale. What strengths does this medium offer that are unique to storytelling and how can I best exploit them? So they are not just asking: how do I tell this story? They are asking: what can a comic be about? What is a comic? And the fact that they are asking the question means that they come up with answers that might not occur to Mr Traditional Storyteller.
Grant Morrison thinks in this way – coming up with intricate mind-blowing ideas about what his comics are: sigils for changing the world, systems of magic, parallel universes, and so on. Warren Ellis looks to translate the qualities of other mediums into his comics (music, film) but also recognises what it is that comics can do that other mediums can’t. He looks at how the panel structure on the page affects pacing, the visual architecture, he also thinks of his work as aesthetic objects where the whole design needs to be thought about. Ben Templesmith, Brian Wood, a whole slew of other writers think in this way, and it makes for better storytelling, yes, but more importantly, as far as comics are concerned, it makes for the best possible comic one can make.
Will Eisner was one of the pioneers of comic books – a spirit of invention running through from The Spirit to Contract With God, his adaptations of the classics like Moby Dick, New York and others. Initially it took a slight readjustment of the way I read – like being snapped back to an earlier point in time and an earlier aesthetic, like the comics my dad had which I used to read: Okay and The Eagle.
Each of the books was prefaced by a short essay explaining the thinking behind the aesthetic choices Eisner had made while constructing the narratives – his thoughts on flow (both visual and narrative) and how this played into the way the page should be constructed. Panels, words, speech bubbles – not a single tool at his disposal was neglected.
This approach means that these works retain a freshness which the work of some of his contemporaries does not. Eisner is a great storyteller and has a real eye for the details which make a character or a place resonate as something more than a fictional construct, but I think this, by itself would not guarantee the work’s elevation to such a position of admiration. It is his true understanding of what a comic is and what it can do that kicks it upwards for consideration as genre-defining; genre-defying work.
It has taken me a while to get around to Eisner – his style being something I worked around to appreciating, fusing as it does elements of realism and a more cartoon-like fluidity. I think the discussion of ideas which name-checked him and the digestion of art that is clearly inspired by him cleared the way and once I read one book I was hooked and interested in finding more.
As one of the introductions asserted, one of the attractive things about Eisner’s work is that the subjects he deals with are not your stereotypical characters, they are modelled on real people – they look like your average Joe, don’t fall into easy categories of hero or villain. Eisner’s focus on human nature in all it’s warts and glory is almost as revolutionary as his storytelling technique, and of course without the humanity as an entry point into the story, something to engage with, who would really care about how well the thing is put together?