We’re delighted to bring you a very special report from our Masked Detective on the L’esprit de Will Eisner (“The Spirit of Will Eisner”) exhibition at the Musée Thomas Henry in Cherbourg…
The masked detective drove through the night, through the deluge, the rain turning roads into distorted mirrors. At the port of Le Havre, a crack of lightning illuminated the countryside for a fraction of a second – at the same time that he saw a sign warning to beware wild animals, he glimpsed in the rearview mirror the gigantic cranes of the port, arraigned across the landscape like a herd of prehistoric mammoths.
The detective was on a mission, in search of the spirit of Will Eisner, and his investigation had taken him to Normandy, France. He drove high across the Pont de Normandie, through Honfleur (where Boudin had taught Monet the value of painting outdoors), past the Casino at Deauville (reputedly the basis for Casino Royale in Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name), and paused briefly at the Grand Hotel, Cabourg to breakfast on Madeleine de Proust – he was masked, and he was a detective, but he was no brute and knew how to read like the rest of us.
Continuing down the coast, the masked detective stopped in Bayeux to read the embroidered comic strip story of William’s conquest of England, before arriving in the port town of Cherbourg – the last known sighting of The Spirit of Will Eisner. Wandering the old town, a face, a smell, the shape of a cloud, reminded the detective of past cases, past lives, past loves. The hanging umbrellas reminded him of Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He knew he was in the right place, especially since there were posters and banners around the city advertising the exhibit at Musée Thomas Henry.
The museum, guarded by a statue of Roland Barthes, was a cinch to access, and cost no more than €5 entry, with some French-language leaflets with background information. Once through the door, the masked man was confronted by an exhibit of the work of François Avril, specifically his cityscapes of New York. Avril, once a comic strip artist, still reveres the form, and his exhibit includes a homage to The Spirit.
Two floors up, past the permanent exhibit of Italian, Dutch and French painters, including local boy Jean-François Millet, the detective reached his destination. The entrance gives a thumbnail introduction to Will Eisner’s life (created The Spirit, taught “sequential art” as he called it, at the School of Visual Arts, and published graphic novels, beginning in 1978 with A Contract with God, until his passing in 2005). There’s a wonderful photo of Eisner at his drawing board, brush in hand, showing what an open and avuncular man he was.
A Cult Series: The Spirit
The first room highlights The Spirit, which was a four-colour newspaper strip as part of a 20-page supplement distributed to regional Sunday newspapers. At the centre of the room copies of the newspaper supplement are on display, and they are surrounded by the original black and white artwork for three complete seven-page stories.
“Bring in Sand Saref” (Jan 15, 1950), written and drawn by Eisner, started life as a 1948 “John Law” strip, but Eisner repurposed it for The Spirit, as you can see from all the paste-up marks on the incredible splash page.
And as you read through the pages, full-size, you see how detailed the brush-work is, how the lighting hops across the objects in the rooms, how the fog undulates through the port, how the rain falls at an angle and has force when it lands. You can see the characters in constant motion, whether through body language, gestures, through windows or down stairs. The texture of the paper, the way the ink dries as it leaves the brush, the whiteout/ patches/ resizing/ repurposing of images all tell the story of the thought and industry required to deliver sevem pages of completed artwork every week.
“Mr. McDool” (Oct 12, 1947), inked by Jerry Grandenetti, shows Eisner’s incredibly fluid storytelling style, adapted from the tropes of the dark suspense movies that would later be popularly known as Film Noir. On the opening page, Eisner kills off Soho Sander, and initiates the mystery that will fuel the story.
At the bottom of page three, Eisner gives a close-up to Silk Satin to confirm the truth and emotion of her statements. In the last panel, the vibrating doorknob in the foreground emphasises that the door has been slammed shut, while The Spirit’s hands (one closed to a fist, the other holding Hildie’s head) illustrates his conflicting emotions. The masked detective noted that it took considerably longer to write/ draw/ create this panel than to read/feel it – no wonder so many readers dismiss and undervalue the work.
Silk is efficiently captured in four panels in the middle of page four, with only the light from Commissioner Dolan’s match wordlessly revealing that he has handcuffed Silk Satin.
The fight between The Spirit and Lord Elby is also wordless. They trade blows along the top of page six. On the second row, The Spirit punches, and then there is a close-up of both combatants, a pause. The Spirit is sweating, and Elby has a swollen eye. Eisner emphasises the moment by giving it a black background (all the other panels have a white background), and by eliminating the border of panel 4 (you can see the whiteout on the original). The whole of the third row is devoted to the final, decisive punch, which sends Elby careening over the garbage cans (which were introduced to the scene in panel four).
“The Job” (May 9, 1948), inked by André Leblanc, opens with a rain-drenched apartment, introducing the poor, romantic couple, Sparrow and Bleak, like something out of a French poetic realist movie.
The room also has a couple of other pages: “Captured by the Underworld” (Mar 30, 1941, pg 8) still has pencilled colour notes for Ebony; and on “Mission . . . The Moon” (Aug 3, 1952, pg 3), script by Jules Feiffer, you can see the intricate duotone work of artist Wallace Wood.
The Underground Rediscovers Eisner
The second room shows how the counter-culture comics artists of the 1960s underground scene, who had enjoyed The Spirit in their youth, rediscovered the character, and its creator Will Eisner, then celebrated and reprinted his work.
Chief among them is Denis Kitchen, of Kitchen Sink Press, who published The Spirt Magazine and Eisner’s later work. Here are illustrations by Kitchen, Eisner’s fully painted (and incredibly wonderful) covers for the magazine, signed limited edition prints, and unpublished Eisner illustrations. One wall is devoted to the copies of magazines that reprinted The Spirit over the years. There is even a fantastic previously-unpublished one-page strip, “Heartbreak” (1991).
In the Dark
The next room plunges us into darkness, with only giant, life-size (and bigger) panels hanging from the ceiling. This acts as a preview of what is to come . . .
Eisner/Miller: Face to Face
The fourth room shows explores the aesthetics of Noir, how Eisner used those tropes in his storytelling, and also how Frank Miller (who knew Eisner and directed The Spirit (2008) movie) was influenced by Eisner.
The left wall has some of Eisner’s greatest pages from The Spirit, including the opening spreads of “Lorelei Rox” (Sept 19, 1948) and “Lilly Lotus” (Jul 10, 1949), and page five of “Block Alley” (Jun 5, 1949), which inspired François Avril’s homage.
On the right wall are examples of Miller’s work from “The Big Fat Kill” and “Family Values”, showing the influence of woodblock artist Lynd Ward, who had made wordless novels, beginning with God’s Man (1929), and who was also an influence on Eisner.
New York: The Graphic Novel
The masked detective reached the final room, devoted to Eisner’s later work, where the artist deals with the daily ordeals of city life, beginning with the “graphic novel” A Contract with God (1978), which was not a novel but a series of short stories. Presented in this room are original artwork of book pages, covers, and illustrations, as well as lithographs, and copies of the books.
On page five of the 1949 Spirit story “Block Alley,” a man shouts from the window “Run, Mac … Run” and in this later period of his life Eisner decided to tell the stories of all those invisible people who had previously been in the background of his strips. The stories are about the small moments of daily life, or interactions with the neighbours you do not get along with, or standing on a street corner watching life go by, or (and this is often the case in Eisner’s stories) the quiet, private moments when the characters rage against the world and wonder about their insignificant part in the grand scheme of things.
The illustration “Turf War” (1988) ostensibly shows two warring fractions fighting in the street, but it also shows the neighbourhood behind them looking on, eating their pastries. To be a citizen is to be a spectator. The cohabitation of all layers and types of people is also depicted in “The Last Train” (1988), where a suited man is shown with drunks, lovers, and a night worker, but none of them interact with each other.
Looking at the comic pages, the masked detective is struck at how direct the storytelling is. The lettering on the A Contract with God title page – and Eisner had one of the best serif and san serif hand-lettering styles – is given a twist with “GOD” in an approximation of Jewish script, and the whole title on a stone tablet, evoking the stone tablets holding the Ten Commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai.
The symbolism continues in “Maze” from New York: The Big City (1986) where a character is careening through alleyways, from wall to wall, like a ball in a pinball machine, so Eisner shows the pinball machine to make it obvious.
The books are often a series of short stories, or observations, using a place (Dropsie Avenue, New York, The Building) as a framework in which to present them. They are often set in the 1930s, and the emotion is unvarnished and authentic. The cover to New York: The Big City evokes the optimism of youth, looking out over the city and seeing its possibilities. Meanwhile, the cover to Dropsie Avenue shows the different lives that we make for ourselves, or are forced upon us, depending upon our penchant for sex, violence, love, a sense of obligation, anger, responsibility, greed, and humour.
And then the character reflect of their inner lives, relive memories from the past, experience regret and loss. There is a beautiful moment in “Cookalein” (from the A Contract with God collection) where a character talks to a cockroach (surely the lowest of the low) wondering why it struggles to carry on living when it is helpless on its back. The lithograph of “Days of Yesteryear” (1988) makes one wonder if the father is showing his son the remains of what once was, or whether he is holding onto the dreams and aspirations that he had as a child.
The show ends with a light touch – for Eisner looks on life with wry humour – and a homage to his 1948 Spirit story “The Story of Gerhard Schnobble” in a 1995 lithograph where Schnobble flies, surprising and upsetting painters, causing mayhem.
And that is it. In the shop the masked man picked up the exhibition catalogue (€29, 64 pages, 30 x 48 cm, Éditions Toth/9e Art Références) which reproduced original artwork from the show, including the three full stories, plus the full story of “Lilly Lotus” (not in the show). All the text was in French (by Mathilde Kienlen) and English (translated by Paul Gravett), with an interview with Denis Kitchen at the back. Denis supplied many of the originals and serigraphs in the show.
Exiting the building, the masked detective paused briefly to pose with the life-size Spirit cutout, and was out the door, back into the night.
As the masked detective drove away, he turned on the radio. On Nostalgi he could hear strains of Imagination singing their 1982 hit “Just an Illusion”. “Just an illusion?” the detective pondered. He thought for a moment and decided, No. He had met the spirit of Will Eisner, and it will be at the Musée Thomas Henry until August 29. After that, who knows…?
• The 33rd Annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are announced tonight as part of Comic-Con@Home 2021 – Friday July 23rd 2021 at 7.00 pm Pacific Time (Click For Details)
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