Saturday, February 9, 2013

Review: "To the Heart of the Storm"

Strangely enough, that title has nothing to do with the foot of snow that fell last night. "To the Heart of the Storm" is a graphic novel by Will Eisner, an autobiographical account of growing up Jewish in New York City. It's the only book I've ever successfully gotten the BF to read.

I don't mean to imply that he doesn't read, it's just that he tends to read non-fiction, mostly for his own edification, writing supplemental notes in the margins that bug the hell out of me when I borrow his books. He doesn't read like I do, constantly, compulsively, sometimes painfully, to the exclusion of all other activities. For a while, I had a half-hearted campaign to turn him into me. I gave him books to read, fantasy and horror and superhero, thinking that he surely must be bored with those film and architecture books, and just needed the right piece of fiction to awaken the true book addict that lurks inside everyone. As you might expect, the whole thing went about as well as his attempts to get me interested in classic episodes of "The Twilight Zone." You just can't force your passions on your partner.
You wait to force them on your children.
He's never going to come to ComicCon with me, and I'm never going to get that excited about spending the afternoon in a museum. (It's cold, you can't touch anything without him scolding you, and there's no place to sit down unless you're cheek by jowl with sticky Midwesterners. I don't understand the appeal.) So imagine my surprise when I handed him "To the Heart of the Storm" and he sat down and read the whole thing in an afternoon. I think I've cracked the code: the BF likes Will Eisner.

A note about Eisner: he was a cartoonist and writer, and one of the inventors of the American comic book, creating titles like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and The Spirit, the latter of which has never been out of print. In World War II, he pioneered the genre of "instructional comic," producing booklets for the Army during the war, and for private companies and schools in peacetime. The comic book industry awards are called the Eisners (and Will Eisner actually won several Eisners in his lifetime, which pleases me greatly for reasons difficult to articulate).

This was actually the first work by Eisner that I've read. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that as a comic book fan, because it's like being a film buff without ever having watched "The Godfather." As far as introductions go, "To the Heart of the Storm" is one of the best graphic novels I've ever read, and completely explains why Eisner gets to have the industry awards named after him. It's a deeply personal work that showcases his extraordinary talent for sequential art and writing. It's also a deeply political work about Eisner's experiences with racism and antisemitism as a child, told from the point of view of Eisner as young man on his way to fight in a war that's been brewing his entire life.

What I find fascinating about this book is that Eisner wrote it in 1991, when he was in his seventies.  He'd already lived a lifetime between the events of the book and the time of its creation, and yet "To the Heart of the Storm" feels so immediate and raw, like it all happened to him yesterday. I was struck in particular to the detail he put into his mothers and aunts shoes in flashbacks to their childhoods on the Lower East Side in the late 1890s and early 1900s. And there is such an overall feeling of sadness and anger over the whole work, a helpless and confused kind of anger that only children, with their limited understanding of the world, are capable of feeling. This enormously successful man, having proved all detractors and tormentors wrong decades before, still felt the pain of being called "kike"; of pretending to be gentile so he could go to parties in middle school; of hearing his so-called friends supporting Hitler's actions against the Jews. It never stopped hurting.

I would recommend this book to--well, anyone. It's suitable for children as young as ten or twelve, no swearing or nudity. Even people who don't normally read comic books will appreciate the work of this master of the form. And if being racist knocks you down a full letter grade in my system, creating a thoughtful and biting anti-racist and pro-humanity piece must get you bumped to the top in Big Island Rachel's world.

Final Grade: A+. It gets the + because the BF liked it, too.

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