Gutter Space #9 by Leslie Salas
Flashbacks in Will Eisner’s A Family Matter
We’re going a little bit old school this week by taking a look a cartooning legend Will Eisner’s A Family Matter.
Before we jump in, I’m going to take a moment to be honest. As you can see by my previous Gutter Space posts, I mostly focus on contemporary (and rather mainstream) American independent comics and webcomics (that aren’t superhero comics—that’s Sean Ironman’s domain). But besides reading the classic American funnies in the newspaper, I wasn’t really exposed to American comics until more recently. I got interested in sequential art by reading Japanese manga. (We can get more into whether or not my obsession with manga may or may not have started with my obsession with Sailor Moon at a later time. See Mark Pursell’s post for a similar sentiment.)
I bring this up because A Family Matter is the first Eisner graphic novel I’ve ever read. And because of the heavy contemporary manga influence in my background, my approach to understanding his sequential art comes from more of an outsider’s perspective.
Over the span of 72 pages, Eisner covers a 24-hour period in what seems like a normal family’s life. We readers get to know each of the family members in the present as they make their way to their father’s 90th birthday party. But we also get snippets of each of the family members’ troubled past with their father and each other through flashbacks. The placement and braiding of these scenes further informs the particular nuances of this family’s dysfunction.
These flashbacks often are presented side-by-side with present action, offering contrast and introspection to the interactions between the family members. The flashbacks are drawn with what seems like a wispy hand, less detailed than the present, with fuzzy shading around them, functioning similarly to thought bubbles. The result is a punchy, immersive storyline that fully engages the reader in the conflict of past and present influencing the future.
A Family Matter is a quick read that exhibits technical mastery in many areas. Boldly inked with soft grey watercolor shading, the art itself is typical of American cartooning in the late 90s. There’s some great work going on here, especially with narrative braiding, but I’m still not sure how I feel about the story as a whole.
Yes, the story is rich with details and provides a thought-provoking ending. There are no captions at all in the comic (except for an epigraph at the very beginning), so the story is driven entirely by drawings and dialogue. The work undoubtedly showcases Eisner as a master of the form, but I still feel like something’s missing—or maybe that it’s trying too hard.
The story itself lacks the complex sophistication of many contemporary graphic novels. It really just feels like a collection of dysfunctional-family clichés. A daughter catches her father with a strumpet and becomes the favorite after she promises to keep his secret. The oldest son becomes an outcast because he refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps. A woman sleeps with her sister’s husband. Everyone has daddy issues, and sucks up to Dad in the hopes that they’ll get a cut of his substantial inheritance. And so on. We’ve heard these stories before.
I’m not sure it is fair to draw this kind of parallel given that Eisner was on the forefront of establishing comics as a long-form medium for storytelling. He practically invented the graphic novel, so of course the medium itself will undergo substantial changes in just a few decades. Were these themes as prevalent in literature in 1998? Probably. But what about in comics? Maybe. But maybe not presented in this manner. And maybe it’s just my MFA talking, being snooty about storytelling quality and what may or may not be considered fresh and literary.
Either way, there are definitely great things to learn from A Family Matter, and I’d certainly suggest it as a good short read. Check it out and let me know what you think?
Leslie Salas writes fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and comics. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute. In addition to being an Associate Course Director at Full Sail University, Leslie also serves as an assistant editor for The Florida Review, a graphic nonfiction editorial assistant for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and a regular contributing artist for SmokeLong Quarterly.