Tag Archive for 'Will Eisner'

Comics & Education: A Comics Renaissance

In my last post I briefly outlined the how comics education worked in the early years of the form. Today I want to start getting into what I think is the next phase of development of the comics medium and comics education.

The initial bursts of energy that created newspaper comic strips (at the turn of the century) and comic-books (in the 1930’s) had dissipated. Since the 1950s newspapers started to systematically reduce the size of comic-strips and sunday sections (as well as more aggressively censor the strips). The formation of the Comics Code Authority after the Senate Subcommittee hearings strangled creativity on the comic-book world. The comics Roy Lichtenstein was appropriating (as mentioned last time) were lowly commercial junk for kids; largely anonymously produced.

Around the same time Lichtenstein was making his comics-based paintings, the art form was rapidly transforming. DC & Marvel were reviving the superhero genre. Marvel’s fresh take on the stale genre was especially instrumental in raising the profile of comics among a young literate college educated audience. A few years later the Undergrounds would emerge and take comics into the taboo breaking territory of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The undergrounds established a link between comics and counterculture which would prove a fertile ground for future innovation. This was followed by increasingly literate and arty comics anthologies, the invention of the Graphic Novel (the term and format), and the independent comics boom of the 80’s (and the great bust in the 90’s). Throughout this time the status of comic-books (and newspaper strips) as a mass medium was slowly eroding. But as the health of the medium faltered, the the health of the art form was undergoing a creative renaissance.

The whole 20 year period from the late 70’s to the late 90’s saw an aggressive effort by cartoonists, writers and publishers to make the case for comics as an art form. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God popularized a whole new book store category: the graphic novel. Hated or loved, this coinage is largely responsible for opening the door for the medium into a whole new market. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Gary Groth’s Comics Journal transformed itself from a fan publication, into a hard hitting magazine with journalistic standards and a much needed critical voice. RAW dragged comics into the art world, and Weirdo tried to keep it low brow. But, both insisted that comics are an art form that needed to be recognized. To list all the great comics from that period would take too long. I listed some of them in the timeline below.

I don’t know much about the state of comics education during that period. I have more questions than answers. I know that Eisner was teaching and lectured on the art form at SVA during the 70’s and 80’s. Eisner’s two books on the medium Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative were born from his academic career. Eisner coined the term Sequential Art, a broad category of combining images with words in a sequence, that includes not only comics, but storyboards, instructional manuals, and others. Eisner:

In general terms we can divide the functions of Sequential Art into two broad applications; instruction and entertainment. Periodical comics, graphic novels, instructional manuals and storyboards are the most familiar vehicles. in the main, periodical comics and graphic novels are devoted to entertainment while manuals and storyboards are used to instruct or sell. But there is an overlap because art in sequence tends to be expository.

The above passage was recently quoted by Kent Worcester along with a another one:

Another instructional function of this medium is conditioning an attitude toward a task. The relationship or the identification evoked by the acting out or dramatization in a sequence of pictures is in itself instructional. People learn by imitation and the reader in this instance can easily supply the intermediate or connecting action from his or her own experience. Here too there is no pressure of time as as there would be in a live action motion picture or animated film. The amount of time allowed to the reader of a printed comic to examine, digest and imagine the process of acting out or assuming the role or attitude demonstrated is unlimited. There is room for approximation and opportunity for specific performances which the reader can examine without pressure. Unlike the rigidity of photographs, the broad generalizations of artwork permits exaggeration which can more quickly make the point and influence the reader.

Kent pointed out that:

It’s not difficult to imagine Eisner making this same pitch to Proctor and Gamble or Pan Am execs, trying to sell them on instructional comics as the way to reach consumers and employees alike. His long career as a visual propagandist – for a certain conception of comics as well as for specific companies and causes – remains an underappreciated aspect of his life and work as a whole. There is definitely a sense in this chapter that he is trying to seal the deal, both intellectually and commercially.

Kent continued on to gently chide Eisner for his narrow vision for the use of Sequential Art. However, if the book is looked at from the point of view of how comics were taught at the time Eisner’s point of view makes more sense. It reads much like a text book which tries to sell students on the usefulness of the skills whey will learn… which are the very skills being taught at SVA and the Kubert School at the time. I assume the curriculum at these institutions still largely focused on turning out technically proficient workers for the commercial print industry. But I wonder what kind of discussions were going on in the classrooms at the time. All the ferment going on in comics at the time must have kicked up some dust at the schools… Some alumni from that time:

  • SVA: Peter Bagge, Kaz, Mark Newgarden
  • Kubert School: Rick Veitch, Stephen R. Bissette

It’s also no surprise that Eisner himself has built his career by created the very items (periodical comics, graphic novels and instructional manuals) he names as examples of Sequential Art. The book was published in 1985, and already felt like an anachronism… an artifact form an earlier era. Despite some of the commercial trappings of Eisner’s book, there is a sense of respect for comics and a clear attempt to define the art form as such. This formalization and the coinage of term Sequential Art would become an important milestone. It gave artists, academics, and publishers a term they could rally behind. The term ‘freed’ comics from… well the comics, and all the negative connotations that came with it.

Next up: Scott McCloud, Art School Confidential, and more.

Timeline:

1952. Mad Magazine founded

1954. United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings take place
     Comics Code Authority (CCA) founded

1961. “Look Mickey” painted by Roy Lichtenstein
     Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 published

1968. Zap Comix published

1970. Philip Guston’s cartoon paintings first exhibited

1972. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary published

1975. Art Spiegelman & Bill Griffith’s Arcade published

1976. Harvey Pekar publishes American Splendor

1977. The Nostalgia Journal becomes The Comics Journal (issue #37)

1978. A Contract With God by Will Eisner published (popularized the ‘Graphic Novel’ nomencalture)
     SCAD founded

1980. RAW published by Françoise Mouly (edited by Art Spiegelman and Mouly)

1981. Weirdo published
     The Hernandez Brothers publish Love And Rockets

1985. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art published

1986. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
     Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

1992. Art Spiegelman’s Maus awarded the Pulitzer, the Eisner and the Harvey

1993. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics published

1996. Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative published

Notes on Will Eisner

Will Eisner, A Contract With God

I was asked to contribute an essay on the work of Will Eisner as part of this years Will Eisner Week celebrations. I decided to take a closer look at Eisner’s Contract With God Trilogy. The essay (well… really a series of notes) just got posted. Here’s a short excerpt:

All the stories in A Contract with God take place on Dropsie Avenue. Eisner fills this fictional Bronx street with multiethnic (especially Jewish) immigrants, desperate criminals and ragged tramps. Sudden wealth is as possible as instant ruin. Throughout the book it becomes obvious that the real protagonist of the book is the street itself. Eisner lavishes attention on its dilapidated buildings, rain drenched stoops and moody street-scapes. He’s clearly enamored of the urban patina of the place. With each subsequent story, Eisner increasingly begins to use the architecture of the street as a substitute for the panel border. In effect he trades the comic-book gutters for the gutters of the street.

Read the whole thing here.