Novel November

To the Heart of the Storm

by Will Eisner

Reading Review by Michael Channing

To the Heart of the Storm by Will Eisner

Will Eisner is the grandfather of the graphic novel. He was one of the first to drag the medium of comics out of the four-color, square-panel funny pages and superhero ghetto that many people still believe it belongs in. After helping invent the superhero genre with "The Spirit," he chose to give up detective tales and focus on more down-to-earth stories involving regular people. The themes in To the Heart of the Storm are typical of Einser's work: poor folk living in New York tenements, antisemitism, class boundaries, family, memory, childhood, history. His pages are not sliced into panels. He takes exactly as much space as he needs for each scene. Sometimes panels blend into each other, smoke from a character's cigarette in one panel flowing up to become the border of a previous panel. Each page is a thing of beauty.

The book is told in flashbacks. As he travels by train to his departure point for Europe in the early days of World War II, Will stares earnestly out the window, and what he sees through the glass reminds him of his younger days. But his thoughts are not wistful remembrances of brighter days. These vignettes are based around the theme of racism and prejudice. Willie is beaten by a neighborhood boy for being a Jew. We see a Russian Jew's business burned to the ground. We overhear conversations among Willie's friends about shunning those of certain religions, ethnicities, or nationalities. In their own lengthy flashbacks, Willie's parents tell of being stereotyped because of their backgrounds or financial statuses. When his aunt comes to visit with her new husband, the brute mocks their Judaism with such an egotistical air of privilege you want to smack some sense into him with a ball bat. Willie's dad, having come to America as a painter from the artistic Eden of Vienna, is again and again denied his dream of being an artist and railroaded into one proletarian job after another. At times, his father seems like a broken man, marginalized because of his religion and caught in a hand-to-mouth loop of constant poverty. Whenever it looks like his life is going to change for the better, his dreams are crushed and all progress is stonewalled because poor people don't matter, and poor Jews matter even less.

The microcosm of Willie's life is mirrored by worldwide events. On the train in the book's present, another soldier wonders aloud how any army could win a war made up of men like them: a cartoonist and a Turkish newspaper editor. The editor says those are the types who always fight wars. And, of course, the war they'll soon be training to fight was sparked by Hitler's extreme hatred of the Jews and the seemingly easy-to-sell theory that they are the root cause of all of history's problems.

Eisner does seem to be asserting the idea that small prejudices lead to larger conflicts. As he's reliving his personal run-ins with racism, he's on a train hurtling in a straight line toward genocide. All the tiny hatreds, the whispers and bullyings, the private clubs and segregated neighborhoods, gather and compress into one huge boulder of ugliness and threatens to crush all of mankind. As goes one street corner in the Bronx, so goes the rest of the world.

Willie's father teaches him a lesson early in the book. After a fight with one of the boys in his new neighborhood, that boy's own dad demands an apology from Willie's dad and threatens to beat him up. So Willie's dad gives in. He doesn't fight, he just surrenders. "You're bigger than me," he tells the angry father, "so there's no question you'll come out the winner. Let's declare you the winner right now." Are we meant to think of Europe and America's acceptance of Hitler's attack on Poland? Perhaps. It's certainly telling that when the draft starts up, Willie does nothing to avoid it, while his dad married his mom in an effort to gain deferment during the WWI draft. After witnessing all the petty local hatred, Willie decides to face global antisemitism head on. The injustices we allow to pass now will only strengthen and return to devour us in the future. The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

Will Eisner saw comics as having the potential to make complicated topics accessible to all. He used simple pictures to tell complex stories. He knew that before you could delve into deeper levels of storytelling, you first had to understand the surface. Comics is the perfect medium for that. Anyone can look at a comic book and gleam some of the story from just the illustrations alone. That's why it's been treated as children's literature since its inception. But comics can tell all kinds of stories: adult stories, kids' stories, histories, fantasies, fiction and non-fiction alike. You and I know that now, but it took pioneers like Will Eisner decades to lift the art form out of the vaudevillian clown act and place it on the bookshelf next to Moby Dick where it belongs.

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