Thursday, 8 December 2011

Recommended: Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner

Dropsie Avenue (1995)
by Will Eisner (1917-2005)

(from the essay 'Will Eisner In 3,000 Words Or Less' in The Comics Journal #267, 2005)
...I remember when The Comics Journal printed a review of The Dreamer (was it Gary Groth who wrote it? I seem to remember that it was), sneering at it for its laundered viewpoint of the '30s and the early history of the comic-book medium. It was perfectly brutal - where was the racism, the anti-Semitism that must've been all around and why was Eisner sugar-coating the reality instead of addressing it head on? It as much amounted to a bad review of Eisner himself for living too long and retaining too much in the way of discretion and tact and good manners in a world where those qualities were no longer valued. I wasn't alone in bristling on Will's behalf.

But give Will credit: He hadn't come as far as he had over those many years, arriving clear-eyed and lucid in the fourth quarter of the 20th century without having learned how to take a punch. It would never have occurred to him to close himself off to criticism or to be hurt and/or offended by a negative review. He was certainly entitled to do so by virtue of even a fraction of his seniority in the field, but he recognised that to walk that road would mean a living death if he allowed himself to retreat behind (what would undoubtedly have been) an impregnable wall of sycophancy.

As I recall Dropsie Avenue was the result. I ran across it the other day - it had been misplaced among my personal papers - and flipped it open, just intending to refresh my memory. 15 minutes later, I gave in and retreated to my room to read it in its entirety. The Jews were called hebes. The Italians wops. The Irish micks. And for the first time in an Eisner work, the motivating force of pure hatred and malice was moved to the forefront of the narrative, there to contend with, interweave and serve as a counterpoint to the higher aspirations of individual human beings which were Eisner's first and most genuine creative interest.

It was just another inconceivable facet of the multifaceted Mr Will Eisner. In what other medium has anyone who has attained to the stature of living legend continued to be - not only open to criticism - but responsive to it? At a point where the years remaining in his creative life had dwindled to a precious few, Eisner was amenable, with perfect equanimity to allow for the fact that his entire approach and execution on The Dreamer - which had taken up the better part of one of those few remaining years to complete - might have been a mistake and he was capable, again with perfect equanimity, of rethinking his approach from the ground up next time out. His reputation in the avant guarde took an awful beating, but everything was a learning experience for Will, everything was just grist for the mill.

For years, I thought it was unfortunate that there was never a magazine which reflected Will's sensibility the way that The Comics Journal reflects our medium's Other Awards Namesake, Harvey Kurtzman's (more Kurtzman's sensibility as filtered through Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, but that's a subject for another time...). But reading Dropsie Avenue and remembering the creative, intellectual and visceral response that it represented I think things probably worked out for the best. A magazine that reflected Eisner's sensibility wouldn't have been able to provoke him into moving his work to another level and rethinking his approach that late in life. Will never wanted to be insulated from anything, least of all honest criticism. Ultimately, that was the source of his inclusiveness that left amateurs and professionals agog in his wake at the many conventions that he attended. There was only one playing field as far as he was concerned and it was completely level, with everyone contending for the same disposable income on the same comic-store shelf. He was more than happy to treat you as a peer and a contemporary if you were willing to extend him the courtesy - to treat him as a peer and a contemporary and not just a living monument to be photographed next to. And if Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman regularly kicked his ass in the sales department, mentally, inwardly he was always grinning from ear-to-ear and saying to them... You just wait. The next one'll knock your socks off.

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