Will Eisner: Comics & Sequential Art

 Posted: 2003
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)


Will Eisner is credited by many for the invention of the modern comic book, and of the "Graphic Novel". He introduced and identified techniques and concepts of sequential art that we now take for granted. Well, sometimes we do... after reading this book, it became clear to me that the mastery and creativity that Eisner demonstrated and understood is often far above the mediocre and formulaic books which are churned out on their monthly schedules to meet the undemanding mass-market.

Eisner began drawing comics in the 30's. By the 40's he was clearly becoming one of the key figures in the development of the nascent form of comic books and related sequential art. The stories based around his character "The Spirit" paved the way for the coming generations.

This book describes many of the key techniques that Eisner variously employed, enhanced, or even developed, as he broke new ground in the exciting new medium in which he was such a driving creative force.

First printed in 1985, this classic is now in its 22nd printing, and still going strong. I bought my copy at a mainstream bookstore, but as ever, you'll find Amazon is probably cheaper.

Story Details

It's clear that this book is specifically aimed at those wanting to learn how to write comics. Eisner's desire to pass on his hard-won skills to upcoming generations of artists is clear, and it shines from every page of the book. His passion and commitment to the media of comics is obviously the driving force in his life. Eisner loves comics, and he lives comics. He knows them better than perhaps anyone, and this book is his way of sharing that love and understanding with others.

It's important to clarify that this book is not about how to draw, and will teach you little or nothing about creative writing. The domain of this book is the specific techniques which apply to sequential art... the secrets of the frame, the panel, word balloons, and the mechanisms by which this static media can communicate temporal relationships and project dynamic emotion.

There is no linear path to learning the myriad of skills involved in creating a comic book. Instead, there are a number of areas which much be understood and combined. Eisner separates these topics into the following: Comics As A Form Of Reading, Imagery, Timing, The Frame, Expressive Anatomy, Writing & Sequential Art, Application, Print & Computer Media.

Each of these subjects (except the last) is well-illustrated using excerpts from Eisner's own extensive body of work. The style is similar to a lecture, where the topic is introduced, broken down, and example is given, and annotated to indicate how the theory relates to the practice. The text steers the narrow path between over-simplifying the subject, and esoteric acadamia. In short, the result is an instructional work which serves on one level as practical advice, and on another as a launching point for a more abstract discussion of the deeper, inner workings of the sequential art form.

The last chapter is new to more recent printings. It provides a brief overview of modern forms of comic production, specifically computer-generated comics, and computer-presented comics. However, while the preceding chapters were characterised by Eisner's clear and indisputable authority and understanding, this final section is a little less convincing.

The combination of Eisner's more traditional background, the fast-moving nature of the Internet and computer technologies, and the speculative and forward-looking nature of the whole field makes me wonder if in a few years time that last section will appear very dated. By contrast, the twenty year old main body of the book (and the fity year old examples which illustrate it) seem as irrefutably valuable as they were they day they were written. Still, if anybody has earned the right to discuss the possible future of comics in any form, Eisner certainly has!

General Comments

If you're seriously thinking about writing a comic book or sequential art story, then reading this book will give you a huge insight into the domain you are entering. Furthermore, if you enjoy reading comic books, and want to move beyond the superficial into a deeper understanding of how you are interacting with what you are reading, then again this is the book for you.

This book is a compulsory text for many university, college and art-school courses around the world. It stands alongside Scott McCloud's contributions to understanding of the genre in forming the foundations of the small but valuable library that keep the skills and discoveries of the founders alive for a new generation of creators.

Hey, I'm starting to sound like I own shares in this book! Maybe I should try and find something negative to say about it? OK, let's try this:

After you read this book, you will come to see just how much potential the comics medium truly posesses. You'll realise what creative techniques are available to the writers and illustrators of a comic story.

So how is this a bad thing? Well... sadly, when you put the book down and pick up your favourite brand-X comic book, you'll find yourself looking for these techniques. You may not find them. Modern comics are all too often written to a formula, a timeframe, a budget, and marketing/cross-over commercial demands which frankly don't permit the quality of the story to be the first priority.

I'm not saying this is always the case. The last few years at Marvel have produced a new core of top-quality titles. But as ever, the "90% of everything is crap" rule still applies. When you have glimpsed a little of what makes a good comic book, then the contrast with the bad stuff will become all that more clear to you. Hmm... maybe that's not such a terrible thing after all?

Overall Rating

I had my eye on this book for the last couple of years, until I finally decided to get a copy. It opened my eyes to whole areas of the comic book form. Thanks Mr. Eisner. Five webs.

 Posted: 2003
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)