People of the Book

The cover to the first trade paperback edition of A Contract with God by Will Eisner, published by Baronet Books in 1978 (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

One evening in July, a couple of hundred people gathered in a dark San Diego hotel ballroom for an awards ceremony. At the front of the pop-up tables, a fold-out stage sported a podium that could be quickly wheeled to the next event. A pull-down screen behind sat at the ready to display slides of winners and a commemoration of the deceased.

Meanwhile, overweight older men in Hawaiian shirts mingled at the cash bar with young women in interesting glasses and the occasional sleek-suited up-and-comer, while bland saxophone-heavy public-domain music strained in the background. The presentations for the evening were just as odd an assortment, from the middle-aged artist with a sweet Texas twang who fielded a phone call from a complaining teenage daughter in the midst of his presentation to the actor Edward James Olmos impeccably pronouncing an endless series of Japanese names.

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Truly, only an L.A. funeral could account for such a crazy assortment of characters. But the people in this room and their colleagues had in recent years earned billions of dollars for their companies (and in a few cases done rather well for themselves, too). Among their works are some of the most internationally well-known (and in some cases beloved) stories ever written. In fact, just a few hundred yards from this dingy half-empty ballroom, over 100,000 people had gathered from around the world to celebrate their artistry.

No mainstream press covered these awards; few would even know these artists’ names, or that of Will Eisner, for whom the comic book industry’s yearly awards in comic book excellence are named.

In 1978 Eisner, who was best known in the 1940s and ’50s as the creator of “The Spirit” comic strip, which ran as a newspaper series. wrote and drew the first graphic novel, an extraordinary set of short stories set in the tenements of New York, called A Contract With God. In the title story, a man proposes a deal with God, believing that if he promises to be good, God will always take care of him. All goes well—until it doesn’t. Eisner revealed decades later that the story was his attempt to express the rage and grief he felt over the death of his teenage daughter. He went on to write a number of other equally powerful stories about being human.

The comic book industry uses his name to honor its greatest creations. But on this particular night, the overwhelming majority of the winners are nowhere to be found, and those who are present have none of the polish of their Hollywood counterparts. Shannon Watters, whose cartoony “Lumberjanes” comic book about a group of girl scouts who encounter supernatural phenomenon won two major awards, was so overwhelmed she couldn’t quite stop crying; other winners were shy to the point of practically running off the stage.

But instead of diminishing the moment, all this awkwardness reveals something important and special. At its foundation the comic book business is a community not of shiny-toothed actors and movie execs but of quirky and deeply vulnerable artists who are trying to uncover what it means to be human in word balloons and pencil drawings.

And while for Hollywood “Spider-Man” may be just a property to be scrutinized, “The Avengers” a franchise over which to gush while its actors get stalked by TMZ.com, before all that these and so many other stories we see today on the big screen were tales our parents read to us at night, lands and characters we dreamed of amid nightlights and glow-in-the-dark-starred ceilings.

Wandering through the teeming halls of the San Diego Comic Con next door, you see it in people’s eyes as they come upon someone dressed as their favorite character. It’s not the verisimilitude of costume that grabs them, but that sense of being transported into stories that have spoken to them, worlds not simply of entertainment but of meaning.

“The deep places in our lives—places of resistance and embrace—are not ultimately reached by instruction,” writes the theologian Walter Brueggemann. “Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from our fear and hurt.”

In this cheap, half-empty ballroom, the creators of the next generations of those stories sip watered-down drinks and wait for the awards show to end. It’s not that they don’t want the validation. It’s just that there are characters whispering in their heads, calling them back to unexpected countries of grace and truth.

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