I'm not a comic-book reader, so I didn't know much about the subject of Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist before seeing the documentary at Austin Film Festival. I knew he was the creator of The Spirit, a comic-book series that Frank Miller is adapting into a feature film ... and that's about all I knew. Fortunately, the documentary filled in many of the blanks for me about Eisner and provided some interesting details about the artist's life.
Eisner is credited for being one of the pioneers in the comic-book form -- as the film's title indicates, he believed in making the comics sequential, giving them an ongoing storyline, which was not standard back in the 1930s when he started work as an artist. His character The Spirit was not a traditional superhero with crazy superpowers, but an ordinary guy in the smallest of masks, who happened to fight crime. During WWII and afterwards, Eisner created military instructional manuals that were drawn in a comic-book style to make them interesting and easy to understand. Later in life, he created more dramatic, personal comic books (A Contract with God) that he dubbed "graphic novels," and paved the way for this type of work to be taken seriously.
One difficulty I had with Portrait of a Sequential Artist was that I didn't always understand the importance and relevance of various interviewers. For example, I had no idea why Michael Chabon was onscreen, having never read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I also wasn't sure why Kurt Vonnegut was interviewed, although he did have good insights and was obviously knowledgeable on the subject. The movie seemed to assume that audience members knew more about the comic-book world than I do; however, that may be a fair assumption, since biopics about comic-book artists may not appeal to a wide demographic. Interestingly, one of the other interview subjects was Frank Miller, who did not mention anything about his desire to make a movie out of The Spirit, but who is obviously a huge fan of Eisner's work.
The movie spent a little too much time on general historical context surrounding various points in Eisner's life. Were the filmmakers assuming that comic-book geeks don't know any American history? It seemed odd and almost condescending. The movie also spent what I considered an excessive amount of time -- two separate sequences at different points in the film -- explaining the possible reasons behind an extremely stereotyped character, the Spirit's sidekick Ebony. The stereotyping is shocking enough to current audiences that they might think badly of Eisner without some historical context being provided, but the film goes overboard, as if it's trying to justify something shameful.
I liked the interviews with Eisner himself (before his death in 2005), but I wished we had seen more of him working on his art, and heard more about how he merged story and graphics. One scene at the end showed him working on illustrations for his last graphic novel. I couldn't help but compare the film to Moebius Redux, which I'd seen a few weeks before at Fantastic Fest. I preferred Moebius Redux because it provided a wonderful sense of the art created by the subject and some of the interviewees. Portrait of a Sequential Artist tells us all about Eisner's life, and shows us his colleagues and friends, but it didn't show you much of the creative process. Again, if you already know about Eisner's work, this may not matter so much to you.
Portrait of a Sequential Artist is a good biography for comic-book fans who admire Eisner or the artists he inspired, and who want to learn more about his life. It did make me want to seek out some of Eisner's work (not that I've done this yet, but I hope to soon), but I felt like I should have brought someone with me who already knew about Eisner or his cronies to act as a kind of translator.