Awhile back I read the classic The Contract With God Trilogy by Will Eisner, which is considered among the first graphic novels written. A fellow blogger, Joshua @ White Tower Musings, read my post and suggested several other Eisner novels for me to read. As I enjoy his thoughtful and well written posts about “the significance of various works of literature, the authors that create them, and some effort to understand correlations between great writing and contemporary events”, I searched out these lesser known works, based off his recommendations. I’m glad I did.
I gobbled up The Name of the Game, as I was quickly swept into the inter-generational family saga that spanned 100 years. Supposedly based off Eisner’s wife’s family, the story shows how class and appearances trump love and common decency. The Arnheim family, who are of German-Jewish descent, establish themselves in New York City and are considered a leading family in the social establishment soon after the Civil War. As such they feel they need to further their personal and business connections by making a good marriage for their eldest son Conrad, the heir apparent to the clothing empire. Looking outside the city, they settle on the daughter of a well respected Ohio banking family, and arrange for her to meet their son. While she is smitten, he is not, and the resulting marriage is an unhappy one due to his wandering eye. The marriage ends when she dies in childbirth, and their daughter is sent to live with her Ohio grandparents. Conrad them marries a much younger woman who is very glamorous, but their marriage is based on lies, and ends up being for show only. While they eventually have a daughter themselves, the family is only worried about appearances. The family name buffers their finances through the Depression, and others fall by the wayside due to Conrad’s ruthless ways, and the Arnheim’s continue to build their wealth. Conrad’s second daughter Rosie grows to adulthood in the counter culture 60’s and rejects the status of her family, and marries a struggling poet. Her husband Aron’s parents are thrilled to be related by marriage to the powerful Arnheim’s, and their status increases due to this connection. While Rosie felt she was breaking out of the confine’s of her upbringing, and embraces her more religious in-laws, Aron ends up joining Conrad’s firm and drags her back into the society she was anxious to escape from. Eisner’s compelling book show how class and culture can mix into a toxic sludge, and the length people go to keep up appearances can strangle out the best of intentions.
A Family Matter was a compact book, and painted a dysfunctional family with broad strokes. It had the misfortune of being read last, so to me it felt like a retread of past stories. Five adult siblings gather to celebrate their father’s 90th birthday, but we find that all of them have their own interests at heart, or have warped relationships with their father and each other. We are introduced to all the siblings in their home environments and also see vignettes of their younger lives and their troubled interactions with their father. Incest, blackmail, marital cheating, abandonment and embezzlement all come into effect in this morality play. The story had a timeless feel, so a panel with a cell phone was jarring, as much of his work is evocative of the 50’s era. The term “A family matter” is hammered in, as to show the familial ties that bind these flawed relatives together. No one has any truly redeeming qualities, and as for the inheritance and status they seek, it is overshadowed by their greed and jealousy. The ending came as no surprise, and the narrative pauses as you know their base instincts will take over, once the shock wears off.
While Eisner can rightly be considered a giant in the comics industry, his work is not without some criticisms. After reading these books, plus A Contract With God, I noticed he has some “types” that he falls back on again and again. There are few to no regular looking characters, for women are either the seductress, the plump mothering type or the the sour matriarch. Men are the good looking blonde never-do-well, the bearded ethnic older man or the bumbling and balding portly man. Families are hard to ascertain by physical similarities, for they go straight from young and thin to old and matronly, and parents and children look nothing alike. I’ve also noticed continuity errors when he spans many years such as when the ages of the characters and what has transpired don’t match. I do have to wonder about his own personal family dynamics, as many of his stories center around maladjusted and broken families.
There are more books by Eisner that I hope to read in the future such as The Plot and The Spirit. Eisner was a pioneer in the graphic novels world, and his timeless pieces show that he was a master storyteller.