Review: ‘Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist’

The remarkable career of comics pioneer and graphic artist Will Eisner (1917-2005) gets a surprisingly flat recounting in Andrew D. Cooke's feature docu bow. Film incorporates a surfeit of materials, not all of equal interest or strength, and fails to find a visual style worthy of its subject. Still, without reaching the level of genre classics such as "Crumb" and "Comic Book Confidential," this docu still reps a solid introduction for the layman. Eisner's legacy and huge fan base should make the pic popular on DVD and attract attention from specialty fests and broadcasters.

The remarkable career of comics pioneer and graphic artist Will Eisner (1917-2005) gets a surprisingly flat recounting in Andrew D. Cooke’s feature docu bow. Film incorporates a surfeit of materials, not all of equal interest or strength, and fails to find a visual style worthy of its subject. Still, without reaching the level of genre classics such as “Crumb” and “Comic Book Confidential,” this docu still reps a solid introduction for the layman. Eisner’s legacy and huge fan base should make the pic popular on DVD and attract attention from specialty fests and broadcasters.

Asserting that Eisner’s entrepreneurial, literary and drawing skills turned sequential art (i.e. comics) from a pulpy visual format, meant to entertain kids, into a bona fide means of self-expression, docu uses a mix of interviews, artwork and talking heads to trace his 70-year career.

The son of Jewish emigre parents — a dreamy painter father and practical mother — savvy Eisner managed to combine aspects of both to succeed in art and commerce. He founded his own comicstrip production company while still in his teens, and went on to negotiate an unprecedented deal to retain ownership of his most enduring character, “The Spirit.”

Drafted during WWII, Eisner proposed using sequential art as a teaching tool, employing cartoon panels to make dull army manuals more understandable. He wound up seconded to the Pentagon in charge of “Firepower” magazine. Postwar, he brought a new maturity to “The Spirit,” introducing cinematic angles and characters that experienced genuine agony. He also launched the American Visuals Co. to exploit a more didactic use of cartooning, making highly technical material intelligible to the masses.

By the time the industry instituted the Comics Code in 1954, Eisner was a suburban family man. In the ’70s, inspired by the energy of the underground “comix” artists, he changed course again, creating a series of single volumes meant as permanent editions, coining the term “graphic novel.”

The narrative flow of Eisner’s career is weakened by digressions that introduce new talking heads and less potent footage. Among the more interesting detours: a discussion of the way American comics and popular culture were shaped by East European Jewish sensibilities, fantasies and rhythms, and a consideration of Ebony, the Spirit’s sidekick, who was drawn in a stereotypical black minstrel-show fashion.

Filming over many years, helmer Cooke secured the co-operation of Eisner and his wife Ann, as well as the rights to show Eisner’s artwork, homemovies and photos. He also obtained commentary from well-known comics creators including Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, novelists Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut, and a variety of comics historians — in particular, publisher Denis Kitchen.

Tech credits are uneven.

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Production

A Lloyd Greif presentation of a Montilla Pictures production, in association with Comic Book Artist magazine, Schackman Films. Produced by Andrew D. Cooke, Jon B. Cooke. Executive producer, Kris Schackman. Co-producers, Ben Tudhope, James D. Lee. Directed by Andrew D. Cooke. Written by Jon B. Cooke.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Ben Tudhope; editor, Kris Schackman; music, Big Al & the Bop City Band; sound, Alex P. Sullivan, Kris Schackman; associate producer, Ria Finazzo. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Discovery), April 26, 2007. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Will Eisner, Denis Kitchen, Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman, Ann Eisner, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Michael Chabon, Kurt Vonnegut, Denis Kitchen. Narrator: Art Spiegelman.
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