Sunday, March 11, 2007

Will Eisner Week begins!

I've been meaning to do some themed weeks for a while now, so I'm going to kick it off with a look at Will Eisner. I just finished reading The 'Contract With God' Trilogy, and rather than write a single review or something, I figured I would stretch it out into a week's worth of posts about stuff I loved about Eisner. And, serendipitously, it happened to be right after his birthday!

To tell the truth, I haven't actually read a lot of Eisner's works, but that's something I hope to remedy in my continual comics reading. The only comics of his I actually own are the aforementioned Trilogy, and The Best of the Spirit. I've also read To the Heart of the Storm, and probably some other stuff like other Spirit strips. I'm hoping to read more as soon as I can, especially Last Day in Vietnam, Minor Miracles, Life on Another Planet, Fagin the Jew, and plenty of others (recommendations are quite welcome). Who knows, maybe a sequel to Will Eisner Week will be forthcoming!

I'm planning to talk about what I like about Eisner's work over the next week, but I'll start off by talking about The 'Contract With God' Trilogy, since that's what I read most recently. For those who don't know, A Contract With God was Eisner's groundbreaking graphic novel (published in 1978) about life in a tenement building located on the fictional Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx, New York City. He followed it up five years later with A Life Force, and then returned one more time to the neighborhood in 1995 with Dropsie Avenue.

A Contract With God is really four separate short stories in one volume, and it's clear that Eisner is trying to break new ground and tell adult stories. His storytelling is still a little wobbly here, in my opinion, but it's still really arresting stuff, obviously coming from a very personal area. He grew up in a similar neighborhood, and many of the stories are clearly drawn from his memories. The first story, which shares its name with the title of the book, is about a Jewish man who had lived religiously all his life. He immigrated to the US from the Ukraine, and was very faithful to God, having drawn up a contract with God as a child, saying that he would follow God's ways and God would watch over him. At the beginning of the story, the man's daughter has died of un unstated illness. He feels that God has violated the contract, so he begins to live for himself, accumulating riches and giving up his religious ways. It's quite heartbreaking seeing the man's anguish, and Eisner sheds light on this in the introduction, revealing that soon before he wrote the book, his own teenage daughter died from leukemia. Knowing that, it's almost hard to read the emotions that Eisner lays bare on the page. I don't think he gave up his religion like his character does, but it was probably a very cathartic way for him to explore the possibility. Very moving stuff.

The other stories in the book are also quite good. "The Street Singer" is the story of a man who, rather than work for a living, goes around singing in alleys for the change that people throw from windows. Of course, he spends all the money on liquor rather than supporting his wife, and he's not above going up to an apartment if a woman summons him from her window. "The Super" is about a brutish superintendent who lives in the basement of the building he supervises. He ends up falling to temptation after being attracted to the (preteen) daughter of one of the tenants. Finally, "Cookalein" is about the country retreats that families would travel to in the summer. Kids would get up to hijinx, husbands and wives would philander, and young singles would try to hook up with a rich husband or wife. All three of these stories are drawn directly from, or at least inspired by, Eisner's memories, and it's a fascinating look at the past. I love stuff like this. Plus, Eisner seems to really be pushing the envelope, as the stories are filled with violence, nudity, and sex. It probably seemed pretty shocking at the time. Overall, it's an excellent book, but the best was yet to come.

My favorite book in the trilogy is probably A Life Force, which I would compare to an Altman film, as it follows several characters as they weave in and out of each other's lives. Eisner is examining what people live for, what makes them keep struggling through life. The story is mostly set during the Depression, so it's an apt question for the times. The characters live in and around 55 Dropsie Avenue, the same building where A Contract With God was set. The characters we follow include Jacob, an aging carpenter who spent five years building a school for the local synagogue, only to see it get named after the man who donated the money to have it built; Jacob's family, which include his overbearing wife, his doctor son, and his schoolteacher daughter; the Rabbi, who ends up giving Jacob a reason to live when he asks him to build a room for his mentally-ill wife; Elton Shaftsbury, a rich stockbroker who lost everything in the market crash and is forced to work as a "runner"; Angelo, an Italian immigrant indebted to the mob; and young Willie, a teenage stand-in for Eisner that's dabbling in Communism. Not all of these characters interact directly with each other, but they all sort of flow through each other's lives, and we get a real sense of life during the Depression. It's wonderful stuff, beautifully illustrated, and interspersed with newspaper articles telling about the market crash, the harsh weather, and living conditions in the city. Fascinating.

Finally, we have Dropsie Avenue, a 120-year-long story about the origins and changes of the neighborhood itself, from it's beginnings as Dutch farmland, to it's change to high-rise tenements, to it's devolution into slums, to it's eventual destruction and rebirth as a suburban neighborhood, which seems to start the cycle all over. This is some beautiful storytelling as well, as we get a real sense of the geography of the neighborhood; it's fascinating to watch it evolve over time. We see some characters float in and out of the story, including a boxer-turned-civic-leader and an attorney that ends up representing the neighborhood on the city council. We see the ethnic changes over time, as the rich Dutch families give way to Irish immigrants, who end up supplanted by Jews and Italians, who are in turn replaced by Hispanics and Blacks. And, we see the heartbreaking change as the poplulation gets poorer and poorer, with any families with money moving out as "undesirable" elements move in (some of the "evacuations" are due to racism, but others to crime and poor living conditions). As we get closer to the present, it seems like the only residents left are gangs and druggies, and eventually pretty much all the buildings burn down (whether through arson or by accidental means). It's actually really sad to see the decline. Eisner is in total mastery of his form by this point, and he grabs you by the throat and forces you to watch the horrible things happening in the place you've come to love. Very sad stuff, and beautifully done.

So there's my thoughts on the trilogy. Stay tuned throughout the week for my examinations of Eisner's art and storytelling, and other tropes that I see. It should be fun!


  1. I haven't read all that much Eisner apart from the ones you've read, but I will say that I really liked Fagin the Jew a lot; I'd recommend that one. I wasn't as wild about Last Day in Vietnam -- there's a lot of great Vietnam literature out there (not graphic novels particularly that I know of, but other lit) & I don't think that that book holds up all that well.

    Oh, and Comics and Sequential Art is terrific -- a big inspiration for Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and covering similar ground, but very definitely worth reading on its own.

  2. Huh, I hadn't heard anything negative about Last Day in Vietnam before. I'd still like to read it, but I'll keep your comments in mind. I did see Comics and Sequential Art in a store once, and judging by a flip-through, it looked really interesting. I'll definitely try to read it someday.

  3. It's in the second big Eisner book but New York Stories is one of my favorite works by him. It's the comic equivalent of love poems to the New York he grew up in. I don't know if I've ever read any comics that are quite as lyrical as what he did in New York Stories.

    And almost any Spirit post WWII is fantastic. DC's Best of Spirit is nice but if you can find it, Kitchen Sink put out a book called The Spirit Casefiles in the early nineties that I think had a better selection of stories and showed off his artwork better in black and white.w

  4. I'll have to look for New York Stories. I have The Best of the Spirit, but I definitely want to read more of those stories. I was thinking I would pick up some of those Kitchen Sink issues next time the LCS has a back issue sale.