Friday, January 13, 2012

Review #25: Needs More Urkel

A Family Matter

Writer: Will Eisner
Artist: Will Eisner
Published: Kitchen Sink Press, 1998

Will Eisner is a towering giant in the comic book world. He began working in the industry at 19 in 1936 [waoh!] and didn't stop until the year of his death at 87 in 2005 [holy crap!]. Almost 70 years in the biz, ladies and gents. Astounding.

So, needless to say, he had a great deal of influence on comic books. His first notable work was The Spirit [recently adapted into film-form by Frank Miller], a syndicated noir-esque/comical Sunday newspaper strip that originally ran during the 40s and early 50s. The next time Eisner made a major mark on the industry was with 1978's A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, which was one of the first publications to use the term “graphic novel”, and is considered a classic.

A Family Matter takes a look at a family [surprise!] getting together for the first time in years for their patriarch's 90th birthday. Two sons, three daughters, and four grandchildren stuff themselves into one of the daughters' apartment. On the surface, they are [mostly] civil to each other, but they all harbour secrets with varying levels of scandal. I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say some fucked up shit went down.

A good deal of the story deals with the question of the father's failing health and his estate, as some of the less-successful kids are eyeing their inheritance. The money trouble experienced by the family  resonates with today's financially-fucked times, including a bankruptcy subplot with one of the son-in-laws.

Frank Miller drew a lot of inspiration from Eisner, and they share a similar lack of subtlety, though Miller is way more over-the-top in terms of sex, violence, etc. Both of their worlds seem to exist in a  timeless limbo, Miller leaning more toward film noir, while Eisner's stories take place in some kind of permanent Norman Rockwell-esque era, except exposing the dark undercurrents of that “American dream”. To me, Eisner's retro style actually seems slightly at odds with a modern-day setting [one character uses a cell phone, another character mentions sending someone a "letter"] [what's a letter?][just kidding]. Maybe I'm just being nit-picky.

In all the Eisner stuff I have read [not a terrible amount] I have always found they share a simplicity, especially in the dialogue. A certain “gee shucks!” quality, if you will. I will call it “Archie-tude”. I grew up reading Archie, and I have always thought it would be awesome to have a grittier version where the characters deal with real-life problems. Has Eisner created the elusive “realistic Archie” world that I have spent my whole life searching for?

The art is unambitious but effective. It's definitely better than any modern newspaper comic, but nothing to write home about. However, it fits the Archie-tude. I love how he shows the flashbacks simultaneously alongside whatever is presently occurring. One of the children will be reminiscing about the “good ol' days”, while a scene from the past undercuts everything they are saying by revealing the truth of how things actually went down.

So, Eisner's strength isn't really his drawing or his dialogue, but rather, the atmosphere and essence of the story itself. It all boils down to his attempt to grasp the intangible nature of the familial bond. He taps into something primordial: your family is your tribe. Evolution has told us that these are our people and we should take care of each other. I think evolution is right, guys.

I have always been a fan of circumstances in which I am forced to interact with people I would not normally interact with. School is one such circumstance. During high school I had my “inner circle” of friends, people with whom I shared a lot of interests [naturally]. But I also enjoyed being able to interact with those whom I didn't have much in common. I try to be open to all sorts of opinions, and that is achieved most easily when surrounded by a myriad of different perspectives. I mean, yeah, some of these other people I was forced to interact with were morons, but hey, we can't all be winners. And even morons have value: I can examine a moron's opinion, determine why I believe it to be wrong and further enforce my own beliefs. Or, in the case of a non-moron, I can consider their opinion and why it is valid, even if I disagree, and carefully reconstruct my own beliefs accordingly.

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that a family can function in the same way. You may not love them, you may not even like them. But there is an undeniable link, strings of DNA, that tether families together. It is a powerful bond, and it has value, and I think Eisner depicts it well.

Funny fact: Eisner's signature strongly resembles Walt Disney's signature.
Funnier fact: the CEO of Disney from 1984 to 2005 was a guy named Michael Eisner, apparently of no relation. WEIRD!

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