HSU professor recounts pivotal Eisner visit as college turns page on comics studies

Will Eisner Week is an annual celebration honoring the life and legacy of William Erwin Eisner (1917 – 2005). Eisner was one of the pioneers of the American comic book industry, and he continued to be a comics innovator across seven decades. 

World-renowned comics creator Will Eisner. | Courtesy photo

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike, in response to Eisner’s 1978 book A Contract with God: And Other Tenement Stories, wrote, “Eisner was not only ahead of his times; the present times are still catching up to him.”

In the late 20th century, Eisner was the most acclaimed comics creator in the world. The American comic book industry’s major awards were named after him. He was regularly invited overseas to give speeches and receive awards. In 1993, perhaps at the height of his renown, Will Eisner visited Arkadelphia and helped launch three decades of comics studies at Henderson State University. Even though I am writing this as part of the March celebration of Will Eisner’s legacy, I really want to focus on May of this year. This May will be the 30th anniversary of Will Eisner’s visit to the Henderson State University campus.

The best part of the visit was that Eisner did not just head back to his hotel room after his classroom visit or public talk. It was a full day-and-a-half of informal and entertaining conversation. Former Henderson faculty member Michael Ray Taylor remembers Eisner talking about how growing up in New York City had influenced his visual style. This prompted Taylor to purchase Eisner’s New York: The Big City, and as well-read as Taylor is he still finds that “its nine graphic chapters remain the most nuanced account of the city and its inhabitants that I have ever read.”

A signed copy of Will Eisner’s New York: The Big City. | Photo courtesy of Michael Ray Taylor

Eisner and I had seen Scott McCloud present a preview of his forthcoming Understanding Comics (1993) at the 1992 Comics Arts Conference. We talked about how McCloud’s book might change our own thinking about the comic form. We also engaged in speculation about where the comics industry was headed. Will Eisner did not think it was going in the right direction.

1993 was a vibrant, and subsequently embarrassing, time in the American comic book industry. In 1992, a number of the industry’s most popular artists founded Images Comics and published comic books that featured their bravura artwork. Wizard magazine, with articles hyping the hot artists and a price guide with grossly inflated valuations, championed the idea comic books were valuable collectables. Some publishers sought to exploit the collectible market with multiple variant covers and “special collector’s editions” with gimmicks such as hologram covers. For a while, monthly comic book sales were better than they had been for years and many new publishers were emerging, but it was a market driven by speculators rather than readers. By the mid-1990s the bubble burst — sales plummeted, scores of comics specialty stores closed, and Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy.

What was Will Eisner doing in 1993? His graphic novel Invisible People, with poignant tales of unremarkable lives ending in death or despair, was published in 1993. In the Reddie Bookstore he was signing copies of To the Heart of the Storm (1991), a graphic novel Eisner described as a “thinly disguised autobiography” examining “the insidious prejudice that permeated my life.” In the evenings at his Caddo Valley hotel he was probably making notes and sketches for his forthcoming Dropsie Avenue (1995), chronicling the lifespan of a south Bronx neighborhood. No flashy covers. No special collector’s editions. Just heartfelt stories told by a man who had mastered the verbal-visual blending of the comics art form.

Eisner was dismayed that so many contemporary comic book artists were simply showing off their talent in splash pages (a full-page panel) and double-page spreads rather than telling a meaningful story. He said something along the lines of “They’re making pretty wallpaper, not comic books.”

While I remember those talks about comics, some who spent time with Eisner remember the culture shock the native New Yorker experienced. Eisner wanted to try chicken fried steak because he had never heard of chicken prepared that way. Others remember being amazed that he was in his mid-70s. While he had “old school” manners, his mind was incredibly sharp and he still had a burning ambition to be innovative. One of his favorite witticisms was that he wanted to win the Eisner Award for Most Promising Newcomer. He was proud of his past accomplishments, but he was always looking forward to what he wanted to accomplish next.

Yet, the radiant memories of Eisner’s visit are darkened by a tinge of sadness due to the current reality.

May of 2023 is not only the 30th anniversary of Eisner’s visit, it will also mark the end the Comics Studies Minor at HSU and, most likely, the shutting down of the nascent Center for Comics Studies. Both the English Department and the Communication Department have been eliminated. Thus, the majority of Henderson faculty who taught comics courses were given a terminal contract or enticed to retire early.

Henderson faculty were among the vanguard that created the field of Comics Studies. HSU faculty taught some of the first for-credit comics courses in the nation and produced some of the landmark works of comics theory. Though the program at HSU is a casualty, the efforts here were not in vain, as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scholars around the world are carrying forward the Comics Studies banner.

Will Eisner was a pretty down-to-earth and pragmatic guy. He seemed bemused by much of the comics scholarship he heard or read, and considered some of it to be downright silly. However, he was delighted that some college professors were recognizing comics, the art form he loved, as worthy of being studied. That is why he took the time to visit the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas – He felt that Henderson was a university that might fully embrace the study of comics in a way that no other American university had yet to do. And, with inspiration from Will Eisner, we did, for 30 glorious years.

Each year, the week of March 6 (Eisner’s birthday) is celebrated as Will Eisner Week, with venues across the globe hosting events. The purpose of the week is not only to honor Eisner, but to encourage a better understanding and appreciation of the comics art form. So, I hope everyone reading this will embrace the (slightly modified) motto of Will Eisner Week: “Read a graphic novel” (or maybe just a comic book).

Randy Duncan, director (for now)
The Center for Comics Studies
Henderson State University

Categories: Voices

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