Here are short takes on some paperback reprint volumes from Norton’s Will Eisner Library.
The Dreamer (amazon)
This is a short graphic novel that serves as a fictionalized autobiography of Eisner’s early years working in the comics industry. There’s an extensive section of notes on the back that explain some of the events and provides thumbnail biographies of many of Eisner’s fellow cartoonists who make appearances in The Dreamer. This comic provides a series of brief sketches of the rough and tumble world of the early comics business, with underpaid artists, opportunistic businessmen, and problems with printing presses. Eisner doesn’t shy away from portraying his analogue as naive. While Bill E remains steadfast in his dreams to follow his artistic ambitions, he’s not great with women.
The Name of the Game (amazon)
The focus here is on three generations of Jewish families, all striving to better themselves through advantageous marriages. The upper class Arnheims in New York marry to get access to more money while the midwestern banking Obers long for big city society. Money definitely doesn’t bring happiness. Even when Rosie, the third generation Arnheim, rebels and decides to marry a poor Polish poet for love her marriage ends up turning into a parody of her parents’ relationship. Sometimes I thought Eisner had too much story for the space of the comic format, he solved this issue by incorporating blocks of text that were interspersed with the comic panels, providing additional information about the characters. I was interested to read about the class distinctions between Jews that came to the United States from different countries.
Will Eisner Reader (amazon)
This volume collects short stories that provide a sampling of the variety of Eisner’s work. A man is forced to retire and move to Florida by his daughters, but retirement isn’t what he expected. A hapless detective makes a bargain with a suspicious man. There’s a short series of gags about people having issues with telephones. Two mob assassins end up in the same retirement community, but age may have dulled their capacity for murder. While this isn’t the most cohesive collection of Eisner’s work, it provides a quick overview of many of the varied themes he explores in longer stories.
To the Heart of the Storm (amazon)
In this autobiographical work a Jewish soldier named Willie thinks back on his past and the struggles of his family to make their way in America as he journeys to fight in World War II. His parents came from vastly different backgrounds. His mother was an undereducated orphan, forced to work as a housekeeper for her older sister. His father studied painting in Vienna, but his education doesn’t leave him with a good feel for business. The family constantly moves around different neighborhoods in New York, each time facing new struggles to assimilate as they encounter their non-Jewish neighbors.
I think it would be impossible for someone as prolific as Eisner to always match the level of a classic like A Contract With God. While these volumes might not reach the heights of the book that is sometimes called the first graphic novel, slightly less than classic Eisner is still well worth reading. I tended to enjoy the more autobiographical works like The Dreamer and To the Heart of the Storm the most because there was an element of realism present that anchored the stories. While Eisner is sometimes accused of sentimentality, I don’t think sentimentality is out of place when reading works that provide a glimpse of the past. Any library with a Jewish studies collection should consider adding The Name of the Game and To the Heart of the Storm to their collection.
Review copies provided by the publisher.