Eisner at the ToonSeum

As odd as it may seem, Pittsburghers can find a slice of the Big Apple in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh until May 27.

This is because the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh’s museum of cartoon and comics art, is currently presenting Will Eisner’s New York, a rare collection of original works by legendary comics pioneer Will Eisner. The exhibit chronicles the artist’s informal history of the city that shaped many of his illustrated masterpieces. Simultaneously personal and universal, Eisner’s depiction of New York City captures the nuance that the greatest of biographers are capable of.

The exhibition is curated by cartoonist and critic Denis Kitchen along with comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth; it is presented in partnership with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York (MoCCA). MoCCA had originally organized an Eisner retrospective in 2005, soon after Eisner passed away at the age of 88. Many of the pieces are from this restrospective. The ToonSeum’s display of Will Eisner’s New York is the first time that this particular collection of New York oriented work has been shown outside of New York City.

Considered one of the most important contributors to the development of the artistic medium of comics, Eisner was best known for his leading role in establishing the graphic novel as a form of literature with his book A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. In this work and the subsequent works he created during the ’80s and ’90s, Eisner explored the communicative depths of the medium and laid down a framework for generations of aspiring cartoonists.

Will Eisner’s New York allows audiences to explore the artist’s most intriguing element, the ever-changing landscape of New York City. The exhibit includes over 50 original works spanning Eisner’s 70-year career, each capturing a glimpse of the city’s beauty and squalor. Dense but not overwhelming, the exhibit allows visitors to fully experience the city from pre-Depression to modernity. From immigrant ghettos to claustrophobic subways, dirty alleyways to towering rooftops, ramshackle tenements to grandiose bridges, Will Eisner’s New York reveals the artist’s powers of observation and empathy and, above all, the brilliance of his pen.

An exhibit like this makes it possible for visitors to lean forward and peer at the original drawings and, in so doing, increase their appreciation of Eisner’s art. Getting close to the original drawings, and to such a broad array of them, reinforces the notion of Eisner as a master of this 20th-century art form.

The ToonSeum’s main gallery houses the exhibition and displays it in a concentrated yet uncluttered fashion. A lively jazz soundtrack with pieces by the likes of Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, and Cab Calloway accompanies the exhibit and adds the energy of New York to the halls of the ToonSeum.

Small details in the exhibit like a light post, a fire hydrant, and a manhole cover make for nice touches that embellish the exhibition. These details invite visitors to experience the work viscerally, on their own terms, and to develop their own relationship with the master’s work and with the city of New York.


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