N. C. Christopher Couch, visiting Posen professor in the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and author of Jerry Robinson, Ambassador of Comics, will appear at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to talk about the work of Will Eisner, who is often called the Father of the Graphic Novel. Will Eisner was one of the creators of the comic book medium in the 1930s and 1940s, creating The Spirit and many other heroes in the Golden Age of Comics, and pioneering the modern graphic novel with the publication of A Contract with God in 1978. Will Eisner was honored at the University of Massachusetts Amherst with an international conference in 1998, the twentieth anniversary of Contract, and gave his last major public lecture here in 2004, when he publicly announced for the first time the topic of his final graphic novel, The Plot: The Secret History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2005).
Professor Couch’s topic will be “Will Eisner, The Spirit, and the Other.” Eisner has been recognized as the comics pioneer who first recognized that comic books could be an adult literary and artistic medium. Alan Moore, writer of renowned works like Watchmen, said Eisner’s The Spirit “gave comics its brains.” The Spirit (1940-1952) was a comic book series that featured private detective Denny Colt who adopts a secret identity after he apparently dies. As the Spirit, Colt investigated crimes, but Eisner used the series to explore the life and people of New York City, and literary genres from humor to horror to science fiction. Eisner left comics for twenty-five years, returning in the 1970s to begin a series of graphic novels that explored the life of Jewish immigrants in New York and changed the field forever. Eisner also wrote a series of books on creating comics starting with Comics & Sequential Art that profoundly influenced artist throughout the world. The field’s most prestigious awards, presented every year at ComiCon International in San Diego, are named for Eisner.
Professor Couch’s talk will explore the evolution in Eisner’s work with regard to the social and racial other. The Spirit included unfortunate comic characters of African Americans. Eisner made major changes in his comics after his service in World War II, later explaining that he had seen prejudice in the Army and wanted to expunge it from his work. In his graphic novels, he explored racial understanding in New York in fictional works, and then sought to understand and oppose anti-Semitism, particularly in his retelling of Oliver Twist entitled Fagin the Jew and in The Plot, which exposes as a forgery one the most famous and pernicious anti-Semitic books, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pillar of Nazi propaganda.
N. C. Christopher Couch holds a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University, and is the author of numerous books and articles on comic art, graphic novels, and Latin American art. His most recent book, Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics (Abrams 2010), on the artist and humanitarian famed for his Expressionist Batman and creation of the Joker, was a Harvey Award finalist and was featured in a New York Times profile of Robinson. As senior editor at Kitchen Sink Press, he worked with Will Eisner, about whom he has published two co-authored volumes, including The Will Eisner Companion (2005, with Stephen Weiner). He has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study, Dumbarton Oaks of Harvard University, and the Newberry Library among others. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has curated exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History and other art and science museums.
This event, sponsored by the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Posen Foundation for the Study of Jewish Secularism, is free, open to the public, and wheelchair accessible. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 413-545-2550.