Page 45 Review by Stephen
"In life, Willie, like in Art... it is perspective."
At last: for me the definitive Eisner book which packed just as much power on re-reading it this month as it did when I first found myself swept up in 1991 by its humanity, its scope and its masterful delineation. This is comicbook storytelling at its absolute finest: each page is perfectly composed to engage the eye with its variety of form, to delight the eye with each and every curve, and to be one hundred percent accessible even to newcomers. You might notice the relative lack of traditional panels borders, which in the hands of the early Image artists and their even less accomplished acolytes was a catastrophe and cacophony, but in Eisner's hands it's a maestro's melody with a perfectly timed rhythm which allows each individual note to sing or each scene to breathe. It's also operatic, it has to be said, in terms of the melodrama involved. Will was heavily into gesticulation, joyfully exaggerating particularly Jewish body language like the exaggerated shrug as well as the self-pitiful scolding on the part of Will's mother.
It's 1942, The Storm in question has broken. Eisner, drafted, is sat on a train alongside an affectionate, Turkish magazine editor called Mamid. He spends the journey lost in memory, staring out of the window in recollection of where he has come from and what he has seen. So it is that we are shown Will's childhood growing up in the 1930s in New Jersey, Brooklyn and The Bronx as his father, a scene painter trained in Vienna, sets up a succession of businesses with the financial help of his ceaselessly loving brother, and fails each time. Ever the optimist, he refuses to give in while his wife, Willie's Ma, berates and even belittles him, but then as we discover, although his father hasn't had it easy, his mother's had the hardest life of all. It's during those recollections leading up to the moment they met and married not out of love but so that his father could avoid the Draft for WWI (the reason he fled Vienna while other Jews there were prepared to have an eye blinded with a needle just to escape it), that you forget that this isn't fiction, such were the hardships involved: slaving away in the house of her older, manipulative and bullying half-sister whilst trying to keep down a job and constantly springing her vagrant six-year-old younger brother from police jail. After that you certainly understand where she's coming from. As to Willie's Dad, he is a wonder of wisdom (if not business acumen), love and quick-witted debate, meeting hot-tempered bigotry with nimble ingenuity, persuasive charm and an embracing affection which quickly rubs off on the young Eisner, who in one later scene finds a clever way to restore his father's self-esteem as well as the man's worth in the eyes of his wife. Resilience, hard graft and pragmatism are what's taught here, and his father's inability to follow his own creative dreams (not his failure to - his inability under the financial circumstances) makes for a moving comparison with his son's early successes in THE DREAMER.
As much as anything, though, this is about said bigotry and intolerance, in particular anti-Semitism and, yes, even the sort of Judenhass which can make a man hide or even reject his own heritage. Not just from without, either, but even from within for some Jews find ways of aggrandising themselves by looking down on others.
"But they're Jews like you!"
"Not like us!! We are better... we're educated... cultured... We are German Jews, after all!"
Isn't it always the way? This sense of German superiority was witnessed by Will's Dad in Vienna, and is encountered again by Willie himself who has inherited his father's optimism but has yet to share his experience of how dumb the world can be when it comes to organised religion. For around the age of sixteen he makes best friends with a German boy called Butch who is gamely trying not to inherit his father's behavioural traits, and together they build a boat. It's at a wider family picnic, however, that he begins hearing words like "fatherland" and "untermensch", and when he's invited to the graduation party of a girl very keen on him but she discovers he's a Jew... well, what she says is not what you want to overhear by mistake. Most disappointing of all, however, is when he encounters Butch by chance on the city streets just before he sets off to war. By then the Nazi propaganda has done what his father could not, to the extent that he cannot even comprehend why Will would take offence at his blatant, thoughtless prejudice.
An autobiographical piece with just a little licence here and there, more than anything else I take from this a real sense of paternal love, reciprocated by his son, and a new respect for the true meaning of hard graft which Eisner most certainly learned from his father and put to good use in THE DREAMER, into which this dovetails nicely.