Christopher Couch

University of Massachusetts, School of Visual Arts, and Trinity College

A Father’s Memory: Vienna, Architecture and Religious Painting in Will Eisner’s To the Heart of the Storm

Will Eisner’s 1985 graphic novel To the Heart of the Storm is a multigenerational narrative set in a framing device—the protagonist, twenty-year-old Willie recalls his childhood and adolescence in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of the Bronx as he rides troop train to basic training during World War II. Several chapters of the novel included the recounted memories of other family members, including his mother and father. In a lengthy series of striking, black-bordered pages, the father Shmuel recalls his youth as an artist before World War I in a Vienna of cafes filled with sparkling conversation and opportunities for young men, including Jewish teenagers, to participate in the arts. As Shmuel gains an apprenticeship with a painter of Christian images for Austria’s churches, Eisner contrasts the open, lively streets of Vienna, with the dome of the Hofburg palace looming above the city, with the closed, dark studio dominated by the vast canvases for which he is only allowed to grind paint for his employer’s use. As war approaches, the forms of architecture and painting and the formal means of Eisner’s graphic style parallel the growth of fear and prejudice in the Austrian capital, leading to a final break with the painter and emigration to America. Later, the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan form a new background to Shmuel’s artistic life as he becomes a painter of scenery for the Yiddish Theater. Eisner’s vision of New York as setting for the play of Yiddish culture later finds a final echo as the son becomes an artist in the new world of comics.