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The Dreamer
by Will Eisner
Published by DC Comics; $7.95 USD

During the depression, a young man pursues his dream of becoming a cartoonist. Where many dreams have gone on to be sacrificed, compromised, or long forgotten, the reader knows that this particular dreamer will not only achieve his ambitions, but change his artform forever. This is the strength of Will Eisner's The Dreamer, but also its greatest weakness.

Billy Eyron is our dreamer, and he is the down on his luck, hopeful cartoonist that serves as a stand-in for Eisner himself. (Although this wasn't obvious to me at first, as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear to any reader with a basic knowledge of Eisner and early comics that it is in fact an autobiographical story, and the photo of Eisner on the back, taken in 1941 all but cinches it). Eisner is no stranger to autobiographical and semi-autobiographical work, and creative ambition is a pet theme of his, but this is the first time I've seen him actually address his own experiences within the comic book industry in such a frank fashion. Rife with insight, he recounts tales of a young depression era cartoonist struggling to make an honest living with his craft, and we see him squirming under the morality of the industry (he rejects work on "Tijuana Bibles," pornographic comics featuring copyrighted characters like Popeye and Blondie at the cost of his job, but he later produces a book which he knows to be a knockoff of Superman,) as well as going into detail about the actual printing processes and depression era economics. It seems likely that Eisner referenced bank books and even personal notes he kept during the events of The Dreamer to specifically nail the exact profit margins.

The exactitude of The Dreamer often proves to be its undoing, as much of the character material seems to have been squeezed out for a more rigid exploration of exploitation and industry politics. This being Eisner, however, the work is still fantastic. There is a surprising amount of information, both factual and emotional in the book's 44 pages, and I just preferred the character stuff to the nuts and bolts of the industry. The strength of the book is that it humanizes not only Eisner, but other comic legends as well. Eyron introduces us to thinly-veiled stand-ins for creators who worked in his shop, important figures in their own right, and, through the use of brief asides, shows how they have measured up to their own expectations in life and art. Not all of them hold their comica work in the same regard as Eyron, and although this sequence is brief, it is the most resonant part of the book.

Best of all, however, is that the sad eyed yet hopeful protagonist lets us see the depth of Eisner's talent. The early photograph on the back allows the reader can compare his true physical self to his cartoon avatar on the page, and it reveals the true strength and purity of Eisner's craft.

When reading an Eisner book, it is easy to overlook his remarkable innovations, if only because there are so many, and the visual language he uses is often dismissed as merely style. It is, however, much more than that. With The Dreamer, a minor work, both in length and ambition (compared to the rest of Eisner's tremendous output), he's off on a creative world of his own. So far out and ahead of anyone else, he uses his unique visual language to keenly observe the triumphs and heartbreaks of life, and the joy of this book is that these observations are not only autobiographical, but historically relevant to the artform in which Eisner has been inconceivably important to. It would be hard to overestimate his contributions to the form, and anything he worked on is certainly worthy of study, let alone reading (with the possible exception of his very early, very commercial work discussed in The Dreamer), and this book is no exception. If you've never read anything by Eisner before, this may not be the best place to start, as it doesn't have the emotional scope or sheer innovation of his more major works, but it is an overlooked gem in the career of a man who changed comics forever.

-- Jef Harmatz



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