Originally published as part of Will Eisner Week 2010, the essay is re-presented here with extensive corrections and edits. The original version has succumbed to link rot and is missing images, etc.
“Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams.”Ivan Chtcheglov, 1953
Birth of the Graphic Novel
With A Contract With God (1978), the earliest trilogy book, Will Eisner, invented a new format: the graphic novel. [ 1 ] The ‘graphic novel’ coinage was a sleight of hand that turned ordinary comics into works with ambitions to become literature. As such, it describes the content rather than a medium. The literary ambition of A Contract With God set it apart from the cheap children’s comic books that dominated the market at the time. Eisner, of course, cut his teeth on comic books, having drawn the iconic and long-running series The Spirit. In creating a graphic novel, Eisner was distancing himself from other comic books and his early work. Nevertheless, new terminology was insufficient to distinguish the work from its cousins, and Eisner relied on several formal and visual inventions to underscore the difference.
The Spirit (1940-1952) superficially resembled most of the comic books on the stands at the time. It mainly consisted of colorful 8-page pulp romps full of crime and violence. However, unlike most 4-color funnies, The Spirit stories were intense nuggets of clever writing, brilliant layouts, and inventive typography; packed with innumerable characters and locations. The density of the art matched the sheer density of the stories. Pages crammed with 9 to 14 (or more!) panels filled with frenetic action, detailed sets, and wrinkled suits.
Defining the Graphic Novel
When Eisner turns to the graphic novel, it is as if he wants to shed the youthful exuberance of The Spirit. The stories in A Contract With God (consisting of four stories, A Contract With God, The Super, The Street Singer, and Cookalein) are drained of color and density. In the first story (A Contract With God), many pages consist of a single beautiful illustration accompanied by a few lines of large text; rarely does a page have more than four panels. To further distinguish this work from his previous endeavors, he frequently eschews the use of panel borders. [ 2 ] The panel border (along with the word balloon) is probably one of the most iconic and recognizable elements of a comic-book page to the average reader. By avoiding its use, Eisner is signaling a break from tradition and the arrival of something new.
The other three stories tend to be more conventional in their use of panels to structure the narrative, but they too feature the frequent use of borderless juxtaposition of images. In the instances where borders and gutters disappear, Eisner’s images begin to bleed into each other, its figures and spaces mix and match into unusual spatial configurations. This new visual complexity appears to be a deliberate counterpoint to the more decompressed narrative. It also hints at a new approach to the visual organization of narrative that Eisner will take up in the future.
All the stories in A Contract with God take place on Dropsie Avenue. Eisner fills this fictional Bronx street with multiethnic (predominantly Jewish) immigrants, desperate criminals, and ragged tramps. Sudden wealth is as possible as an instant ruin. It becomes evident that the book’s real protagonist is the street itself throughout the book. Eisner lavishes attention on its dilapidated buildings, rain-drenched stoops, and moody streetscapes. He is enamored of the urban patina of the place. With each subsequent story, Eisner increasingly uses the street’s architecture as a substitute for the panel border. In effect, he trades the comic-book gutters for the gutters of the street.
In the next book of the trilogy, A Life Force (1985), the exuberance that exemplified The Spirit returns. The pages have more story and more panels. The book has more characters, and their stories interweave more intricately. The complexity of the visuals mirrors the sheer density of the narrative. Eisner continues his experiments with architecture as structure. In A Contract With God, we saw a small glimpse of the possibilities of this approach. However, the street appeared as little more than a theatrical backdrop for the most part.
In A Life Force, Eisner pushes this technique much further. The panel-less ‘collages’ of streetscapes become more daring and inventive—silhouettes of buildings in one image morph into the skyline of another panel. A wall stretches vertically on a page to become both the entrance to an alley and the alley itself. Windows, alleys, balconies, and doorways become panels. The street and the city become the structure of the narrative. Literally! New and complex geography of the city emerges on the page.
In 1955, the Situationist Guy Debord defined psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Debord’s definition is a description of Dropsie Avenue (1995), the trilogy’s third book. If we suspected that the street was the protagonist in the first two books, in the third one, we no longer have any doubt. Interestingly when Eisner finally turns his brush to the built environment, the architecture as structure technique is used less frequently. It’s as if the street, as the protagonist, can no longer serve as the structure of the comic.
In some ways, Dropsie Avenue is the most conventional of the three books. There are still a few bravura juxtapositions, but it generally resembles the average comic book more than the others. [ 3 ] The book makes up for that in spades. Spanning four centuries – it tells the tragic trajectory of Dropsie Avenue – from its early settlement by the Dutch to the neighborhood’s rise and fall and its final transformation. The book is a novel-length version of Robert Crumb’s A Short History of America, where a pristine wilderness turns into a teeming urban nightmare.
In Eisner’s hands, the farmhouses of the early Dutch settlers give way to narrow alleys garlanded with drying laundry, small crowded apartments, dilapidated multi-story tenements presided over by slumlords. Dropsie begins to wither, crack and crumble as its best residents trade the urban neighborhood for the elusive utopia of the suburbs. Eventually, the street succumbs to the Urban Renewal policies of the 60s and 70s [ 4 ] by becoming a series of empty rectangular lots strewn with rubble, a tabula rasa ready to be redeveloped into something new.
Even though the stories are set in Bronx, New York, its most famous borough, Manhattan, is barely mentioned. It exists only as a distant skyline, always looming but mostly inaccessible to the characters on Dropsie Avenue. It is a distant beacon of hope and wealth casting a long shadow on the Bronx. If Manhattan represents the triumphant modern city, Dropsie is its less visible cousin; filled with immigrants and the poor who work to make the glorious metropolis possible.
In the final sequence of Dropsie Avenue, the rubble of the destroyed neighborhood transforms into Dropsie Gardens, A Residential Community. Single-family homes line the streets. Each house has an immaculate lawn and trees dotting the lots. Urban Dropsie becomes a suburb. In reality, suburban growth happened outside of cities, but here it springs in the middle of New York. Eisner’s neighborhood becomes the magical seed of something new. Like one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, it morphs into something else altogether. The Manhattan skyline disappears as if it was never there.
As the city undergoes profound transformation, the characters of Dropsie stay curiously the same. Decades pass as waves of immigrants ebb and flow through the neighborhood. Different ethnicities move in and out, but the tension between the old and the new remains the same. The fear of difference and foreigners animates the stories of the inhabitants. The 19th century resembles the 20th. Eisner avoids the question of the original inhabitants of New York, the Lenape tribe of Native Americans displaced by European colonialism. Perhaps that is the original sin that haunts the tragic streets of Dropsie Avenue. As if the stories followed some grander logic of eternal recurrence. Psychic scars are etched deeply into the geographical area now known as the Bronx. Its stories piled up and stratified into geological layers of meaning. Will Eisner was the cartoon archeologist who excavated a small part of the city buried underneath.
[ 1 ] The term ‘graphic novel’ predates A Contract With God, but the book’s success popularized the term. At its publication (1978), the ‘graphic novel’ was sufficiently unknown and undefined to be considered new.
[ 2 ] Of course, Eisner does not do away with panel borders entirely. He uses them quite frequently, but as a whole, the first story, A Contract With God, feels much more open and less contained than the average comic book. The Spirit occasionally uses similar approaches, but rarely to such a large extent.
[ 3 ] Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that by the 1990s, graphic novels and comics, in general, had achieved significant gains in respectability. In 1992 Art Spiegelman’s Maus was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Creating comic books (literary or not) did not carry the same stigma as before. It was, therefore, a kind of return to tradition.
[ 4 ] One wonders if Eisner had read Jane Jacobs’ The Death And Life of Great American Cities (1961)? Jacob’s description of the life of a city street and her activism against ‘urban renewal’ was very much present in the contemporary conversation.
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