New York: The Big City (1981), page 6. Will Eisner.
Will Eisner’s transition from superhero comics production lineman to game-changing action comics auteur to early master of the graphic novel is really something of a stunning career path when you think about it. It happened over such a long period of time that it isn’t seen as the kind of bold, unexpected move David Mazzucchelli’s sudden dismissal of Marvel heroes for one-color art comix is; but past Mazzucchelli there isn’t really anyone else who’s had a career in comics that traced so many disparate paths. Imagine, for context, Bryan Hitch cranking out Blaise Larmee-esque underground webcomics 10 years from now, or Jim Lee announcing his intent to take the reins as the new artist of Prison Pit.
What’s really stunning about Eisner’s many transitions as a comic book maker, however, (and let’s not forget his extended sojourns as a professor of comics and an artist of sequential-art instruction manuals for no less an institution than the United States Army while we’re at it) is that he never really reinvented the wheel, instead following a remarkably smooth and consistent progression from project to project, gig to disparate gig. The Mazzucchelli comparison is useful here as well: While even the smallest traces of the superhero artist who drew Frank Miller’s “Born Again” are barely visible in the work of the graphic novelist who gave the world Asterios Polyp, this page from Eisner’s early-’80s graphic novel prime is immediately, firmly recognizable as the product of the same hand that created The Spirit more than 40 years prior. More impressive still is the way Eisner uses the same bag of tricks he assembled in his decade as the auteur of a weekly (weekly!) superhero comic book on this little slice of understated, observational “serious” comics.
Eisner’s approach to that staple of action comics, the fight scene, has been incredibly influential (and occasionally downright ripped off) in the decades since he first brought it forth, but nobody could ever do it quite like he did. The acme of the approach is leaving the figures alone, allowing their actions and interactions the reader’s full attention while paring away any and all excess visual information. It works so well in Eisner’s comics for a few reasons. First is his almost preternatural understanding of gesture: it’s been stated enough times to fill a dictionary that Eisner’s way with expressive body language was influenced by a childhood spent around the Jewish theater, but what’s important is that no one before Eisner and very few since have been able to isolate every theatrical flourish of a character’s physical form at its apex, every action at the height of its motion and its distortion of the human figure. Each shot on this page is as much an action shot as anything out of The Spirit, centered fully around the particularities of a figure in conflict — but here the figure simply takes out and flips a coin, and the conflict is not that of man and man, but man and drainage grate. A reach into a pocket becomes a bowlegged contortionist act, and a shrug of the shoulders something out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Not only does Eisner find these expressive moments, he amplifies them with a cartoonist’s eye for subtle exaggeration, the simplicity of his straight-on framing pushing the eye to a greater consideration of the facial expressions, wrinkled drapery, and scattered accessories that emphasize the anatomical basics of each movement. Though the single figure’s motion is meticulously tracked over the course of these twelve panels, with each body part and prop assigned a new role in every panel, some action to perform between every picture, this is far from animation. Rather than using comics to create a perpetual-motion machine, Eisner creates picture after fully developed picture, with the figure enacting a completely different gesture and emotion in each. It’s just done so smoothly and consistently from frame to frame that the motion is tangible nonetheless.
Ever the educator, Eisner treats this page as a strict lesson in formalism, stripping away all but what is absolutely essential and then blowing it up to proportions that can only be described as cartoonish. Comics art at its best is always a dance between minimalism and maximalism, and that relationship between the two is expressed beautifully here, a simple truth to go with subject matter that in lesser hands would be banal, but here becomes something to be pored over and marveled at.