San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum sketches out the story of the graphic novel

Will Eisner/Courtesy

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Neil Gaiman and Will Eisner are two well-known figures in comics whose creations have helped lift the medium from a juvenile pastime to a literary and artistic form that appeals to a wide range of people. Eisner, “The Father of the Graphic Novel,” wrote and drew comics that explored the stories of immigrant Jewish communities in New York during the 1930s and 1940s. Gaiman’s “The Sandman” series is one of the most original and innovative comics in the last 30 years, weaving together DC comic lore, world mythology and literary figures throughout history to tell the story of Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming.

Their creations belong to the graphic novel category, which comprises comic books with more of an emphasis on a narrative structure. In contrast to classic comic book series, stories aren’t ongoing in graphic novels; a good example of this is Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

Will Eisner: Father of the Graphic Novel” and “Grains of Sand: 25 Years of the Sandman” are two exhibits on display at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco that celebrate Gaiman’s and Eisner’s creations and take visitors on a journey through the different stories that the two writers have told.

The space for each exhibit is lined with original panels from both Gaiman’s and Eisner’s comics, uncolored and visually stimulating. Eisner’s slice-of-life comics and Gaiman’s multiple collaborators throughout the run of “The Sandman” couldn’t be more different: Eisner is firmly planted in reality, while Gaiman’s art on “The Sandman” ranges from shadow-filled ’80s horror to artist Charles Vess’ fairy-tale inspired scenery, never boring the viewer. Either way, their creations have changed not only comics themselves but also how the public at large views comics as more than just children’s fare.

Eisner, who coined the term “sequential art,” is one of the most revered individuals in the comic genre; not only was he instrumental in popularizing the graphic novel, but he saw the importance of comics as a literary form as well.

His comics spotlight the extraordinary that exists in ordinary life, and that fact is reflected in his art. Panels from his graphic novels “A Contract With God” (his most well-known work) and “Dropsie Avenue” evoke the harsh reality of tenement life in 1930s New York, while the hectic and compacted art of “Life on Another Planet” mirrors the race to get ahold of an alien transmission that could change life on Earth forever. Eisner rarely uses panels to mark the progression of events in his comics — something that visitors quickly catch on to. This emphasizes the “novel” aspect of his graphic novels; his narrative style is unique among comics, even today.

2013 marks the 25th anniversary of “The Sandman,” a 75-issue series that was written by Gaiman but drawn by artists with very different visual styles — if the same characters didn’t show up in each panel of the exhibit, you would assume they were from different comics. That’s one of the things that makes the series so great and makes the exhibit so much fun to wander through — no matter the artist, the tale of Morpheus (or Dream) and his world of The Dreaming, where all beings go when they sleep, is a fantastic journey all the same.

“The Sandman,” like many of Eisner’s works, was instrumental in opening comics up to a more adult audience, referencing literature and mythology while playing with characters from DC Comics’ past. Also on display are original works by different artists that have either worked on the series or are paying homage to it, Gaiman’s original pitch to DC Comics as well as his script for the first issue — all of which provide a glimpse into the world that Gaiman has crafted for us.

As “Will Eisner: Father of the Graphic novel” comes to a close, the artwork and stories on display pave the way for what visitors will see in “Grains of Sand: 25 Years of the Sandman,” and the narrative of the graphic novel moves on.

Contact Youssef Shokry at [email protected].