Will Eisner’s Narrative Architecture; Notes on The Contract With God Trilogy

will eisner art

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.

Street Life

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.

Invisible City

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.

Eternal Street

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.

Comics & Education: A Comics Renaissance

In my last post I briefly outlined the how comics education worked in the early years of the form. Today I want to start getting into what I think is the next phase of development of the comics medium and comics education.

The initial bursts of energy that created newspaper comic strips (at the turn of the century) and comic-books (in the 1930’s) had dissipated. Since the 1950s newspapers started to systematically reduce the size of comic-strips and sunday sections (as well as more aggressively censor the strips). The formation of the Comics Code Authority after the Senate Subcommittee hearings strangled creativity on the comic-book world. The comics Roy Lichtenstein was appropriating (as mentioned last time) were lowly commercial junk for kids; largely anonymously produced.

Around the same time Lichtenstein was making his comics-based paintings, the art form was rapidly transforming. DC & Marvel were reviving the superhero genre. Marvel’s fresh take on the stale genre was especially instrumental in raising the profile of comics among a young literate college educated audience. A few years later the Undergrounds would emerge and take comics into the taboo breaking territory of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The undergrounds established a link between comics and counterculture which would prove a fertile ground for future innovation. This was followed by increasingly literate and arty comics anthologies, the invention of the Graphic Novel (the term and format), and the independent comics boom of the 80’s (and the great bust in the 90’s). Throughout this time the status of comic-books (and newspaper strips) as a mass medium was slowly eroding. But as the health of the medium faltered, the the health of the art form was undergoing a creative renaissance.

The whole 20 year period from the late 70’s to the late 90’s saw an aggressive effort by cartoonists, writers and publishers to make the case for comics as an art form. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God popularized a whole new book store category: the graphic novel. Hated or loved, this coinage is largely responsible for opening the door for the medium into a whole new market. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Gary Groth’s Comics Journal transformed itself from a fan publication, into a hard hitting magazine with journalistic standards and a much needed critical voice. RAW dragged comics into the art world, and Weirdo tried to keep it low brow. But, both insisted that comics are an art form that needed to be recognized. To list all the great comics from that period would take too long. I listed some of them in the timeline below.

I don’t know much about the state of comics education during that period. I have more questions than answers. I know that Eisner was teaching and lectured on the art form at SVA during the 70’s and 80’s. Eisner’s two books on the medium Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative were born from his academic career. Eisner coined the term Sequential Art, a broad category of combining images with words in a sequence, that includes not only comics, but storyboards, instructional manuals, and others. Eisner:

In general terms we can divide the functions of Sequential Art into two broad applications; instruction and entertainment. Periodical comics, graphic novels, instructional manuals and storyboards are the most familiar vehicles. in the main, periodical comics and graphic novels are devoted to entertainment while manuals and storyboards are used to instruct or sell. But there is an overlap because art in sequence tends to be expository.

The above passage was recently quoted by Kent Worcester along with a another one:

Another instructional function of this medium is conditioning an attitude toward a task. The relationship or the identification evoked by the acting out or dramatization in a sequence of pictures is in itself instructional. People learn by imitation and the reader in this instance can easily supply the intermediate or connecting action from his or her own experience. Here too there is no pressure of time as as there would be in a live action motion picture or animated film. The amount of time allowed to the reader of a printed comic to examine, digest and imagine the process of acting out or assuming the role or attitude demonstrated is unlimited. There is room for approximation and opportunity for specific performances which the reader can examine without pressure. Unlike the rigidity of photographs, the broad generalizations of artwork permits exaggeration which can more quickly make the point and influence the reader.

Kent pointed out that:

It’s not difficult to imagine Eisner making this same pitch to Proctor and Gamble or Pan Am execs, trying to sell them on instructional comics as the way to reach consumers and employees alike. His long career as a visual propagandist – for a certain conception of comics as well as for specific companies and causes – remains an underappreciated aspect of his life and work as a whole. There is definitely a sense in this chapter that he is trying to seal the deal, both intellectually and commercially.

Kent continued on to gently chide Eisner for his narrow vision for the use of Sequential Art. However, if the book is looked at from the point of view of how comics were taught at the time Eisner’s point of view makes more sense. It reads much like a text book which tries to sell students on the usefulness of the skills whey will learn… which are the very skills being taught at SVA and the Kubert School at the time. I assume the curriculum at these institutions still largely focused on turning out technically proficient workers for the commercial print industry. But I wonder what kind of discussions were going on in the classrooms at the time. All the ferment going on in comics at the time must have kicked up some dust at the schools… Some alumni from that time:

  • SVA: Peter Bagge, Kaz, Mark Newgarden
  • Kubert School: Rick Veitch, Stephen R. Bissette

It’s also no surprise that Eisner himself has built his career by created the very items (periodical comics, graphic novels and instructional manuals) he names as examples of Sequential Art. The book was published in 1985, and already felt like an anachronism… an artifact form an earlier era. Despite some of the commercial trappings of Eisner’s book, there is a sense of respect for comics and a clear attempt to define the art form as such. This formalization and the coinage of term Sequential Art would become an important milestone. It gave artists, academics, and publishers a term they could rally behind. The term ‘freed’ comics from… well the comics, and all the negative connotations that came with it.

Next up: Scott McCloud, Art School Confidential, and more.


1952. Mad Magazine founded

1954. United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings take place
     Comics Code Authority (CCA) founded

1961. “Look Mickey” painted by Roy Lichtenstein
     Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 published

1968. Zap Comix published

1970. Philip Guston’s cartoon paintings first exhibited

1972. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary published

1975. Art Spiegelman & Bill Griffith’s Arcade published

1976. Harvey Pekar publishes American Splendor

1977. The Nostalgia Journal becomes The Comics Journal (issue #37)

1978. A Contract With God by Will Eisner published (popularized the ‘Graphic Novel’ nomencalture)
     SCAD founded

1980. RAW published by Françoise Mouly (edited by Art Spiegelman and Mouly)

1981. Weirdo published
     The Hernandez Brothers publish Love And Rockets

1985. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art published

1986. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
     Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

1992. Art Spiegelman’s Maus awarded the Pulitzer, the Eisner and the Harvey

1993. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics published

1996. Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative published

Notes on Will Eisner

Will Eisner, A Contract With God

I was asked to contribute an essay on the work of Will Eisner as part of this year’s (2010) Will Eisner Week celebrations. I decided to take a closer look at Eisner’s Contract With God Trilogy. The essay (well… really a series of notes) just got posted. Here’s a short excerpt:

All the stories in A Contract with God take place on Dropsie Avenue. Eisner fills this fictional Bronx street with multiethnic (especially Jewish) immigrants, desperate criminals and ragged tramps. Sudden wealth is as possible as instant ruin. Throughout the book it becomes obvious that the real protagonist of the book is the street itself. Eisner lavishes attention on its dilapidated buildings, rain drenched stoops and moody street-scapes. He’s clearly enamored of the urban patina of the place. With each subsequent story, Eisner increasingly begins to use the architecture of the street as a substitute for the panel border. In effect he trades the comic-book gutters for the gutters of the street.

Read the whole thing here.