Will Eisner is one of the greatest cartoonists of all time – heck, comics’ greatest award is named after him – but Eisner’s career has always had a huge hole in the middle of it for most readers.
Eisner produced or managed the creation of The Spirit from 1940 to 1952, creating some of the finest comics to ever appear – stories that still set the standard for great comics art, even in 2011.
And in the mid-1970s, Eisner blazed back to prominence in the comics field as one of the pioneers of a new idea called the graphic novel, producing the epochal A Contract with God.
Between the ’50s and ’70s, however, Eisner’s career completely dropped out of sight. His work seldom appeared in any comics of the era, aside from a tantalizingly set of work published as two issues of Harvey Comics’s ill-fated super-hero revival of 1966.
In between, Eisner did a lot of work for an incredibly obscure magazine called PS. Few fans of Eisner ever had a chance to see this work, and fewer still ever wrote about it. It was rumored that his work was for the U.S. Army, for technical training manuals of all things, and that it was created as material to train the men who worked for motor pools and other odd readers.
The obscurity of this work added a patina of legend to it, made Eisnerophiles like me endlessly intrigued, and especially in those pre-internet days, ponder just what that work could look like.
Finally, after all these years, Abrams ComicArts has produced a wonderful anthology of Einser’s work for PS, and guess what: it’s essential work for big Eisner geeks like me – but maybe not so much for those of us who are not in the cult.
The rumors are true: from 1951 to 1971 Eisner had a contract with the Army to package a magazine called PS – as in “afterwards for technical manuals” – that presented comic strips that described such important but mundane tasks as how to load a truck, how to fix a crankcase and what the appropriate amount of leakage is for an oiled tire.
Yes, the great Will Eisner actually was paid in 1951 for creating a story where Army mechanics are shrunk to a tiny size to learn “How to Start a Stalled Engine”. Oh, his artwork is wonderful and his sense of dramatic storytelling is thoroughly on display. But sheesh, this is an awfully major change from Denny Colt stopping P’Gell’s latest plot to steal some expensive diamonds.
There are many examples of Eisner presenting gorgeous and exciting scenes in this book – many of which are featured along with this article – but these scenes often have a campy or odd feel to them, intended to make the tone of a story light and fun rather than super dramatic. There are many moments that are staged like high drama – only to have it turn out that these stories are about how a tank crew gets stuck in the mud because of poor maintenance.
But that said, the selection of stories in this book – by the great cartoonist Eddie Campbell – is stellar. Campbell proves to be a sympathetic and fun-loving collaborator, who chooses only the most interesting pieces to include in this book. It’s hard for us hardcore Eisneropholes to not look at page after page of this book and not say, “Holy hell, this is comics by Will freakin’ Eisner!!!”
In the end, this slim but thick book is indeed a real treasure for us Eisner fans. It’s a treat to finally be able to fill that hole in the middle of Will Eisner’s great career, even if by some standards the work presented here is pretty strange. I really loved learning about how to manage vehicle maintenance in cold weather.
Heck, I suddenly want to go change my carburetor!