Tuesday, January 04, 2005


A new year in soggy California

Well, Southern Cali is under the fist of a record rainfall - 15 inches or so in the last week - and the world is reeling from the tsunami in Southern Asia. Not so much of a happy beginning to 2005.

Hope anyone reading this had a good one. Mine was chill but fun. Steph and I went out to a nice dinner at Lola's on Fairfax in West Hollywood (the birthplace of the apple martini - and my wife had two of em). It was exactly the kind of evening we were hoping for. The rest of the weekend was equally good - saw Sideways and Million Dollar Baby, both of which are fantastic, and rented some classics.

But amongst all that's going on in the New Year, you might have missed a couple of other items. I thought I'd bring them to your attention.

First the good news - The Rose Bowl victory by my beloved University of Texas Longhorns. In the weeks before the game, half the country bitched about whether the Horns belonged in the game. They weren't for real, I heard. Cal deserved to be there instead. Blah blah blah.

Well, take that. This was maybe the most exciting Rose Bowl I've ever seen. Back and forth action between two of the winningest teams in college football history. QB Vince Young taking the game on his shoulders, Antwaan Randle El style, and running for four touchdowns. Braylon Edwards breaking the record for touchdown receptions in the game. And it all happened on a sunny and cool day in Pasadena, at the granddaddy of them all.

Now, if you're a Michigan fan, well, bummer. But whatever. I'm most decidedly not a fan of the Wolverines, but if they had pulled it out, I would have still found this to be one of the great games. What an amazing battle between two titans.

Screw the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl. Growing up in southern Ohio, the national title was always a bunch of hooey anyway. To me, whoever won the Rose Bowl was the real champ. This year, that's how I feel, too.

And now, after that elation, for the bad news.

Comics great Will Eisner died yesterday, after complications from heart surgery. He was 87. A really good obituary is available at both www.newsarama.com and www.willeisner.com.

Those obits do a better job than I'll do, but I'll throw a couple of words out about Eisner. This is what you need to know. Eisner grew up in the tenements of the Bronx, but as a very young man started one of the first major studios for comics art in New York. He gave guys like Bob Kane (creator of Batman) and Jack Kirby (creator of virtually every major Marvel Comics character - Captain America to the Fantastic Four to the Hulk and so on) their first jobs.

He also was the creator of the Spirit, a weekly comic book character that came in a supplement with the Sunday Tribune newspapers. The Spirit didn't have a flashy costume - he wore a business suit, fedora, and domino mask. He did have a great origin - he was a cop who had faked his own death to stop an enemy from "beyond the grave". Having defeated that first villain, he elected to stay dead. He relied on his fists and his wits.

The Spirit stories are amazing for a couple of reasons. First, as an artist, Eisner was the first comics creator to really inject a cinematic sense of design into the medium. Every Spirit strip looked like it could have been a still from an Orson Welles film. Or one of Fritz Lang's American film noirs. Moreover, the stories were more complex than the average super-hero tale. They had an O'Henry quality to them - focusing on all the denizens of his fictionalized New York. Sometimes they were told for the POV of the villain, or a bystander. Put together, they took on a novelistic form - as if each adventure were part of a greater story about a city and its people.

Later in his career, Eisner was credited with being the creator of the graphic novel - essentially a comic book novel. His book, A Contract with God, was about life in the Bronx tenements of his youth. It was a major inspiration to folks like Art Spiegelman, who has said that he would never have produced the landmark work Maus without Eisner's example.

So amazing was Eisner's impact on this art form that each year, when the comics industry gives out its awards, they're named for him. More than that, Eisner was invited to actually present them to artists and writers each year. As one comics creator said, "When you get the Oscar, you don't get it from Oscar. " The Eisners were different.

Finally, it seems right to put Eisner's legacy in perspective against other artists in other media. Think of it this way. You could argue that Siegel and Schuster, who created Superman, were like Asimov and Bradbury - sci-fi creators who grounded their brilliant work in the human experience.

Bob Kane - of Batman fame - was like Ian Fleming with his James Bond series. Who could possibly be cooler than Batman? Or Bond?

And Jack Kirby was like a Robert B. Parker or an Elmore Leonard - prolific and soulful with great action-filled stories that told us as much about our time as about the plot of the tale.

But Eisner - well, he was like Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald put together. He took an art form that many considered childish and unimportant, and he injected it with a serious artistic and novelistic style. Chandler's novels were about life in LA more than about mystery; MacDonald's were about families destroying themselves. Eisner was like that. He showed us that stories - even four-color ones about masked heroes - have room to mean more to their readers and to the world. His stories are fun and exciting, but they also tell us about the world and ourselves, and about him.

Good night and God bless, Mr. Eisner.

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