Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Eisner Influence

US Tour '92: Will Eisner & Dave Sim Meet In Miami
Back-cover, Cerebus #166 (January 1993)
(from When Worlds Collide by Timothy Callahan at Comic Book Resources, August 2011)
For all of the flaws of Cerebus, particularly in that final 7% of the series, I would say it's as good as the likes of Maus, Fun Home, or Persepolis largely because what it lacks in consistency it makes up for in artistry. There's no page in any of those three works that match any average page from "Cerebus," in terms of composition, storytelling or visual energy. And while those three books -- deservedly acclaimed -- tell autobiographical stories that resonate, "Cerebus" is a maximalist, culture-wide autobiography of an artist trying to tell the story of reality. And even as he gets it completely wrong, he pushes the boundaries of comic book art and storytelling farther than almost anyone before or since. I might have left out the "almost," if it weren't for Will Eisner. I think it is fair to call it the "Moby-Dick" of graphic narrative.

Two things, there, worth clarifying: (1) The character of Cerebus may not be a stand-in for Dave Sim the man or Dave Sim the artist, but "Cerebus" is as autobiographical as any comic book ever written, and (2) It is the only post-Eisner comic to use everything Eisner pioneered and then build on it.

That first point has led to much confusion and disappointment on the part of readers. I suspect that the reason the series has a reputation for falling apart in the final third is because readers were thinking that they were reading a comic about the exploits of Cerebus the aardvark and the world around him. It's easy to think that, after all -- the earth-pig's name is the title of the comic, and the character appears on more pages than anyone else. But, no, this is the autobiography of Dave Sim, or at least the internal autobiography of the artist known as Dave Sim. Gerhard plays a role too, but it's only a supporting one, like Cerebus. It's not Gerhard's story. It's not Cerebus' story. It's Dave Sim's story, and they are just part of the mechanism for getting it across.

If you read the series knowing it's Sim's autobiography, sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally, then the structure of the series makes a lot more sense. You might wonder why you'd want to read the autobiography of such a person. But he's far more fascinating than any aardvark, that's for sure, and he's done something no one has ever done in history: write and draw a 6000 page story about what's going on in his mind.

The second point may seem trivial, or irrelevant, at first glance. Surely everyone who draws comics has been influenced by Eisner, right? Okay, I wouldn't argue with that -- whether influence is direct or acknowledged or not -- but with Sim, it goes far beyond mere influence. "Cerebus," once it gets rolling, and once Sim abandons the Barry Smith mimicry and moves toward more character-based storytelling after year two, becomes a comic that embraces Will Eisner more than anyone else in history. Plenty of artists have built on Eisner's storytelling techniques, but most have only taken a piece here or a piece there. They haven't taken the full array of approaches that Eisner pioneered first in his post-war "Spirit" work and later in his original graphic novels. The use of white space, the borderless images, the movement around the page, using expressive lettering and figure drawings. Everything from the expressions of characters to the crosshatching of folds to the use of staggered word balloons against a black field to demonstrate aural depth. These are all Eisnerian touches, and Sim packs them all into the story. They are the internal mechanism which makes the art work, and then Sim takes it his own direction.

Someone smart once asked me (it was probably Matt Seneca) who I would name as an artist not influenced by Jack Kirby. Every name I came up with was a failure. Everyone, at least in North American comics, ends up under the Kirby banner. And certainly Sim is no exception, since Barry Smith (pre-Windsor) started out as a Kirby clone, and the initial "Conan" comics that inspired "Cerebus" were Smith-doing-Kirby-doing-barbarian-comics. And that's what Sim started with. But by the time he got to "High Society" the Eisner influence was far stronger. And if you ignore the early issues, you can almost imagine a widespread comic book landscape that sprung almost completely out of Eisner, rather than Kirby. This is what a world without Kirby might look like, I said to myself, reading the bulk of the "Cerebus" run after issue #25 or so. Not that I'd want a world without Kirby. Not for anything. But there's more Eisner in Sim's work than in all of his contemporaries, combined. To speak metaphorically about the effect on Sim's art: while the rest of the comic book artists of his era play with one hand tied behind their backs, Sims plays as if he's got five hands, and they're all trained by Eisner.

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