Ican’t really explain why Will Eisner, the man after whom the most prestigious award in comics is named, and who is mistakenly credited with coining the term graphic novel, hasn’t appeared more frequently in this column. It isn’t that Cult Fiction has a contemporary bias; books older than several of Eisner’s works have appeared in it. Nor is it that this writer doesn’t like Eisner’s work (he loves it). Like I said, I can’t explain it.
Eisner was a true comics pioneer. In the 1930s, he founded a studio that created comic books for other publishers. Jack Kirby (Eternals) and Bob Kane (Batman) worked for him and urban legend has it that Eisner rejected a draft from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that would go on to become Superman. In the 1940s, Eisner created The Spirit, a crime-fighting superhero. In the late 1960s, he turned to more serious subjects and a more realistic style, birthing, in the process, graphic novels.
My favourite story by Eisner is a sort of a graphic novella, called Sanctum, which is from a book called Invisible People. It was first published in 1992, although its style is reminiscent of an earlier period. Like many of Eisner’s works, Sanctum is set in New York (Eisner himself was born in Brooklyn). Like the other stories in the book, it is about invisible people who account for the majority of the population of any large city. Sanctum’s hero is Pincus Pleatnik, a quiet man who leads a quiet solitary life. One day, he reads his own obituary in the paper and fights a losing battle to prove that he is, indeed, alive. The two other novellas in Invisible People, The Power and Mortal Combat, are good too, but it is Sanctum that stands out.
kaesque: Sanctum stands out in Invisible People.
There’s a Kafkaesque strain to Sanctum, but it isn’t overdone; Eisner wields a subtle brush.
I also think this book is a must-read for anyone interested in literary works about New York. It would fit in beautifully between books by Damon Runyon and O. Henry. In 2007, W.W. Norton put out a collected volume of Eisner’s New York graphic novellas, Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City. The book collects stories from Invisible People and four other books.
PS: Although the term “graphic novel” had been around since 1964, when it was coined (or at least popularized) by Richard Kyle as a better description of more serious comics, it was the publication, in 1978 of Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories that ensured it entered mainstream vocabulary. The cover of the book advertised it as “A Graphic Novel”.
PPS: Eisner died in 2005.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to him at email@example.com