Thursday, December 3, 2009

Profession: Cartoonist (DVD)

“I've spent my whole life working in a medium that was regarded with contempt largely because of historical reasons.” - Will Eisner
You really can't overstate the influence of legendary artist Will Eisner in the artform and industry. His work on both the comics page as a creator and publisher, and as both an author and teacher in the educational realm was and remains the ultimate standard of professionalism, pushing and promoting the genre to previously unrecognized heights. In honor of his contributions and achievements to comics, the Eisner Award, one of the highest awards in the genre, is named in his honor.

Two of Eisner's books, "Comics and Sequential Art" plus "Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative" still remain two of the top five essential, must-have nonfiction guides for any aspiring talent. It should also be required reading to study some of his many graphic novels and comics: from collected anthologies of his classic "The Spirit" and longer works such as "The Building" and "A Contract With God."

The original documentary was filmed first in 1999 by Brazilian artist Marisa Furtado de Oliveira, then when translation of the new version had begun in 2005, Eisner passed away. Image Entertainment began American distribution in December, 2008, and I finally was able to rent a copy locally just this summer, buying a copy for classroom use immediately thereafter.

From a Newsarama review by Steve Fritz:
"An American/Brazilian collaboration, this doc is divided into three key parts; Eisner’s roots and his work on The Spirit, his middle career and move into graphic novels and, finally, a solid analysis of his distinctive graphic style and importance to the industry/artform."
From Diamond Galleries' Scoop review:
"The first of its kind to do so, this three-part documentary dives deeply into Eisner’s life and career, featuring the cartoonist himself demonstrating his talent and technique. Interviews with comic legends, including Art Spiegelman, Bill Sinkiewicz, Denis Kitchen, Jerry Robinson, Ann Eisner, Angeli Guazzelli, Lailson, Mauricio de Souza, Ota, Ziraldo, Jano, and Francois Shuiten are given."
Throughout the interviews Eisner stresses the crucial importance of storytelling in conjunction with good art, and emphasizes the "universal language" of the medium in relating to common human experiences. The wide-ranging needs of the discipline call for pursuing diverse and eclectic knowledge in many fields; architecture, sociology, psychology, physics etc. and especially the study of movement and anatomy - in his words "expressive anatomy" to clearly communicate a character's emotional state to the reader by non-verbal means. If there is one mantra of Eisner's I took away from this movie, it had to be the statement "nothing is done accidentally," which speaks to the level of attention to detail in backgrounds, environments and props, to say nothing of guiding the viewer by deliberately directing through use of symbolic, visual elements. Formal conventions of the craft are discussed such as the perception of time, working with light & shadow, theory & technique and also establishing dialogue with narrative devices such as balloons and lettering.

There is considerable attention given to Eisner's fascinating personal history, including his stint with the Pentagon creating military training manuals and for industrial design, and the film also examines his landmark educational experiences at the School of Visual Arts. With an intimate and casual style of conversation he gives us insight into the practical business side of things such as the habits of responsible professionalism that were as much of a part of his success as his skills at being an exceptionally talented and classically trained artist.

The only drawback to this film is the extremely annoying and clumsy distractions of the animated sequences: the irony of rudely interrupting the narrative flow of one medium (film) while it's talking about the inherent significance of another (sequential art) with a completely different and comparatively weaker third (animation) seems like muddying the water with needless and ineffective flash that diminishes rather than strengthen the films message and delivery.

“All professionals should teach at some time in their career because they are obliged to pass on what they have learned.” - Will Eisner
Eisner describes his process of first writing the narrative, then creating a dummy book with roughs so as to pace out not only individual panels but also the compositional layout of pages, and then begins the penciling and finally the inking
For me personally, the absolute highlight of this film is the chance to actually watch Eisner draw: given that he passed away at the age of 88, he is shown in the documentary at 82, still able to crank out a page a day. Seeing up close the hands of a master working with his brush is inspiring even if it's not in person.

This documentary should be shown in any cartooning and comics class, and I rate it just after two others that I usually put on in the background during open-work sessions: "Independents" by Chris Brandt, 2009, and also the 1996 Al Hirshfeld documentary "The Line King."

An excerpted 3-minute clip from "Profession: Cartoonist" is up on YouTube, and copies of the documentary can be ordered (along with dozens of his other titles and additional samples of work) through his official website. Everyone, regardless of experience or skill level, will learn something from Eisner's work and enjoy this very special film, which is an outstanding retrospective of one of the giants in the field, and a tribute to a true master.
“As for me, I am in pursuit of excellence. I have no time to get old.” - Will Eisner

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