GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Will Eisner’s New York
Will Eisner is one of the giants of 20th century comics; a figure whom reviewers always say “needs no introduction,” but then gets an extended explanation anyway. I’ll be brief: Eisner founded what became a major packaging studio in 1936, at the very beginning of the comic-book business, then launched the unique Spirit newspaper insert section in 1940. Starting in the ‘50s, he ran his own company, American Visuals Corporation, which created instructional materials in comics form, mostly for the government. In the late ‘70s – in his sixties, when most men are retiring – he started writing and drawing long-form stories that are now often called the first graphic novels, starting with A Contract With God in 1978. He died in 2005 in Florida, where he’d lived for the previous twenty years.
Will Eisner’s New York is the second omnibus volume of Eisner’s stories from W.W. Norton, a highly respected publisher of mostly non-fiction, after 2006’s The Contract With God Trilogy, collecting that original graphic novel and two related works. New York itself collects four separate books – New York, The Building, City People Notebook, and Invisible People – which are loosely related to each other and also vaguely set in the same city as the Contract With God stories. The “Contract With God” stories were set in a fictional Bronx neighborhood, but the stories in New York range more widely – a lot of them feel like the Bronx, but some are more Manhattanesque. (There’s not a whole lot of Brooklyn or Queens in here, though, and no detectible Staten Island. Eisner’s New York, like everybody’s, is specific and parochial.)
What strikes a new reader first is the question of dates; the stories in New York were originally published from 1981 through 1992, but the New York they depict is mostly that of the 1930s, with occasional bits from later decades. The “Dropsie Avenue” stories, like A Contract With God, are deliberately set in Eisner’s youth, but the tales in New York appear to be aimed at contemporaniety, but don’t feel any more modern than about 1966. It’s possibly too much to ask that a man in his sixties and seventies, living in Florida, be completely up-to-date with a city he already knows very well, but Eisner’s New York wasn’t a contemporary city even in 1981. This was the city he remembered, and recreated in ink from those memories.
New York is a book of short stories and sketches on various urban topics – stoops and subways, garbage and noise – without continuing characters, and loosely organized into chapters by themes. Some of the stories, especially the wordless ones, or the ones driven solely by narration, are very poignant and true. But Eisner’s dialogue sometimes shades into the maudlin and overly sentimental, echoing radio soap operas and similar media of Eisner’s youth. Similarly, his attempts at dialect and the rhythms of ordinary speech can go too far – such as “AAAYEE WALLYO! So, wot’s new?” “They gonna put up a CONDY MINIMUM here!” “Cheeziz…No Kiddin? WOW!” “Yeh” “…So, waddya say…wot’s doin’?” “Nuthin’ Much! So, what you doin’?” on p.131. (Eisner also seems to have the old comics-hand’s fear of using a single period – which would disappear when printed on newsprint – where an exclamation point, question mark, or ellipsis would do. Some of the stories are gems, and all are at least decent, but many of them feel like they’ve been dug out of a trunk – they depict a city at least two generations gone in 2007.
The Building is a graphic novel telling the story of the lives of four ghosts with ties to one now-demolished building, and how, in the end, they accomplish something together after their deaths in a way they didn’t really do in life. It’s sentimental in the end, but pretty realistic (and quite tough-minded about what city life is actually like) along the way. People do accuse Eisner of being sentimental, but that can create a wrong impression: he’s occasionally melodramatic, and does have issues with his dialogue being overblown, but the events in his stories are usually realistic and ground-level. And his kind of sentiment is more Dickensian than modern; he’ll draw out pathos from something like the death of Little Nell rather than providing happy endings all around. (I should also mention that his longer stories tend to cover people’s entire lives, so he doesn’t get the chance to give happy endings – he knows that people don’t live forever, so there’s a fair bit of death in Eisner.)
City People Notebook is another collection of shorter stories and vignettes, loosely organized by the figure of an artist (presumably Eisner himself), who seems to be sketching the city while hanging out with a midget bum. This has a lot of wordless stories, and, again, Eisner is very good at those – his characters move fluidly in space and he breaks up his pages interestingly, often without defined panel borders.
And then Invisible People has three longer stories – tragedies, really – about people who are forgotten and overlooked. Again, the dialogue is occasionally overwrought, but the art is fluid, the storytelling is excellent, and the focus on real people in a real world is gratifying to see. Eisner particularly shines with character design – these four books depict hundreds of different people, and they are quite different. They’re all drawn in Eisner’s style, and all fit in his world, but they’re clearly individual people. (Also, unlike many comics artists, Eisner is not afraid to make many characters – even most of them – homely. Eisner’s world is like our own, full of people who don’t look as good or dress as well as they’d like.)
Will Eisner’s New York also features an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who tackles the question of sentimentality in a different way than I did. Denis Kitchen provides a note on Eisner and the works included, and a few finished but unused pages are included as a “bonus” at the end.
All in all, Eisner created an old-fashioned kind of graphic novel that might not work as well for readers born in the last twenty-five years or so, but the rhythms and scenes of a big city are eternal, and will be familiar to anyone who’s lived or worked in such a city. His work is a bit old-fashioned, but every cartoonist now working who tries to depict real people in real situations is following on Eisner’s heels, and is mining the vein that these stories, and the Contract With God tales, first opened up.
Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City
W.W.Norton, 2006, $29.95
Artwork copyright Will Eisner. All Rights Reserved.