Andrew D. Cooke’s documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist is a rarity, a film on the life of a comic artist against the backdrop of decades. For people who treasure comics and the history of the medium, most will understand its rarity of following the history of a man who used the comics medium in so many different ways. Comics have seldom been held as Art, and for decades the idea of comics in film was a short-hand visual that one who read them was dim-witted and easily manipulated.

One of the challenges that Cooke faces directly is that while the documentary covers the beginning of comic books and how they evolved in format over the years, he cannily crafts his film so that it is not necessary to know a damn thing about comics to appreciate the life of the man the film examines.

The editing is tight and focused, but the visuals aren’t just on comics. They focus on time and place and people, reflecting the decades from the beginning of the 1900s through the Great Depression of the 1930s to vivid photos of the war years of the 1940s. That tightness of construction and form allows the film maker to view comics under siege in the 1950s by the government, in photos and film clips. You don’t have to know who Bill Gaines is when he stands up for Tales from the Crypt and horror comics; you don’t have to have lived then or know anything about that current political maneuvering to blame complex human violence (which is a part of human history) on something popular — whether the blame is placed with comics, TV or video games. This is a sham, a political shell-game to let the politicians and many of their voters off the hook. How do you regulate the dynamics of dysfunctional families and the individual compulsions and obsessions that can lead to violence that seems impossible for the mind to grasp?

A young Will Eisner

It’s easy to look for a scapegoat; it’s easy to look for something that doesn’t force the individual to look within their own life, or for the politicians to find a convenient platform to sweep the complexity of real life under some fiercely shouted slogans.

Will Eisner’s life was a part of that continual struggle.

He managed what many creative talents couldn’t. He could create with artistic fervor and great skill and tremendous imagination, but he also weaved his way through the business labyrinths that can rob the artist of their value, of their work, of their spirit.

The Spirit

I use the word “spirit” because it not only reflects one of Will’s most well-known creations, but also his spirit to survive the cruelties that can shatter people’s lives.

The film does not ignore the debate on the diminutive, almost child-like, black character Ebony. Will Eisner was on the vanguard of comics story-telling. He was exploring its boundaries, examining what comics could be, and giving inspiration to others that there was more to this medium than many thought.

But if every other aspect of The Spirit is ahead of its time (and it is), then it’s hard to defend Ebony as a product of the racial stereotypes of its time. If there is one element I think should have been included in this excellent documentary, there should not only be white people discussing Ebony, but black people, as well. It’s easy for white people to dismiss the subject of racism.

During the section on Will’s graphic novel, A Contract with God, I was brought to tears. I remembered that scene from back when Jon Cooke first invited me to view this film down around Union Square in Manhattan. Even though I knew that moment was coming as I watched it now on Blu-ray, Andrew Cooke has made that section as emotionally effective as any film I’ve seen this year. Argo doesn’t have a moment as powerful as this. Eisner talks about the saddest moment of his life…

The film fades to white.

And silence.

Long silence, so unusual to use two-thirds of the way through a documentary.

But this silence, this absence of sound, shows profound respect for the costs suffered in Eisner’s life and duly honors those devastating costs, so all can know they have not exploited the topic, but recorded it for honest history.

Will Eisner

I asked the writer, Jon B. Cooke, who produced the documentary along with his brother, and rode shotgun with Andrew during the years that it took to complete, what exactly a writer does on a documentary film.

Jon wrote his thoughts on this, and they follow directly:

I came up with the idea of doing a film documentary on the great Will Eisner after seeing an episode of the PBS series American Masters, begrudging the fact that the great comics innovator had never been included nor celebrated on the screen, TV or otherwise. So I asked Will for permission, which he graciously granted, and my brother, Andrew D. Cooke — a filmmaker of note in New York City — and I proceeded to start production. I was editor of Comic Book Artist magazine at the time and thus an experienced interviewer, so for most of the clips appearing in the finished film, I was the guy asking the questions. In a documentary compiled from comments of the interviewees (there was little narration in the full-length feature film, heard only at the beginning and end, spoken by Art Spiegelman), it may be difficult to comprehend a "writing" credit (especially given Artie insisted on ad-libbing my "well-crafted" lines I had scribed for him, telling us when we arrived to record at his studio that he doesn't "do" other people written narration!), but figuring my questions did create a narrative construct for the finished motion picture, that's the credit I chose.

The narrative arc of a documentary really is the purview of the director, the writer and the film editor, sometimes toiling collaboratively, sometimes each working on his or her own. It's a fascinating, captivating, sometimes frustrating experience, but when it all comes together in seamless fashion, such as it did in Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, it all becomes worth the blood, sweat and copious tears. In the end, Don, my credit as "writer" is a bit nebulous in a strict factual sense, but as I conceived of the idea, helped execute it through fruition by virtue of my connections developed through CBA and as I did indeed interview most of the people, I say that I'm the writer of WE: POASA without apology… So there.

I never questioned the credit, Jon,
and I’m glad there is now background insight for the readers into what it takes to craft such an endeavor.

Will Eisner

I am often asked about A Contract with God in connection with Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, because both came out about the same time. For the type of people who debate things of this nature, the question seems to be which one was the first graphic novel, with some stating Sabre because it appeared on the stands two months before A Contract with God.

I am often bemused by these debates. There is so much time spent from initial conception to printed reality that using the physical dates can be a curious yardstick. Experiments in different formats for comics were beckoning a lot of comics creators, much because of low page rates, an enforcement of Work For Hire Contracts that would mean a writer could never own what they created, and it was nigh impossible to write for comics if you didn’t sign their documents.

That was not open for negotiation at that time.

I wasn’t aware that Will Eisner was creating A Contract with God during the same time frame as I was working on Sabre long before I had chosen an artist for the first book in the series. Nor was I aware of what he was going through in his personal life, especially since I was being battered by what was happening in mine.

Yet I have always believed if people need to qualify these things that the graphic novel title should go to Will.

I never thought of Sabre as a graphic novel.

It was 38 pages in length.

You cannot do a novel of any sort in 38 pages.

I damn well know; I had to create that world, develop those characters, and hope people would care about them.

In 38 pages!

I called it a graphic album, not novel. Although someone may have done an ad for the book that used that term.

The first real Sabre novel comes with The Decadence Indoctrination, so for all those out there debating this topic, give the title to Will.

A Contract with God

The major difference between the two books is that Will had his book in bookstores as well as comic stores. The one thing that Sabre proved to the major two comic book companies was that comic book stores could support comic projects. They would leap on the bandwagon two or three years down the line after that fact was established.

The Blu-ray includes a number of interviews Will did with tremendous comic creators like Jack Kirby and others, more of interest for the people who read Comics Bulletin than the average viewer who doesn’t care much about comics, as an art form or for its history.

The major impact of Andrew D. Cooke’s documentary is that it will involve people who love comics and those that don’t, because it tells its story in human terms, and dissects that heart of creative life, celebrating it, and not killing its spirit.

 

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Copyright © 2013 by Don McGregor