1985: Comics & Sequential Art

Comics & Sequential Art (1985) #1 by Will Eisner.

After advertising this book for years in other Eclipse publication (along with other books that weren’t published), Eclipse finally published the first version of this book in 1985. It’s album sized, black and white, squarebound, and…

… apparently extremely popular. Or Eclipse only had money to print tiny runs every year. The version I have of this book is unfortunately not the original one; this one is published by Poorhouse Press.

I’m cheating on the premise of this blog series! Oops!

Eisner explains the origins of the book: These texts were originally published in The Spirit magazine (published by… Kitchen Sink? I forget. Or was that Will Eisner Quarterly? I’m confused).

But most of all, these were probably written to be used as lecture notes, and the book itself as curriculum at The School of Visual Arts in New York, where Eisner was lecturing for quite a while. I’m not quite sure what the age range of the students there are, but this is a very… how shall I put this politely… dumbed-down book.

I FAILED!

Eisner explains in a common-sense way how to use various elements to build a story and to convey emotion. If the character you’re depicting is angry, do this or this. If you want faster action, use smaller panels. And so on and so on. It’s not that the things that Eisner says sounds like bad advice, but it’s like reading a manual for an auto mechanic: Eisner doesn’t open up possibilities, but seems intent on saying that “This Is So”.

The prose style gets on my tits, too. There’s always an attempt at classing things up. Sure, it’s a book on comics, but it’s “sequential art”. And to explain how time is measured in panels, he naturally brings in the special theory of relativity by Einstein, because, sure! That’s a relevant thing! It’s high class!

About half the pages are like this: They reprint Eisner’s Spirit strips or his newer work, and he explains how much thought has gone into his smart storytelling choices. (There’s absolutely no non-Eisner artwork in this book, which I guess makes a lot of economical sense.)

But his explanations alongside these pages are often more than a little head-scratchy: Here he says that the woman is stabbed in “centered on the page”. I had to get out my slide rule and do some really heavy calculations here, but the stabbing turns out to be not centred at all: It’s below the centre vertically and two thirds to the left horizontally.

How can any student read “is testimony to the discipline and restraint that is required” (written by an artist about his own work) and not want to rebel and leave the SVA class in disgust?

Eisner is so good at finding appropriate things to bring into these notes: Here we have a sentence from Hans Prinzhorn, “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” that’s so… relevant.

I could go on, but I won’t. Lucky you.

I googled around a bit to see what he was like as a teacher. Here’s Ray Bilingsley:

Will was gruff. He wasn’t a teacher that played around. We’d be sitting in the classroom talking and when he came in, everybody got quiet. He wouldn’t say a word. He would walk to the front of the class to his desk and sit down. He would start his lesson and he didn’t care if you paid attention or not. As he would say, he already got paid. He said, you can play around, you can not be serious, I don’t care. I’m here to teach the people who want to learn.

So, just like the book, then.

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