Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Dropsie Avenue as we knew it is gone.
"Only the memory of how it was for us remains.
"In the end buildings are only buildings.
"But people make a neighbourhood."
I have had very few idols in life. There's my Mum, Rosa Parks, Congressman John Lewis and David Attenborough. But the late and very great Will Eisner was one.
To me, it's all about heart and humanity: the courage to stand up and be counted, the compassion you show unto others, and the ability to communicate that message thereby helping us all understand what is important and that which is but vain and ephemeral.
Exceptional value for money, this time-capsule trilogy of geographically specific but in some ways universal social history contains three of the finest and wisest Will Eisner graphic novels, all set on The Bronx's Dropsie Avenue: A CONTRACT WITH GOD s/c, A LIFE FORCE s/c and DROPSIE AVENUE itself.
One of my three favourite Eisner books along with TO THE HEART OF THE STORM and THE NAME OF THE GAME in which Will Eisner condenses generations of intricately linked family lives and their evolving environment into 170 pages without sacrificing even a fraction of the intimacy and humanity that is Eisner's hallmark.
It is, if you like, the life cycle of a community with its fluctuating fortunes from an open arable land farmed by two feuding families through early, spacious gentrification to the rise of the tenement buildings housing a wealth of ethnic immigrants, then their decline and fall into strip-mined ruin. Prohibition is the first nail in the community's coffin, extortion leaching business' rent money dry whilst setting the worst possible example to the children and making a violent example of those who refuse to comply. Then there's the cunning of more legal profiteers luring the chief town planner into debt - their debt - to get what they want.
But most saddening of all is that each successive influx of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Black or Hispanic migrants are viewed with disdain and disgust as "foreigners" by the previous generation of 'foreigners' without any sense of perspective or acknowledgement of the benefits most waves bring. Amongst the tensions and outright hostility, however, there are some with a kinder heart and a certain self-awareness, the rabbi and Catholic priest delighting in their first inter-faith marriage and pulling together to form an early youth group.
I read DROPSIE AVENUE again this week with just as much joy as I did in 1995. Some of it is a little fanciful, like the burglar straying into the last living garden only to be charmed by its owner's granddaughter who is, quite frankly, away with the fairies, but even that has its charm. Most of this, however, is an unflinching account of the ruthless, self-centred commerce which dictates how a whole neighbourhood lives - or struggles and dies in poverty - told with more than a passing knowledge of how real estate works. The figure work is as expressively theatrical as in any of Eisner's books, whilst the buildings themselves in their various generations have a lifespan of their own which mirrors their inhabitants'. It is, in the end, like all Eisner's works, about how we treat each other as human beings - rarely as well as we'd like to be treated ourselves.
A Contract With God s/c:
"Born and brought up in New York City and having survived and thrived there, I carry with me a cargo of memories, some painful and some pleasant, which have remained locked in the hold of my mind. I have an ancient mariner's need to share my accumulation of experience and observations. Call me, if you will, a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail
or at least survive."
- Will Eisner from his Preface, December 2004
Hailed by some as the first American graphic novel, A CONTRACT OF GOD is actually four short stories set in the same tenement buildings in the Bronx as A LIFE FORCE and DROPSIE AVENUE. All of these have survival high on the agenda for a population trapped there by poverty, plus individuals' personal fortunes waxing and waning with a complex interdependency.
Of the three books that make up the CONTRACT WITH GOD TRILOGY H/C, this is the most personal, the most autobiographical, and it was only in 2004 that Will Eisner revealed that A Contract With God, the first short story here was "an exercise in personal agony" written and drawn eight angry years after his only daughter Alice died, aged sixteen, from leukaemia. The details have been changed but the essential raw sentiment remains the same, and it's one I have seen in so many parents who have lost their children including my Uncle and Auntie and my best friend Anita's no-longer-Catholic parents: a complete loss of faith in a God who could betray their trust so spectacularly as to deprive them of their child.
Here Frimme Hersch had been told over and over again as a child that he was "favoured by God" and that God would reward him for his many kindnesses. That's not why he was kind; he was kind because he cared, and so when a baby girl was abandoned on Frimme's doorstep he took her in and raised her as his own. This, to him, was all part of his contract with God which Frimme honoured to the letter, to the very full-stop. But as the story opens he is returning alone to 55 Dropsie Avenue after having buried his daughter, and the weight of the water pouring from the heavens on the man's hat, coat and shoulders is immeasurable. That single page, as he struggles to heave himself up the tenement's stone steps, water streaming over the balustrade and obliterating all but a streetlight behind him, is one of Eisner's finest-ever illustrations.
What happens next is typical of Eisner in that it involves property and finance which rarely benefits those who need money or accommodation the most. The fourth story here is also prime Eisner in that love, money, marriage and social standing become the seemingly inseparable issues with infidelity also quite high on the agenda. But it's also a coming of age story involving the tradition amongst Bronx residents back then of going on holiday to farms which they would share with other families, do their own cooking and help out with the chores.
'The Street Singer' is also based on a phenomenon Eisner was familiar with: random individuals wandering the back alleys of the Bronx singing with some accomplishment in the hope of receiving loose change. A single woman becomes entranced by one of these singers and hopes to revive her own career in a partnership but in her vanity she is oblivious to the degree in which the self-fixated drunkard is using her, while for him it's an opportunity well and truly squandered. Domestic abuse is no stranger to Eisner's works and so it is here, but I've a feeling the third story as well as some elements of the fourth will shock those who think of Eisner as but a kindly old gent.
Eisner was full of humanity - bursting with it - but humanity has its atrocious sides which Eisner was all too aware of and never shied from addressing. It involves a tenement's Super - its bully of a live-in, do-little custodian - who more than meets his match in a ten-year-old girl who uses his warped lust against him.
A Life Force:
"Staying alive seems to be the only thing on which everyone agrees."
The second book available as part of THE CONTRACT WITH GOD TRILOGY H/C along with DROPSIE AVENUE and A CONTRACT WITH GOD, this is an intricate, interdependent affair gradually built around America's Great Depression during which unemployment rocketed, wages crashed, starvation set in, Hunger Riots exploded and swarms of moths were apparently thick enough to stop New York traffic. Biblical!
No one is immune, not even the affluent Manhattan stockbroker whose fortune is wiped out and fine-living obliterated as stocks tumble faster than those bankers decent enough to throw themselves out of the fucking windows.
But the ordinary residents of Dropsie Avenue, already hard-pressed by penury, living figuratively under the shadow of Manhattan island, find it even more difficult than ever. No one has these immigrants' best interests at heart: not the mafia-like enablers who now call in their favours, the brutally bullying unions, and most certainly not the Nazis back in Germany or the American government seeking at the very same time to deny as much access as possible to Jewish refugees. Eisner knows his history and presents it occasionally in bursts of newspaper clippings to give events here their proper socio-political and historical context.
Each of these forces exerts itself on individuals in this book and it's their particular, tightly interwoven stories that Eisner is telling. The sequence in which Jacob so generously, so desperately attempts to free Frieda and her family from Germany's anti-Semitic claws and America's red tape - when he himself has nothing - is agonising. At the same time, however, Jacob's reaction to his own daughter's romantic involvement mirrors that of the Nazis' to mixed marriages:
"My daughter Rebecca is going to marry Elton Shaftsbury!"
"But Elton is a... a
One of the many things I love about Eisner is his zero toleration for hypocrisy, exposing it whenever and wherever he sees it. Jacob's wife, for example, proclaims that her children are her sole reason for living yet she refuses to meet her son's fiancée whilst emotionally blackmailing him round for dinner. Neatly done!
Humanity in all its kindness and cruelty, that's what Eisner's about, as well its foibles and flaws. There's an informed depiction well ahead of its time here of a mental illness that leads Aaron to recoil from reality, and it's eloquently explained:
"Unhappily, somewhere in the divine cauldron where mysterious forces fabricate life, something went awry for Aaron, and in the soft circuitry of his brain an infinitesimal welding failed."
Eisner is renowned for his expressive body language and a certain degree of overacting when the characters overreact themselves, but his mouths in particular can be ever so subtle. No one does glum or bewilderment quite like him. Also, there's such a variety of panel structures here that you almost don't notice it, panel borders and gutters often disappearing entirely without once confusing the reader, such is his impeccable sense of space. He really does make it all look so easy.
Easy to do, easy to look at: lives not so easy to live.