Tom Kaczynski: Notes on Will Eisner's 'The Contract With God Trilogy'

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"Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams"
- Ivan Chtcheglov, 1953.

With A Contract With God (1978), the earliest book of the trilogy, Will Eisner was inventing a new format: the graphic novel*. The 'graphic novel' coinage was a kind of sleight of hand that turned ordinary comics into works with ambitions of becoming literature. As such it's describing the content, rather than a medium. It was the literary ambition of A Contract With God that 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 previously drawn the iconic and long running series The Spirit. In creating a graphic novel, Eisner was distancing himself not only from other comic-books, but also from his own formative work. But, new terminology was insufficient to distinguish the work from its cousins and Eisner relied on a number of formal and visual inventions to underscore the difference.


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for contract-2.jpgThe Spirit (1940-1952) superficially resembled most of the comic-books on the stands at the time. It mostly consisted of colorful 8 page pulp romps full of crime and violence. But, unlike the vast majority of 4-color funnies The Spirit stories were intense nuggets of clever writing, brilliant layouts, and inventive typography. They were packed with innumerable characters and locations. The sheer density of the stories was matched by the density of the art. Pages were filled with 9 to 14 (or more!) panels filled with frenetic action, detailed sets and wrinkled suits.

When Eisner turns to the graphic novel, it's as if he wants to shed the youthful exuberance of The Spirit. The stories in A Contract With God (it consists of four stories, A Contract With God, The Super, The Street Singer, and Cookalein) are drained both of color and density. In the first story especially (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**. 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 it's 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, it's figures and spaces mix and match into unusual spacial configurations. This new visual complexity appears to be a deliberate counterpoint to the more decompressed narrative. It also hints to a new approach to 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 (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.

alife-2.jpgIn the next book of the trilogy, A Life Force (1985), the exuberance that exemplified The Spirit returns again. The pages have more story and more panels. The book as a whole has more characters and their stories interweave in more complex ways. The sheer density of the narrative is mirrored by the complexity of the visuals. Eisner continues his experiments with architecture as structure. In A Contract With God, we saw a small glimpse of the possibilities of this approach. But for the most part, the street appeared as little more than a theatrical backdrop. In A Life Force, Eisner pushes this technique much further. The panel-less 'collages' of street-scapes become more daring and inventive. Silhouettes of buildings in one image morph into the skyline of another. 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 becomes the structure of the narrative. Literally! A new and complex geography of the city emerges on the page.

alife-1.jpgIn 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 an apt description of Dropsie Avenue (1995), the third book of the trilogy. If, in the first two books we suspected that the street was the protagonist, 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. In some ways Dropsie Avenue is the most conventional of the tree books. There are still a few bravura juxtapositions but in general it resembles the average comic-book much more then the others***. The book makes up for that in spades. Spanning four centuries - it tells the tragic trajectory of Dropsie Avenue - from it's early settlement by the Dutch to the neighborhood's rise and fall and it's final transformation. The book is a kind of 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 farm houses of the early Dutch settlers give way to narrow alleys garlanded with drying laundry, small crowded apartments, multi-story dilapidated tenements presided over by slumlords. Dropsie begins to wither, crack and crumble as it's best residents trade the urban neighborhood for the illusive utopia of the suburbs. Eventually the street succumbs to the Urban Renewal policies of the 60's and 70's by becoming a series of empty rectangular lots strewn with rubble; a tabula rasa ready to be redeveloped into something new.

Thumbnail image for dropsie-1.jpgEven though the stories take place in Bronx, New York, its most famous borrough, Manhattan is barely mentioned at all. It exists only as a distant skyline, always looming but mostly inaccessible to the characters on Dropsie Avenue. It's a distant beacon of hope and wealth casting a long shadow on the Bronx. If Manhattan represents the triumphant city, Dropsie is it's less visible cousin. It's filled with immigrants and the poor who do much of the work making the glorious metropolis possible. In the final sequence of Dropsie Avenue, the rubble of the destroyed neighborhood is transformed into Dropsie Gardens, A Residential Community. Single family homes line the streets. Each house has an immaculate lawn and trees dot the lots. Urban Dropsie becomes a suburb. In reality suburban growth happened outside of the 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 to begin with.

dropsie-2.jpgAs 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. 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. It's 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.

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* The term 'graphic novel' predates A Contract With God, but the book's success popularized the term. At the time of it's publication (1978) 'graphic novel' was sufficiently unknown and undefined as to be considered new.

** Of course Eisner doesn't do away with panel borders entirely. In fact, he uses them quite frequently, but as a whole the first story, A Contract With God, feels much more open and less contained that of the average comic-book. There are examples of similar approaches in The Spirit as well, but they are never used to such an extent.

*** Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that by the 1990s the graphic novel 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) didn't carry the same kind of stigma as before. It was therefore a kind of return to tradition.

Tom Kaczynski learned English by reading American capitalist comics in communist Poland. He studied Art and Architecture as preparation for becoming a cartoonist. His comics have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, MOME, Punk Planet, The Drama, and other publications. Even though he's lived in Minneapolis (with his girlfriend Nikki and two black cats) for a couple years now, many people still think he lives in New York. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design is excited to have him teaching Experimental Comics Spring term 2010. www.transatlantis.net/blog/

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This page contains a single entry by GaryC published on March 3, 2010 11:42 PM.

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Diana Green: A Building, A Soldier, A Conspiracy: Stylistic and Narrative Evolutions in Three Key Eisner Graphic Novels is the next entry in this blog.

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