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Will Eisner: Dedicated Genius or, Why You Should Get to MoCCA

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Coming up on its 10th year in existence, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) is a great space in New York City, just below Houston on Broadway, devoted to “the collection, preservation, study, education, and display of comic and cartoon art.” On display through June 30th is the legendary Will Eisner’s work in an exhibit entitled, Will Eisner’s New York: From The Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel, curated by Denis Kitchen, publisher of Kitchen Sink Press, and comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth.

Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Will Eisner forged a revolutionary career in the comic book industry that spanned nearly 70 years. He’s responsible for setting many precedents, among them owning the copyrights to his work and coining the term “sequential art.”In his interviews, Eisner often mentioned the influence books in his life. On his official website he’s quoted as saying that his “first true literary influences were the stories by Horatio Alger.” Alger was a 19th-century American author of teen fiction who wrote about the merits of hard work and honesty. Growing up poor in Brooklyn, it’s easy to see why Will was taken with the down-and-out kids guaranteed success through determination.

What he saw in the stories was an “average person triumphing against obstacles,” a theme he deliberately used in his own work. Alongside these stories for boys, was his insatiable appetite for gritty pulp magazines. Cheaply produced and full of exploitative genre fiction, pulp publications were at their peak in the 1920s and 30s, with the most popular often selling up to 1 million copies. They were available on every newsstand, inexpensive, and instrumental in Eisner’s sense of storytelling.

In addition to an innate ambition, Eisner had the good fortune of attending DeWitt Clinton High School, which I believe was located in Hell’s Kitchen during his years there. The school still ranks high on the nation’s quality education lists and counts among its alumni the famed photographer Richard Avedon. While at DeWitt, Eisner illustrated many of the school’s publications, art directed its magazine, and created stage designs. Of his education he said, “it would be hard for me to overstate the depth of the effect my high school experience had on me. It meant everything to me, and in large part was responsible for the person I became and continue to be. I had the opportunity to try so many things, to find the things that suited me the best.”

Surrounded by other creative types, while there he teamed up with a classmate to created an intentionally pretentious literary journal with the intentionally pretentious sounding name of The Lion and Unicorn. Producing the magazine, a mixture of art and writing, came with a valuable lesson. To print the artwork using metal plates would have been too expensive so he learned to use cut wood engravings. Eisner said, “it taught me the value of learning to work in other media” and later shaped his pedagogy. During his later years teaching at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan he would tell his students “not to resist dabbling in other media,” saying that “they all have value.”

A pivotal moment in Eisner’s direction as a professional artist occurred one summer when he joined the Art Students League, an art school in New York whose former students include Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock. It was there that he studied under well-known artists. At the age of 19, after leaving the school, Eisner joined an advertising department of a New York-based magazine but soon left in favor of freelancing and working as a printer’s assistant.

During this time he approached Jerry Iger, the editor of a the short-lived magazine Wow!, which included comics in their issues. Turning down an offer as Iger’s assistant, preferring to draw comics rather than attend to administrative tasks, Eisner published a few features with them. Four issues later, after the publication folded, Eisner, still 19 years old, approached Jerry once again. Sensing a shared vision for the future of comic books, he suggested they become business partners in a studio. There they developed and produced work for pulp publishers, still a large market but at that time facing a decline in popularity, and built enough of a name for themselves to begin creating stories for the first comic book publishers.

Eisner was developing a reputation for himself, not only by producing material on time, a feat that required incredible dedication given the amount of work the Eisner-Iger Studio was creating with a small staff, but also for being one of the most talented artists in the business. It wasn’t long before he was approached by one of the leading comic book publishers, Everett “Busy” Arnold, to come up with a comic strip for newspaper syndication. The only problem was, it would be a full-time gig and he would need to leave Iger.

After settling the sale of half the business to Iger and after securing the unprecedented demand of owning the copyright on his new creation, Eisner went to work creating The Spirit, a 7-page insert about Denny Colt, a vigilante fighting crime on the streets of Central City. “I had at last struck a new market … a comic book insert for Sunday newspapers … that had never been done before,” he later said in an interview with The Comics Journal.

There was one stipulation, it was 1940 and Superman had just come out about 2 years earlier. The newspaper industry, seeing the Sunday section as a service for popular demands, craved superheroes; The Spirit leaned more towards realism but to appease the editors’ desire to adhere to the new fad, Eisner gave Spirit a mask.

His approach to writing the new comic was innovative and drew upon his beloved books. About his vision for the series he said, “what I originally wanted to do was a straight detective character that would give me room to do stories. I was interested in the short story form, and I thought here at last was an opportunity to work on short stories in comics. I could do the stories I wanted, because I was going to have a more adult audience.” The short stories of O. Henry and Ambrose Bierce were his literary inspiration. It was “the twist endings, the surprise endings” that formed his story arc and, as for his philosophy, “The Spirit, as I saw it (and as I saw comic books), was nothing but a series of short stories. They were the pulps in visual form.”

Back then, and continuing into today, there are two categories for comics, strips and books—Eisner straddled both genres expertly.

In 1942 Eisner was drafted into the Army to fight in World War II. This interrupted his work on The Spirit but did not end the series itself. He’d worked with a number of artists, most notably the cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer, to produce the story and left it in their hands until his service ended in 1945. While in the military, as was known to happen to talented artists, Eisner created posters, illustrations and strips for the troops, both to entertain and educate. Eisner continued this work with the military when, in 1951, the army publication PS magazine was created. For 20 years he served as its Art Director.

After his service ended, he picked up The Spirit from the artists who had kept it going and for the next 12 years, Eisner used the strip to play with form and content, pushing his craft to heights that would inform his later work. For the structure of the stories he experimented with song and poetry; for content he explored the lives of common people as well as themes in science fiction.

Just as he paved the way with The Spirit, Eisner once again proved himself an astute businessman, rightly predicting a new opportunity to push the genre forward. In 1978 Eisner released  A Contract with God, a collection of four semi-autobiographical stories set in a Bronx tenement. He’d originally wanted to publish the book with a major house in New York, calling the president of Bantam Books directly, but when he got him on the phone it occurred to him that if he said he had a “comic” to show him he wouldn’t get through the door. Instead, he used the term “graphic novel”. The publisher took a look at Eisner work and told him it was a comic and to try a smaller publisher. He might not have gotten a deal with a major house, the book was ultimately published by a Baronet Books, but he did expand the notion of cartoon art, creating a story and format that appealed to a population of aging comic book fans.

The book was a commercial success and because the cover of the paperback edition said “graphic novel” it’s often thought that Eisner coined the term. Luckily comic book fans do not shy away from research; so in 2003, when TIME magazine ran a feature on graphic novels as a way of celebrating the 25th anniversary of Eisner’s book, a reader wrote in with the history. It turns out the term first appeared in November 1964 when critic Richard Kyle used it in a newsletter to members of the Amateur Press Association. TIME ran this response:

Eisner acknowledges that the term “graphic novel” had been coined prior to his book. But, he says, “I had not known at the time that someone had used that term before.” Nor does he take credit for creating the first graphic book. Eisner admits that, “I can’t claim to have invented the wheel, but I felt I was in a position to change the direction of comics.” TIME.comix’ argument is that Eisner’s book, published outside the comic book system and pretty clearly the first comix work deliberately aspiring to literary status, by having the term on the front cover, crystallized the concept of a “graphic novel.” But the matter is clearly open to debate.

Comic-world squabbles aside, it’s undeniable that Will Eisner pushed boundaries, created standards beneficial to artists, and forged a creative path for future generations of cartoonists. When you go see the exhibit at MoCCA, because why wouldn’t you?, it’s important to view his work as the grand accomplishments that they were and not just as the masterpieces they will always be.

Eisner On Art and Writing:

To achieve the name, or to be worthy of the name, of creator, a man should be both writer and artist. Now, he doesn’t have to write with words. After all, [Diego] Rivera and [Jose Clemente] Orozco were making murals which, as far as I’m concerned, were vast pieces of writing, because the painter had an idea and he was trying to communicate with the people who would ultimately view it. He had something to say. That’s the heart of it — having something to say. The man who sits down and takes somebody else’s script and merely renders it into pictures is doing something, and I don’t withdraw from him what is his due. I can only measure him by the contribution he’s made to the script. He is going just so far, but he has a limitation. [Salvador] Dali is a writer-artist combination.”

—Interview in The Comics Journal

Eisner’s Legacy:
One of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after him. Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comi-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics convention.

Eisner in Pop Culture:
Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is based in good part on Eisner.

Will Eisner’s official website
Documentary: Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist
Interview with The Comics Journal
MoCCA events
MoCCA classes
MoCCA on facebook

Written by Gabrielle

April 26, 2011 at 9:05 am

Posted in art

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must-see :: norman rockwell

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the tattoo artist / norman rockwell / 1944

norman rockwell’s illustrations are known by almost every modern american born before 1985. his style, sentimental to the core, along with talent, are what carries his work through the day.

while rockwell’s paintings most certainly have their own allure, what interested me about the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, something i’d never known, were the photo shoots he’d arranged in order to have stills to reference—one of the building blocks to his hyperrealism.

rockwell would choose his models from friends, family, and neighbors; he’d once said, “I paint human-looking humans and professional models just don’t qualify.” he selected his participants not just on appearance but also their ability to perform and smile on cue. although the camera’s shutter was ultimately snapped by one of his hired photographers, gene pelham from 1939 to 1953 when rockwell was based in vermont; then bill scovill from 1953 to 1963 when rockwell first moved to massachusetts, and finally, the longest serving assistant, louie lamone from 1953 to 1977, also based in massachusetts, it was rockwell who set the scene, showing the models sketches of the poses and then acted them out to make sure they had it right, and setting the camera angle as well. even with all his elaborate efforts to create the photos, rockwell felt as if he were cheating and often felt guilty.

authenticity was important to the artist and would travel, within the US and abroad, to get the right setting for his paintings. one advertising assignment mentioned at the exhibit that sounded interesting was his work for Pan American, the international airline. apparently the job didnt go so well for rockwell. here’s what he had to say in his autobiography:

“And then there’s advertising. and my most disappointing fiasco. A few years back Wally Elton, a vice-president at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, asked me if I would like to go around the world for Pan American Airways. I would visit all the major cities at which the Pan American clippers landed and make sketches. When I returned the sketches would be published as advertisements for Pan American.

“I [assumed] that he wanted me to sketch the people I saw and the strange sights, sort of get the flavor of the cities we passed through. And that’s what I did. In Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Istanbul, Beirut, Karachi, Calcutta, Benares, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Hawaii. People from bullfighters and priests, to snake charmers, monkey tamers, Arabs, and Geisha girls. Scenes from a fountain in Rome to a camel-elephant-water buffalo-bicycle-and-beggar-thronged street in Karachi.

But when I returned home and submitted my sketchbook it was rejected. Oh, I did a few ads. Nothing to justify the time and money which had been spent, though. Because the agency and Pan American did not want pictures of the strange lands and people. “Those would only frighten tourists,” they said; “we want pictures of smart-looking tourists sunning on smart beaches in front of smart hotels.” But that’s not the kind of picture I can do. So I did nothing.”

adapted from: my adventures as an illustrator: norman rockwell (an autobiography) / 1995

marriage counselor / norman rockwell / 1963

this exhibit is running until april 10th. jump on the 2,3 and head to the brooklyn museum stop.

[big moments] ::
1894 : born in new york city
1916 : first cover illustration for the saturday evening post
1963 : ends relations with the saturday evening post
1978 : dies, age 84, stockbridge, massachusetts

[sources] ::
rockwell exhibit page at the brooklyn museum

brooklyn museum

Written by Gabrielle

January 5, 2011 at 6:06 am

Posted in art

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