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082200: PROFILE- Scott McCloud: The Eisner Influence.
By David Dodd.

Scott McCloud has said, both in his own books and in interviews, that Will Eisner is his mentor as a creator who showed how comics could be the subject of serious intellectual attention. No doubt the ambitious reader, his imagination fired up by McCloudís work, will search out Eisnerís work and discover for himself what he means with these comments. In this essay, I hope to help this process along, and by looking at the ways in which Eisner influenced McCloud, to provide something of an introduction to Eisnerís thought.

Eisner began writing and drawing comics in the late Ď30ís but didnít publish his first discussing the making of comics until 1985. This did not mean, however, that he had not thought about the subject until his retirement. Both in the work he produced and in his conversation with others he continually questioned how comics worked and what they could deal with. McCloud was guided by Eisner in both ways as he began his own career as a cartoonist, in the years before Eisner published COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART.

As a reader with ambitions as an artist, McCloud discovered Eisnerís SPIRIT comic fairly early on, as he notes in REINVENTING COMICS. Eisner stopped working on THE SPIRIT in 1952 and because he owned the rights to the character (a notable exception in those days) no other cartoonists were in a position to keep the comic alive. Nevertheless, interest in the comic was reawakened in the mid-sixties when Eisnerís former assistant Jules Feiffer praised the comic in his book THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES. Fans began reprinting SPIRIT stories and selling them in the underground distribution networks that developed in the late sixties, until Dennis Kitchen got permission in the early seventies from Eisner to produce collections for his Kitchen Sink Press.

(The new Eisner fan should be aware that the profile and organization of Eisnerís work has changed drastically now that DC has purchased the rights to publish ďThe Will Eisner Library.Ē While this will make his work, particularly his graphic novels of the past 20 years, much easier to obtain, DC has elected to publish THE SPIRIT in its Archive format. What this means is that eventually, every SPIRIT comic will be available, reproduced in full color. However, they will be published in order, which means that the most accomplished work, of the late forties and early fifties, wonít be published for several years, and that all of the collections will cost around $50. So while the Kitchen Sink collections lack the color of the original stories, they will remain, for some time, the best access to Eisnerís early accomplishments, and a bargain at that.)

As a fan in the late seventies, McCloud was thus able to study Eisnerís work, and get an appreciation for both the fluency of Eisnerís drawing and the variety of his storytelling. Eisner is particularly noted for experimenting with the point-of-view angle in his panels (for instance, the sole story laid out by Eisner in DCís MILLENIUM EDITION SPIRIT #1 nearly induces nausea in its refusal to depict any incident from an angle a human being might see it at) and McCloudís work on ZOT! is particularly fluent in this regard. Also like Eisner, McCloud is very willing to sacrifice anatomical accuracy in the cause of communicating mood, although this is common to many comics.

McCloud had the opportunity to meet and learn from Eisner in the early Ď80ís (see the ProFile interview for specific details) and probably first became aware of the ideas that Eisner put into COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART at that point. Some of the ideas that this book shares with UNDERSTANDING COMICS are the sort of thing that McCloud may already have articulated on his own, but it seems likely that being able to discuss them with Eisner and then read Eisnerís account of them made it much easier for him to clearly express them. Two notable examples are the idea that the line and shapes that a cartoonist uses have significance in and of themselves, and that by choosing how much of a scene to depict and how many panels to depict it in, a cartoonist can alter a readerís sense of mood and time in a story.

In general, COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART, and its sequel, GRAPHIC STORYTELLING, are of a rather different nature than UNDERSTANDING COMICS. McCloud talks about the nuts and bolts of comics, but in the service of a larger thesis about the unique nature of the act of reading comics. Eisner proposes that reading comics is different from reading other media, but only to suggest that this difference requires that the act of creating comics requires special skills. In general his books are study texts for aspiring cartoonists. Indeed, C&SA would work well as further reading for an aspiring comic artist who has been working with Joe Kubertís art course books; the combination of the two would fully prepare her to go to work for Vertigo.

GRAPHIC STORYTELLING offers some diverting ideas of Eisnerís on the origins and function of storytelling, but is mostly valuable for his comments on a series of classic comic stories that he reprints in their entirety. If youíve read in COMICS JOURNAL interviews about artists learning to tell stories by getting to look at the greats actually producing their work, a book like this is a dream come true. Itís Eisnerís idiosyncratic take on storytelling, and itís not done systematically, but itís also a session with a master that you can go back to as many times as you want.

Given the different goals of their work, with Eisner writing for aspiring artists and McCloud writing for the reading public at large, the most crucial similarity between the works is their claim that comics ought to be taken seriously as a forms of Art and Literature. Both are problematic terms to say the least, yet the two cartoonists have very clear definitions in their minds, although they never explicitly articulate them. Their definitions are similar, but not the same, and it is in comparing these definitions that we get the greatest sense of how McCloud has made use of Eisner's work.

While Eisner uses the word Art as a totem, his preferred aspiration as a cartoonist is to Literature. While he has made passes at a few canonical works of European letters, most notably an adaptation of DON QUIXOTE, his own stories in THE SPIRIT and his graphic novels, as well as his comments in interviews, show a much greater orientation toward the short story, in its form at the peak of its popularity in the first half of the twentieth century. The compression of detail and plot, the reliance on vividly drawn, even stereotyped, characters and settings, the use of sentimentalism and twist endings to provide resolution, are the most obvious virtues that Eisner's comics share with the classic short story.

Among contemporary writers of literary fiction these plot devices have largely been replaced by obsessions with voice and style. The writing most likely to display them is the genre writing originating int the pulps that were the poor cousins of the great fiction magazines. Eisner's work in comics is analogous to that of Theodore Sturgeon and Dashiell Hammett in the genres of science fiction and crime fiction: it offers the pleasures of the classic short story in a less "elevated" medium.

In the forties, when Eisner did most of his popular work, this "elevation" would have been a far more pragmatic and observable matter than it appears now, in as much as a "literary" magazine such as ARGOSY or THE SATURDAY EVENING POST paid more to writers, cost more and so presumably would have been read by a more affluent audience. Eisner seems to have been aiming to produce work that would achieve what his erstwhile assistant Jules Feiffer actually succeeded in doing, being published in the better literary magazines.

His ultimate failure in this regard is ultimately the product of his fascination with the longer format offered by comic books; in the American mind, a cartoon becomes increasingly sophisticated as it gets shorter, perhaps because of the much greater social knowledge that is needed to "get the joke" in such works. Certainly, the single frame witticisms found in THE NEW YORKER, which are the apex of the cartooning hierarchy and pay scale, require that one be fluent with the obsessions and events that preoccupy Gotham's haute bourgeoisie.

Ironically, the skills that Eisner demands of "sequential art" would have served him well had he chosen to produce shorter work. In COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART Eisner stresses the potential drawing has for communicating stereotypes by reshaping the human body and face and using postures with strong emotional resonance. Along the same lines, his work, especially in THE SPIRIT, but also in his graphic novels, often succeeds in making fun of the various social roles that people adopt in jobs and families. While such devices are useful in longer stories, they are the fundamental tools of the much more compressed comics strip and single panel cartoon.

Eisnerís devotion to the long comic story can be understood as one manís obsession with producing short stories in comic format, as can be seen most clearly when we consider how his most accomplished contemporary, Jack Cole, and his most literarily inclined student, Jules Feiffer, both turned to the short comic forms in the fifties and sixties. Indeed, Eisner himself supported his fascination with the communicative potential of comics by turning to educational comics. Eisnerís preference for comparing comics to literature further reinforces this.

McCloud prefers to describe comics as Art, but preserves Eisners focus on the long form. While this reflects a split in the public mind about what comics are, we can state what is important about this split by noting that when McCloud turned to comics as a medium, he did so as a member of a subculture that for whom a longer format is the defining feature of their favorite medium. While McCloud does discuss some artists who produced mainly comic strips in their careers, he discusses relatively few of these in comparison to their popularity and influence in American culture. And as a matter of definition he excludes the single frame cartoon from consideration in UNDERSTANDING COMICS, ignoring the general perception that Gary Larson was practicing the same artform as Charles Schulz, and the highly narrative content of single panel works. (The reader interested in this last subject should seek out David Carrierís discussion of Gary Larsonís work in his new book, THE AESTHETICS OF COMICS)

This move has two effects on McCloudís work that make his quest for artistic legitimacy particularly quixotic. Most obviously, he posits a far greater neglect of the comics medium by the American public than is in fact the case, since he can point to the weak sales of comic books and ignore the wide popularity of newspaper comics. A less noticeable consequence that is far more damaging to his argument as a whole is the way his emphasis on the pleasures of long form comics forces him to argue for the artistic virtues of narrative. This puts him at odds with the Western critical establishment of the 20th century, who tend to think of narrative in literature and art as an infantile pleasure that modern art aims to replace.

So perhaps the most interesting thing that McCloud reproduces from Eisnerís work is a pursuit of difficult, perhaps futile, cause in what he promotes as a relatively unbiased study of the functioning of comics. This does not, of course, devalue the work of either of these men for the aspiring cartoonist; in fact, the work of both is invaluable for cartoonists producing either books or strips as a cornucopia of new ideas to use in refining their work. But it does mean that they are promoting comics in ways that are the least likely to win appreciation from the American public. As the recent canonization of Charles Schulz shows, Americans are willing to provide their cartoonists with wealth, love and fame, and to show them respect as humorists, even philosophers. In the face of such concrete rewards, it is hard to see what comics stand to gain by arguing analogies with short stories and museum art.


The Image shown is from REINVENTING COMICS, and is the first panel in a very amusing sequence. Copyright 2000 Scott McCloud.

David Dodd is the Features Editor of PopImage.


ScottMcCloud.com - The official homepage of Scott McCloud.
www.cartoon.org - The Will Eisner exhibit at the International Museum of Cartoon Art.
PopImage Forum - Discuss this message at the PopImage forum.