Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (2005) is an interesting introduction to the world of comic books and the visual language and emotional power they can have over a reader. Other works on sequential art, like McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics, have been an attempt to break down the form in a way that could be easily understood by many different audiences, and encourage respect for the medium. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art doesn’t attempt to cast as broad a net.
The book is structured loosely around different aspects of comic book storytelling that Eisner sees as crucial. The structure is half textbook and half comic featurette, with thick paragraphs of text followed by pages of Eisner’s comics dissected into their component parts. As a result, the book reads more like a retrospective on where comic books have been than an expansive look at where they are headed. The book does give a competent in-depth look at the logic and pace of older underground comics and provides context to help readers understand the culture that has grown up around Eisner and similar artists.
Eisner’s classic style, full of punchy pantomimes, ink work with heavy contrast, and dripping, floating pen-scratch borders, isn’t representative of the range of comics present in the world today, but his gritty plots and sometimes hysterically dark punchlines made waves when they were first released into the world. Stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, loss, adultery, religion, the banality of urban existence, etc, are all features of Eisner’s work. At the same time, readers will recognize just how large a place misogynistic caricatures, jokes about cross-dressers, and flippantly racist depictions of Arab, Chinese, African and Latino characters had in Eisner’s world. His lack of commentary on the racist and sexually violent moments in his own comics speaks volumes about the landscape of the world he inhabited.
Besides being a tool to gain perspective on the social history of comics, Eisner’s book is also in some sense a useful technical guide to comics as he made them. He shares his perspective on how to convey movement, the passage of time, and emotion in a range of expressive examples. The fluidity of his indie comic stories, full of physicality, floating dreams, and raunchy plotlines, stands as a testament to his generation of artists’ innovation. Readers of this book will hopefully come away with a sense of the excitement and immediacy that the early underground comics movement generated.
Eisner, W. (2008). Comics and sequential art: principles and practices from the legendary cartoonist. New York: W.W. Norton.