We left off last time talking about Will Eisner’s seminal work A Contract with God, and the stories contained therein. If you missed it, go back and read it, because it forms the context in which we’ll discuss the next book, A Life Force.
A Life Force takes the technique Eisner began using in A Contract with God and applies them to the longer form. Unlike A Contract with God, A Life Force is a true graphic novel, with a moral argument and a thematic depth that is lacking in the previous works. It uses the cockroach as a metaphor for survival, and makes damn sure it reminds us of this throughout the story.
Despite the ambitious thematic content, A Life Force is very “on the nose,” falling into storytelling shorthand with literary stereotypes in its mobsters and revolutionaries. It doesn’t show us any new sort of perspective of the world that hasn’t been handled better in other places. It’s nicely crafted. But structurally obvious, with characters narrating out loud for no other reason than to state directly the theme of mankind’s differences and similarities to roaches struggling to survive. While I do not feel that A Life Force quite meets the Standard, it fails in an important way that shows Eisner’s evolution as a creator of literary comics. I want to include it in our Canon for that reason alone with the caveat that it’s academically important to understanding the creator himself.
The payoff for all of Eisner’s development is Dropsie Avenue; it is truly a graphic novel by any standard. Using techniques he pioneered in the previous two works we’ve discussed, Eisner uses the setting, Dropsie Avenue, as a character in the story. In fact, you can make an argument that the setting itself is the protagonist of the story, living through, and surviving all the changes and fights and developments going on around it. Using the street to ground us, Eisner shows how society bonds and human nature is ever changing, but always stays the same. In fact, that is the moral argument of the story.
For the art, the same thing applies as with the other stories, however, there is a moment near the beginning where Eisner employs an interesting trick that I think is worth taking a quick second to reflect on. When the original Dropsies, the family for whom the street is named, die in the house fire, Eisner actually uses the shapes of flame to mark the gutters between the panels. It creates a pause of destruction, leading to the appearance of the next buyer.
Dropsie Avenue meets the Standard, moreso than anything else we’ve looked at of his. It’s not structurally obvious like A Life Force, and employs a greater sense of craft in both story and art than any of the others.
Will Eisner is the father of the modern comics movement of today. He is a pivotal member of our Canon, a man who strove for the Standard and wore it like a badge of honor, and in some cases, like a scarlet letter. Not all his works achieve the literary Standard, but they are worthy of future discourse. Don’t be surprised if I bring him up again. His body of work is bountiful, and each one is worth our time, but while space keeps me from talking about them here, I do want to discuss what I believe is one of the comics medium’s greatest achievements:
Art Spiegelman’s Maus
It won a Pulitzer.
Sure, it was a “Special Award.” But it was a Pulitzer. Boom! Because it was the first graphic novel to win that award, it meets the historical standard alone right there.2 So, let’s say that due to its Pulitzer credentials, it meets the Standard across the board — literary, artistic and historical. But what is it that’s so important about this book? A hell of a lot actually.
For those of you unfamiliar with Maus, it is the story of Art Speaigelman’s father as he survives the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War.
Let’s apply the literary standards to this truly pivotal graphic novel and see if it stacks up.
What is the moral argument of Maus? It’s about the need to connect with your past, your parents, the events that shaped them. It’s about survival. It’s about guilt. Vladek Speigelman, the creator’s father, tells the story that his son, Art, narrates through the book. Their interactions, moreso than the story of Vlacek’s Holocaust experiences, embodies the theme. Art lives a modern life in Rego Park in New York writing and drawing comics, a far cry from the struggle for basic survival that he father went through at the same age.
There is a depth of plot, with two parallel tales going at the same time. One is the story of Vladek Speigelman, a man who survived the holocaust thanks to his own cunning and a spate of good luck. The other is the narrator’s desire to come to terms with the differences in his and his father’s life, as well as the history he is bound to.
These are what help Maus to offer a unique point of view. While many Holocaust stories share similar events, this story isn’t really about the Holocaust. It’s about the narrator’s attempts to come to terms with who his father is and what he went through. At one point, the beginning of chapter two of the second book, Speigelman reflects on the parallels directly. I’ve included the panels here. It’s a pivotal moment, when he steps out of the story of the Holocaust and into the emotional travails he’s experiencing.
The narrator must come to terms with his father’s life. It is his moral need. It is what drives the story forward, and it is why he told the story to being with. The framing device becomes more important to the development of the characters in the story than the flashbacks to the Holocaust.
The story meets the Standard.
Artistically, Speigelman uses a compelling device. He draws the Jews as mice, the Poles as pigs, and the Nazis as cats. But these simplified characters succeed in drawing us in and distancing us simultaneously. The simplicity of the animal faces, all indistinguishable from the next, allow for immediately recognition and projection, much in the same way Scott McCloud’s narrator in Understanding Comics works. However, because everyone looks like animals and because we are inundated with names and genealogies and neighborhoods, we are pushed away from the individual characters so that while we seemingly experience their horror firsthand through the story, we are kept just far enough away that we aren’t consumed by it.
He does a neat trick in the second half of the book. At the point where his father died, he begins to draw people wearing the masks of the animals he previously drew anthropomorphically. We’re pulled out of the story in the same way Speigelman was pulled out of it himself through his father’s death. While the original technique resumes as he wraps up his father’s tale, the reader is supposed to feel an emotional break. From this point on, it is about “absolution,” as Speigelman puts it in the story. This story has to be told. If only for the teller.
The thick lines of the art and the cross-hatched background gives a heavy, dark, foreboding feel to the entire story. In fact, we can juxtapose this with the art style of “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a short story Speigelman wrote in 1972 as a reflection on his mother’s suicide. The linework is tighter, thinner, with more backgrounds and human-looking characters. It is meant to draw us in to directly experience it. Perhaps this difference is due to Maus actually being Vladek Speigelman’s story, and not Art’s. The narrator is already one step removed from the events, whereas in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” he is experiencing it firsthand.
All these artistic techniques not only tell the story appropriately and with a great sense of craft, they also tie directly into the plot and themes of the book. Nazis are cats killing mice. People wear the masks of animals later in the book when the metaphor is jarred by Vladek’s death. Take away these artistic techniques, and those events lose their resonance.
The art meets the Standard.
And the fact it won a Pulitzer means it meets the historical standard without any further elaboration.
Maus is a pivotal work, one worthy of our Canon. In fact, it is a shining example of the craft and art of comics combining into something that transcends the medium.
So, these are our first two members of the Canon: Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman. These are creators who have tackled massive literary themes and innovated the medium and pushed its boundaries to new levels. I’ve only scratched the surface. I wish I had more room to talk about Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, the Hernandez Bros. or Charles Schulz or Kyle Baker or Dave Sim – believe me, I know there are many, many more creators and many, many more works to talk about, but if we’re going to start this discussion, we’re going to start here.
And with superheroes.
No matter how hard we try to rise above it, no matter how much weight we try to give more literary content, we still live in a world of superheroes. And as foreign to human nature as the genre appears to be, it still has a fistful of merit. In our next edition, I’ll talk about the three most critically acclaimed superhero comics – The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Kingdom Come – and their ability or inability to rise to the Standard. And this will be the moment I piss you off. At least I hope it does. I certainly pissed off the guys at my local comics shop.
My standing invitation still, well, stands. If anyone reading this has anything that would lend itself to supporting this discussion, let me know, be it obscure works, essays buried in old issues of The Comics Journal, or ancient texts written in dead languages. My library is not exhaustive, nor is my wallet, and anything that will help us build our Canon would be appreciated.
Thanks! And I’ll see you tomorrow.
Eisner, Will. The Contract with God Trilogy. W. W. Norton. ISBN: 0393061051
Speigelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Pantheon. Reprint edition. ISBN: 0679406417
As before, thanks to Paul Hanna, for applying the editorial standard and helping me to give my arguments added depth.
Scott O. Brown is a comics writer, editor, and publisher. He lurks underground consuming toxic levels of caffeine and information. You can find him online at http://sobstories.blogspot.com/.
2 Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury won a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 1975. It was the first comic strip to be honored with one. But I’m not talking about strips yet. We’ll get to Doonesbury eventually.