Some would call comic books a guilty pleasure, a childish entertainment meant to be put away by mature adults (or at the very least, packed away neatly in sealed plastic bags as a bankable investment). And then there are those who can't help themselves. They never quite leave behind that shadowy neverland hovering between pictorial art and storytelling. They're comics fanatics; they're Harvey Pekar wannabes; they're nerds by any other name who live to debate the finer points of inking styles and graphic statements.
The latter group no doubt includes Simon Zalkind, the wonderful gallery curator at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, who unabashedly declares his love for the medium. On Thursday he'll cut the ribbon for No Joke: The Spirit of American Comic Books, the latest in a long line of interdisciplinary arts projects he's mounted at the center. No Joke features a major exhibit of comic-book art that spans the genre's history from the seminal superheroes to underground comix, a sideshow of a mural by local comic artists, a panel discussion and a film festival. The enterprise gives new credence to the medium hiding in so many people's closets.
Zalkind has left few stones unturned, but his true coup might be his opening-night guest speaker: octogenarian Will Eisner, a grand old man of comic books, whose innovative vision of what the drawings could be opened the gates for hundreds of artists who followed him.
Eisner says he drew his first strip while still in high school, but he aspired to be a painter, a fine artist, as well as a writer. "But my painting ability was not level with my writing ability," Eisner reminisces, "and in my case, two ineptitudes made one big eptitude." He forged on, powered by his admiration for American classics and short fiction, pulp magazines and such early graphic storytellers as Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates. Eisner published his first comic in 1936 and eventually opened a prosperous comics studio -- but he wanted more. He wanted to create something more literary, something with an adult appeal that the typical Superman comic lacked back then.
"You really had to be wedded to the field," he says. "Comics were a despised art form; oil painting was fine art, and below that came the etchings, and below that came woodcuts, and finally, just above graffiti, there wewere." In 1939, Eisner got the chance to put his concept to work: He was asked to do a sixteen-page insert for a syndicate's Sunday supplement.
"It was a big decision I had to make -- to leave a successful company -- but they offered me something I couldn't resist," he recalls. "They offered me an adult audience. Here was my chance to fulfill my belief that comics were a literary form." It was then that he created his enduring character, The Spirit, a dashing and mysterious force of good to oppose evil, inspired by the Dashiell Hammett ethos and drawn with an atmospheric panache. In spite of having to make a few concessions -- primarily, the tall, handsome Spirit's signature mask and gloves, which made do as a "costume" -- Eisner succeeded. "I was certain by 1941, '42, that I was astride a medium that was a true literary form," he says. The strip ran every Sunday until 1952.
Eisner's work went through a revival in the mid-'70s, when he coined the term "graphic novel." While he was pioneering that form, underground cartoonists were also on the rise. That group, and their well-rounded progeny working today, exacts praise from the 86-year-old Eisner: "It proves I was right all along." Walk through No Joke, and you'll get his point.