A review of The Dreamer by Will Eisner

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The Dreamer
by Will Eisner
W.W. Norton
Paperback: 54 pages, Nov 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0393328080

Subtitled ‘A Story from the Birth of Comic Books’, this graphic novella traces the trials and travails of Eisner’s early years, when he was one of a golden few valiantly attempting to forge a new art form. At that time – in the mid to late 1930s – the future of the new medium was uncertain. ‘It’s a fad! Hacked-out art on newsprint,’ one begrudger says here. Elsewhere, we are told that ‘comics are fantasies … dreams made by dreamers’. And there is naught, surely, as ephemeral as dreams?

In essence, we are told the story of Billy Eyron (Eisner’s alter ego, or his not-so-secret identity, to use the superhero cliché), a man and artist in the grip of a dream and a daimon. Despite disappointments and knockbacks, Billy follows his bliss and, eventually, finds a way to eke out a living and make good money by writing and drawing comics. For this ain’t just any old dream, people, it’s the American Dream.

A few points and themes emerging from the story that may be of interest. First, the compromises and difficulties that arise when art goes to market. Many early comic publishers engaged in rather sharp practice, seizing copyright ownership whenever they could, which was often. Second, the genres of the early comics were largely influenced by the pulps which they replaced. I confess that I hadn’t quite realised this, but even the name D.C. (Detective Comics) makes this clear. Recall that Batman was given no special super powers by his creator Bob Kane; he was essentially a vigilante or PI, a kind of super Sam Spade. (And in this respect, the prevalence of modern crime comics like 100 Bullets should most likely be seen as a kind of homecoming.) Third, the very notion of a comic book full of original art and stories, rather than being full of reprints of a strip originally syndicated in a newspaper, was innovative for the time. Never mind the notion of a comic book that might appeal to adults rather than children…

There are six pages of annotations by Denis Kitchen with this edition: they are able and erudite and do much to enhance Eisner’s work, which was originally published in 1986. Kitchen identifies virtually all of the people depicted in the story (including Bob Kane and the great Jack Kirby, co-creator of the X-Men, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four – amongst many other superheroes) and he provides plenty of historical background (and correction) when needed.

As an autobiographical yarn, The Dreamer is well grand. It follows our hero from the dregs of the Great Depression to the start of World War Two. And at panels’ end, little does Billy Eyron know that a Golden Age (for comics, at any rate) is soon about to dawn.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com