By MARTHA H. KENNEDY
When Will Eisner published his groundbreaking book "A Contract With God" , which consists of four long stories told in expressive illustration art with caption text and speech balloons, he coined the term "graphic novel" to describe it. Since then he has published 16 more.
A legendary master of comic book art and visual storytelling, Will Eisner captivated an appreciative audience with his lecture on the graphic novel on April 1 at the Library of Congress. The sizeable audience consisted of Library staff, local cartoonists, aspiring cartoonists, and devoted readers of Eisner's books and comics, both young and old.
Jeremy Adamson, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division, introduced Eisner and noted that he is one of the most influential comic book artists of all time. The division and the Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon co-sponsored the public program.
Eisner asserted that the medium of comic sequential art can be a powerful vehicle for storytelling that has literary merit. He observed that the graphic novel, which he also described as "the literary form of comics," has reached a critical threshold of recognition and acceptance as a "valid, legitimate medium." Predicting that "from here on in you are going to see people like me or Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware, or other people who have literary bents, begin to write in this medium and master it," he conveyed optimism about the future of this contemporary art form.
The graphic novels of today evolved in part from early wordless books of woodcuts, wood engravings, and cartoon drawings. Eisner showed slides of images selected from these books—which included "Passionate Journey" (1921) by the Belgian artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972), "Gods' Man" (1929) by American graphic artist Lynd Ward (1905-1985), and "He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel" (1930) by cartoonist Milt Gross (1895-1953)—and commented on visual connections between images in short sequences from each book.
He also showed examples from his own graphic novels, "A Contract With God," "To the Heart of the Storm" (1983) and "New York: The Big City" (1981), and discussed how his artistic approach evolved.
Eisner remarked that he was pleased to accept the Library's invitation to speak and have an opportunity to promote the inclusion of graphic novels and comic books in libraries. He emphasized the important role of librarians in setting standards, "because their selection of books tells you what they regard as good, [and] tells you what is good. Those of us who are working in their field are constantly in search of approval … most of us … want approval more than we want money. We like to have money because it's a sign of approval, but what we really want is approval."
The Prints and Photographs Division mounted a small display for the lecture of original drawings and a print by Eisner, examples of his graphic novels, and early graphic novels from the Library's collections. The artist recently made a wonderful gift to the Library of original drawings that he created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11; they were published in anthologies of 9-11 related comic book art.
Members of the audience asked Eisner questions about his working materials and methods, favorite artists and graphic novelists. One of the last came from a young man seeking advice for those wishing to enter the field. Eisner replied, "I wish I could give you a magic formula, but I can't. …You have to decide early on that you're willing to risk rejection. It's a great field to work in, but you've got to stick with it, like anything else."
Martha H. Kennedy is a curatorial assistant for Caricature and Cartoon in the Prints and Photographs Division.