To say that Will Eisner, the grandmaster of American comics, was a prolific artist was a massive understatement: after making comic strips and standalone books for over five decades, he was producing full-length graphic novels well into his 80s. And these were not small projects either: one of them was an Oliver Twist spinoff called Fagin the Jew; it sought to present a sympathetic portrayal of the eponymous character, often cited as the epitome of Dickensian villainy. But perhaps the most flawless work that came out of this late career surge is the graphic novella A Family Matter.
A Family Matter is Eisner’s grim disavowal of “the Norman Rockwell portrait of family life.” Ben, a wheelchair-bound patriarch, is about to turn 90. His eldest daughter Greta (principal caregiver to her father) decides to get the entire family together to celebrate the occasion. But her siblings: foxy and vain Selena, uppity, upper middle-class Molly, metronomic Leo and shamelessly opportunistic Al, are not particularly interested in paying their respects to Ben. Instead, they put their battle faces on, determined to scoop out the lion’s share of their father’s considerable estate.
The first half of the book follows each of these siblings, one by one, as they reveal the principal traits they are guided by: Al is a critique of the post-industrial American male, a lazy drunkard who is hell-bent on getting rich quickly. Molly is deeply insecure about her looks. She is married to a wealthy man and keen to rub this fact in her prettier sister Selena’s face. Selena was once told by her mother that “pretty girls always get by in life” and that she need not worry about her grades. Life throws her a series of bad boys in succession, but she is in denial of the fact that she lacks the skills to make it on her own.
The most powerful sections of the book are the ones that take us back to the siblings’ childhood. We learn that Ben isn’t quite the benevolent patriarch that Greta looks up to, nor was their departed mother a suitable person to raise four children. A shocking sequence from Selena’s childhood, in particular, drives Eisner’s point home.
Much is usually made of the fact that Eisner’s A Contract With God was the first book to be marketed as a “graphic novel”. Eisner himself was cynical about the entire thing, but he said that there ought to be something that distinguished serious, comics storytelling from the 32-page superhero comics that flood the market. A Family Matter is yet another great advertisement for the graphic novel.