From The Comics Journal #279 (November 2006)
Will Eisner’s life and career has been chronicled; the names and dates have been duly recorded; his oeuvre has been assiduously documented; he has been interviewed repeatedly (usually superficially); his work has been reviewed endlessly (and usually obsequiously). He has himself written and drawn autobiographical and semi-autobiographical books. Yet, curiously, he has been the least revealing of artists. His autobiographical works conceal more than they reveal; his public comments were invariably cautious, safe, generic proclamations about the boundless potential of The Medium about which neither elitist nor populist could disagree. His response to art rarely succumbed to personal and idiosyncratic preferences, neither passionate approbation nor animadversion. He played things close to the vest.
Eisner/Miller is a book-length series of conversations between Eisner and Frank Miller, a cartoonist two generations distant from Eisner but, in his own way, widely considered Eisner’s equal. If you thought that 350 pages of conversation between two of the most critically lauded cartoonists of their respective generations would yield an insightful result, think again. But before I get into that, a word or two about the book’s title.
There should be a special hell waiting for the marketing genius who titled the book Eisner/Miller in an attempt to pass it off as the comics equivalent of the now-classic Hitchcock/Truffaut, which it does not resemble in the slightest. This was apparently a deliberate ploy on the part of the publisher and it has worked its magic on comics fans too ignorant to know otherwise. It was touted on Dark Horse’s website by one of the book’s editors, Charles Brownstein: “The book … opens up a new door in comics criticism,” he breathlessly exhorts. “Eisner/Miller brings to comics a tradition that stretches back to Hitchcock/Truffaut.” The blogosphere is nothing if not easily impressionable, so naturally, the website Copacetic Comics Company, under the heading Copacetic Comics Critic, writes: “Anyone familiar with the history of film criticism knows of its most famous interview: Hitchcock/Truffaut. … Well, now the world of comics has an almost identical equivalent in this volume.” Almost identical indeed. The Comic Book Resources website tells us that “Going where Hitchcock/Truffaut…had gone prior, the book adopted a fascinating model of back-and-forth conversation between two iconoclast [sic] creators…” And so forth.
It’s worth remembering that the real title of the book that’s referred to in shorthand as Hitchcock/Truffaut is simply Hitchcock (subtitled A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut). Conceptually, the two books bear no resemblance to one another: Truffaut, who not only was a world-class director by the time he interviewed Hitchcock, but had been a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma in the ’50s, had meticulously prepared questions and carefully structured a series of interviews with Hitchcock, tackling each of his films chronologically. Eisner/Miller is, to put it politely, a freewheeling conversation that careens all over the place with no apparent planning or structure; discussion about Eisner’s work (or Miller’s work, for that matter) is casual, spontaneous and desultory. Truffaut wrote a long, thoughtful introduction to Hitchcock, explicating his (Hitchcock’s) methodology, analyzing Hitchcock’s contribution to film and defending Hitchcock’s reputation — a veritable manifesto. Miller’s introduction is barely 200 words long and reads as though it were written while waiting for a bus — which is criminal considering that Miller had three years to compose it after the interviews were taped and before the book was published. Hitchcock focuses on the aesthetics of one artist relentlessly probed by another artist (it could easily have been subtitled How Technique Becomes Art, which is the overarching subject); Eisner and Miller’s discussion about aesthetics is scandalously shallow. Broadly speaking, one approach is not necessarily better than the other, but drawing a direct connection to Hitchcock/Truffaut in an attempt to add legitimacy to Eisner/Miller is deceptive and does a grave disservice to Hitchcock, which is certainly the superior book.
What advantage — or difference — does a conversation between two artists, or an interview by one artist with another, have over, say, the essay form? What should we expect from the viva voce that is distinct from an artist’s written reflections? First, because it is extemporaneous, the reader is able to see more nakedly how the artists’ thought process works — the connections he makes, how he moves from points A to B to C. Second, the artist may be forced to confront certain questions he may otherwise avoid due to inclination or temperament. Third, there is the frisson created in conversation when two artists bounce off each other that could provoke different perceptions than one would otherwise entertain. Sadly, the book fails, to greater or lesser degree, to exploit any of these potentialities.
Despite the fact that Miller and Eisner knew each other for roughly 25 years and were evidently close friends — Miller refers to him as “my dear friend” in his introduction — they are an odd couple. Aesthetically, they share virtually nothing in common. Miller has expressed himself mostly through the trappings of genre — crime, superheroes, occasional forays into sci-fi — whereas Eisner very purposefully eschewed genre after he ended The Spirit in 1952, and even did his best to skirt genre within the Spirit stories. Miller loves to juggle the outsized pop-cult trappings of sex and violence, the more outrageous and in-your-face the better; Eisner’s forte had become domestic melodrama and generational sagas where physical violence is conspicuously absent. Miller enjoys pushing boundaries and causing offense (if that’s still possible); Eisner has striven for legitimacy among a rarefied cultural elite and frowns upon vulgarity. Miller considers himself more of a popular entertainer; Eisner considers himself a serious artist. Eisner is by temperament or calculation utterly genteel; Miller sees himself as a controversialist and a rebel with all the license that goes with that. (There are convergences: Miller is something of an outspoken activist. Eisner had become a ubiquitous spokesman for comics as literature. They both exhibit a careerist pragmatism, which has yielded critical and commercial success and relative wealth. Both artists are, in their own ways, icons of their generations.) Differences such as these might have yielded a Socratic tension, but instead, they seem to have merely resulted in conversational stasis.
Considering how long they’ve known each other and how much over the years they must’ve talked about the same (or similar) subjects covered in the book (if they talked at all), the conversational dynamic lacks warmth or connectedness. Except for an occasional (and perhaps revealing) lapse on Eisner’s part, they are both unfailingly polite, so much so that they appear to be afraid to ruffle each other’s feathers; it reads more like a conversation between wary professional acquaintances than close friends. Differences of opinion or interpretation are usually defused or smoothed over quickly, keeping any illuminating conflict to a minimum. Miller is full of juice, serving more often than not as the conversational catalyst. His tirades are more exuberant and entertaining than they are thought through, but they are at least full of passion; Eisner’s responses are usually measured, diffident, or downright uncomprehending. It’s a little like Foreman and Ali: Miller keeps pounding away to no discernible effect and usually retreats, exhausted.
The conversations took place over a weekend in May 2002, mostly at Eisner’s Florida home. In a brief note at the end of the book, co-editor Diana Schutz indicates that the manuscript was edited no fewer than five times by every party involved — Charles Brownstein (who was apparently present during the conversations, but is conspicuously absent in the book), Schutz (twice), Eisner, and Miller. It could’ve used a sixth or even a seventh. The book is unusually and unnecessarily padded with thick leading between the lines and huge (and typographically ugly) pull-quotes throughout, so it’s hard to guestimate, but the text probably runs around 50,000 words —of which at least 10,000 are supererogatory. (And you’d think that in three years someone could’ve put together an index!) Although Schutz refers to the effort as “painstaking,” the book reads as if it had been languishing until Eisner’s death — and then rushed out within weeks (it was published just five months after his death).
There are any number of exchanges that are disjunctive, where Eisner and Miller appear to be talking past each other. Take this one where Miller relates a complaint about his and Geoff Darrow’s comic Hard Boiled from a mother who claimed that her 14-year-old had become moody because of having read the comic:
“I didn’t need comic books to be moody!” says Miller. “There were strange chemical changes going on in my body that made me more moody than anything else. [laughter]”
EISNER: Also, you were learning to hate your parents at that point, and you had good reason to do that: the bastards understood you! How the hell do you deal with a parent who understands you?
MILLER: Parents never understand their offspring. But it’s an insipid thing that every generation fears its offspring. Imagine what the [Baby] Boomers are gonna go through when little Johnny turns fourteen and stops liking them.
Apart from Miller’s cliché that parents never understand their kids and his implication that we’d have to “imagine” how Baby Boomers will react to the adolescence of their children — Why do we have to imagine it when in fact they’ve been living through this stage in their children’s lives for the past 20 years? — notice that Eisner appears to be agreeing with Miller’s main point when he states that parents understand their children’s adolescence, which is actually the exact opposite of Miller’s point, which was that parents don’t understand their adolescent kids, and which Miller restates emphatically as if Eisner didn’t just contradict him! This is followed by this sociological hokum:
EISNER: Well, you have the drug business now. Look, that goes on and on generation after generation. The same kind of thing happened in the 1800s, I’m sure, and the same thing’s happening now.
MILLER: I think we’re in for a big wave of it in another eight to ten years. I think we’re in for a major “What’s turning our children into these large things that don’t like us any more.”
EISNER: I think that’s the reason why parents are buying children’s books in droves. The children’s book market is the hottest market around, and it’s because mother and father are both working and want to do something for little Johnny, so they buy him a five- or ten-dollar ‘children’s book,’ which they both love. They think it’s great stuff, they think it’s very clever. What this means to me is that parents are reaching out to do something for their child; they’re feeling guilty because they’re neglecting him, because she’s out working all day and he’s out working all day, and half the kids around are latchkey kids.
Or consider this incoherent and pointless exchange in which Miller asserts that a) the Comics Code was designed to put EC out of business and b) that EC was the best publisher at the time.
MILLER: Didn’t they also just happen to write the Code sentence by sentence to shut down Bill Gaines?
MILLER: But they even prohibited the names of his books! Nothing with ‘crime’ or ‘horror’ in the title.
EISNER; I don’t know. I wasn’t present at the writing of the thing.
MILLER: It seems to me that it was a pretty shitty job, putting the best publisher out of business.
EISNER: Well, I don’t know if he was the best publisher at the time. You call him the best publisher? I don’t know if historians will agree with you.
MILLER: He had the best line out there at the time.
EISNER: I don’t know why you’d call him the best publisher. Is that because he was publishing some of the best stuff…?
MILLER: Because EC represented as high a quality standard as I’ve seen in commercial comics.
EISNER: Well, he had good people.
MILLER: Well, what else makes a good publisher?
EISNER: All right. I don’t know.
MILLER: He published really good work.
EISNER: Oh, no, no — I just challenged why you selected him as the best publisher.
Eisner initially emphatically disputes Miller’s assertion that the Code was designed to put Gaines out of business, then quickly backtracks and says he doesn’t know, then he appears to call into question Miller’s assertion that EC was the best publisher at the time and, upon Miller’s defense of his assertion, degenerates into gibberish. Why would Eisner even question such an obvious observation, other than out of querulousness, how could he imply that historians wouldn’t agree with it when historians have, by and large, done just that, and how could he even bring up such a picayune issue if he himself had no criteria as to what constitutes a good publisher?
(In fact, Eisner is probably correct: contrary to Miller’s assertion, it is unlikely that the Code was engineered to put Gaines out of business. I don’t think Gaines himself believed this. Gaines canceled his horror and crime titles before the Association was officially formed because, Gaines wrote, “I wanted to set a good example to the industry so that others would clean house we could all give comics a good name again.” Gaines felt that other publishers should have canceled their crime and horror comics as well.)
Or consider this instance where Eisner again understands Miller to be saying the opposite of what he actually says:
EISNER: What strategy would you recommend for a young cartoonist coming into the field today?
MILLER: I can only talk about what worked for me, and one method is to establish yourself in comics with work-for-hire, get the name, and then parlay that into a place in the field.
EISNER: You’re saying to a young writer, first become Ernest Hemingway, then worry about the deal you make?
MILLER: No, I’m saying do a bunch of work-for-hire, get the largest possible audience, and …
Or this achingly convoluted advice to young cartoonists breaking into the field:
EISNER: But now, the guys who tell me they’re writers … I advise them to find an artist and then bring in samples. To artists, I tell them to find a writer. The team idea, I believe, is a very good way of getting in. The best comics are made when the writer and the artist are in one body. But short of that, from a practical point of view, the best way of getting started in the field is to create and publish your own stuff. The reality of today’s marketplace is that the average publishing house is buying a huge amount of stuff. You’re not going to be able to write and draw comics in enough volume.
Apparently, no one noticed that this “advice” bounces from the achingly banal to the contradictory and that the last three sentences, taken together, make virtually no sense.
There is an art to editing a transcribed conversation. The editorial question usually boils down to how much fidelity to retain and how much of the transcript to clean up, make coherent and more comprehensible — deleting false starts or rhetorical mishaps, smoothing over transitions, rewriting inarticulate passages, clarifying garbled speech, or just getting rid of dull cul-de-sacs, which there inevitably are. Too much of the former — fidelity to the conversation — can lead to an unreadable sprawl, too much of the later — editing — can bleed the transcript of life and verisimilitude. There are arguments for leaving a transcript pretty raw. From a journalistic or historical perspective, perhaps, one may wish to immortalize the distinctive and idiosyncratic interactive rhythms of the participants and lay naked the cogency (or lack of cogency) of their thought processes. I rather doubt that editors as reverential as Brownstein and Schutz and who saw this as a comics equivalent of Hitchcock/Truffaut had that latter strategy in mind, though, so how to explain the inclusion of such embarrassing exchanges? Oddly, too much of this book is alternately dully sterile on the one hand and jaw-droppingly incoherent on the other.
Partly, at least, it appears as though neither of the participants were comfortable enough to discuss contentious issues with sufficient depth or honesty. Miller is (or fancies himself to be) a fire-breathing radical inveighing against the comics-industry status quo as well as past injustices; Eisner is clearly conservative by temperament, skeptical of radicalism and too entangled in past injustices to often take a stand one way or another. And the relationship between them is such that Miller is usually (but not always) deferential when push comes to shove. This is perhaps illustrated most vividly in chapter 20 (“Bitterness and Backstabbing”) when Miller brings up the imbalance between publishers’ power and creators’ prostration before it, which Eisner somewhat tepidly deflects, and which Miller pursues up to a limited point but not beyond it.
Miller asks Eisner how publishers like Harry Donenfeld (DC’s owner in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s) developed “this intellectual property greed,” to which Eisner posits a benevolent evolution of the comics industry’s creativity (culminating, flatteringly, in Miller himself) that added “a dimension of intellect and emotion” to the content: “So the change that has taken place over the years has been the implantation … of an internal kind of growth.” Which Miller counters with the imprecise accusation, “Here again, Will, that’s a very pretty way of putting it, but beneath that, how much backstabbing was actually going on?” Eisner replies rather complacently that “The backstabbing that you’re talking about was the name of the game in business.” Eisner concedes that Jack Kirby was bitter and that Gil Kane was angry, but he attributes this not to a reasonable reaction to the institutional oppression that kept artists in a condition of servitude but to their own unwillingness to buck the system like he did: about Kane he said, “He couldn’t break out, largely because, like most creators, nobody in the field — no one — ever took a chance or attempted to own their own thing,” a particularly odd comment to make about Kane since Kane is one of the few artists who attempted precisely that, first with His Name Is … Savage in 1969 and again with Blackmark in 1972 (clearly a graphic novel, published six years before A Contract With God). Miller points out that “You owned the Spirit,” but it was only by Eisner’s willingness to suffer the consequences, according to Eisner, that he did: “Yeah, but I was willing to pay for it; I walked away without work.” In fact, he didn’t “walk away without work”; he did well as a partner in the Eisner-Iger shop, sold his portion to Iger for a tidy profit, and struck an advantageous deal with “Busy” Arnold for the Spirit section, all of which he owned, including the strips he supervised that were written and drawn by other creators.
Miller in his provocateur mode can at least offer opinions and theories that one can entertain, challenge, or refute — which is, or should be, in a book like this, what it’s all about. For example, he believes (as nearly as I can tell) that mainstream creators suffer from a sense of shame, inferiority or self-contempt.
“This sickness [of the profession] is self-contempt. I am the young puppy of a certain generation that started becoming a force in comics in the ’70s and ’80s, but I still see the industry of comics hobbled by the sense of worthlessness that thinks of the medium as a genre that’ll be shaken off over time. It still amazes me how deep-rooted it is. …What I’m saying is that comics has this history of shame. I just wonder how much poison was left in this system during the ’50s. The Comics Code still hangs over us like the Sword of Damocles. It won’t go away.”
Provocative enough, but is it true? I doubt it. If you read the interviews with mainstream comics creators in Wizard or on the Internet, or the voluminous blogs, rants and screeds of mainstream creators — usually easily found on their very own websites, each devoted to the creator’s singular genius — and the response of their obsequious fans, you’d conclude that mainstream comics creators are bloviated megalomaniacs who consider themselves the center of the pop-cult universe and think their fans are hanging on their every self-important opinion. Self-contempt would practically be a virtue compared to the incessant self-mythologizing of their fans and the preposterous self-regard in which the creators hold themselves. As for content, it would appear that the Comics Code is the last thing on the minds of creators who have so sexualized the superhero genre, for good or ill.
Another of Miller’s hobbyhorses is that comics is an intrinsically outlaw medium:
“It’s interesting that there have been a few times that there’s been an overt movement in comics, and it’s always coincided with them getting in a little bit of trouble. Look at the ’50s, and then look at the ’60s when the undergrounds came out. They were the cause of much consternation because they were vulgar, they were obscene, they were sold in head shops. In both cases, they were creative triumphs precisely because they were outrageous and daring, which is what I think comics are made to be. I think there’s something outlaw about the medium that’s gotta be who we are, and the worst thing we’ve ever done is sanitize ourselves.”
Typically, Eisner responds by saying that “That’s an interesting conclusion to a series of facts that I think is worthy of talk” and then proceeds not to talk about it.
This observation is too self-aggrandizing by half and doesn’t hold up to historic scrutiny. First, EC wasn’t a “movement” by itself, its quality was relative to the rest of commercial comics at the time, and was achieved despite of rather than because of this vulgarity; most horror and crime comics that were giving comics its “outlaw” reputation (if you want to put that spin on it) were not so much “outrageous” and ‘daring” as crap, pure and simple. Kurtzman’s war books were probably the best of the EC line with the SF titles coming in second, which is to say the quality was in direct inverse proportion to their vulgarity or their ability to disgust middle-class sensibilities. The undergrounds were a movement of sorts, but they were no more offensive than rock ’n’ roll had become by then, catered to ‘heads’ and were largely ignored by the middle class. More instructive is the fact that the current graphic-novel boom is the stepchild of the undergrounds, but their success in such mass market outlets as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon is not due to their outlaw status as much as it is to their gentrification. Sin City is hip.
Notwithstanding a few such rhetorical grenades, the conversation is remarkably staid, and that part of it devoted to art and aesthetics meager and, mostly, arid. Miller’s most consistently repeated aesthetic imperative appears to be fun, which is usually closely allied to or not far from that of money-making, as in (referring to his Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again): “I had a fun story and I didn’t want to come up with my own [creator-owned] version of a Batman. I might as well play with that toy if that’s what I’m thinking of anyway. And,” he adds superfluously, “I’m being well rewarded for it.” Or, inveighing against the 24-page comic: “…I think that there’s a whole range of fun to be had once we get rid of that stupid pamphlet [format].” Describing his creative process, Miller says, “My feeling is that it’s almost a perfect straight line, with the job getting more fun at each stage.” Asked by Eisner how he feels about his career, Miller replies, “My work’s been a lot of fun.” And on being asked why he would want to make a Sin City movie, the predictable answer is, “It would probably be fun and money.” Clearly, here is a man who likes to have fun. Eisner picked up on this single-minded ethos, and at one point soberly counters: “I don’t do a story because it’s fun to do. I’ve heard you say several times, ‘This would be fun to do’ — but I can’t afford that luxury right now.” Which is a rare but genuine-sounding instance of Eisner letting down his guard.
In his most recent interview in The Comics Journal (January ’06), Eddie Campbell asserts that “Eisner’s critical faculties were alive right until the end.” If that’s true, he kept them hidden throughout this exchange. If anything, Eisner seems oddly disinterested in or oblivious to the cultural or aesthetic details of his profession. Not only does he seem only cursorily familiar with Miller’s work, but he rarely mentions any contemporary cartoonist and on those rare occasions when he does, only superficially and as part of the professional landscape, not as individual artists with distinct styles and approaches, viz., Chris Ware as an example of a successful cartoonist or Bill Griffith as an example of a successful cartoonist whose success he applauds but doesn’t understand. He seems largely insulated from the realities of business and never expresses a strong, articulated opinion about a single cartoonist’s qualities or deficiencies — nothing that would particularize his own aesthetic preferences.
In fact, Eisner’s performance is probably more revealing than Miller’s only because Eisner has always played his public remarks close to his vest, carefully perpetuating his image as an avuncular, modest and even-handed spokesman for a gentle humanist tradition in contradistinction to Miller’s cultivated persona as a controversial rabble-rouser (a role he appears to revel in in this book). To what extent these respective stances are a genuine distillation of their personalities and convictions and to what extent they are PR fronts can never be known, but Eisner certainly reveals a different side of himself here — immodest, condescending and emboldened with a sense of superiority — on at least three occasions. The first and perhaps the most jarring occurs at the beginning of the book, about two minutes into the conversation. They are demarcating their respective places in comics and pop culture:
MILLER: One of the things I like about comics is that they are part of pop culture. I like being square in the mix of things like music and all of that…
EISNER: We separate there because you’re more connected to what’s going on. I’m still reporting, telling stories about the past…
MILLER: I tell stories too, Will.
EISNER: I know you do, I know you do. But I’m talking about — you’re connected with the main flow. I talk about yesterday. … For instance, I talk to people about the institutions of marriage. You’ve got no time for that because the people you’re talking to are not dealing with it. You’re involved in the mainstream. You’re right in there with the excitement of it, and you’re aware of it. I’m talking about, in A Contract With God, man’s relationship to God. The guy who’s reading your stuff doesn’t give a shit about man’s relationship to God. He wants to see whether Marvin kills that son of a bitch or doesn’t kill that son of a bitch, or whoever it is he’s adopted to assassinate or kill or beat up. We’re talking to different people. You’re aware of it.
This dismissal of Miller’s work, bordering on the contemptuous, is almost shocking, juxtaposed as it is with his own high estimation of his own work — exploring man’s relationship with God vs. mindless pulp violence. Miller appears to be fully aware of the condescending dismissal, and it’s enough to elicit Miller’s most contentious response in the interview:
MILLER: Really that was an unfair characterization. My stuff deals with that, too. It’s more than pandering. My stuff is just more operatic than what you’re currently doing. I’m not going to go into a lengthy defense of the complexity of my work, but my stories aren’t just about people killing each other.
Naturally, Eisner’s response is an incoherent retreat, but it’s one of the few instances in the book where Eisner appears to believe in something strongly and doesn’t dance around a subject — until he does. Would that the rest of the book were more like this! There is altogether too little fire or light in these 340 pages, and if not that, what?