Get lost, Green Lantern

Ohio State celebrates the man who made comic books respectable

By Jordan Gentile

April 12, 2007

For people of a certain age, a trip to the nearest comic-book store might yield a few surprises.

Sure, they can still find their favorite childhood superheroes decked out in silly tights and spouting clumsy dialogue.

But if they look more closely, they’re also likely to see rows of illustrated novels and short stories (and, yes, even some traditional back-pocket fare) that brim with history, metaphor and social commentary. If they scan the covers of some of these books, they’ll read blurbs from literary giants like Norman Mailer and Umberto Eco. And if they happen to spot one title in particular—Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a Holocaust memoir—their eyes will train on a positively shocking phrase: “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.”

Yes, the storytelling medium that was once considered the bane of English teachers everywhere has become respectable.

Will Eisner, the late, Brooklyn-born cartoonist whom Ohio State is honoring this month with an exhibit at its Cartoon Research Library and a movie premiere at the Wexner Center, is one of the artists most responsible for this shift. The Spirit, his legendary 1940s series, has been hailed as a major leap forward in the way comics are penned, and the long-form stories he wrote and illustrated decades later all but established the graphic novel in this country. Even the comic-book industry’s highest award—the Eisner—is named for him.

“He’s the godfather,” said Lucy Caswell, curator of the cartoon library, where the exhibit Will Eisner: Storyteller is currently on display. “He understood that it was possible to tell stories for adults in this format.”

With the impending release of Will Eisner: The Spirit of an Artistic Pioneer (a documentary about the cartoonist’s life and work that the Wex was given permission to screen on April 19, months ahead of other theaters across the country), Caswell realized it was the right time to create a proper Eisner exhibit at the cartoon library.