Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner

The life and death of a neighborhood
Originally published in 1995, Dropsie Avenue is the third graphic novel in Will Eisner’s Contract with God trilogy, following A Contract with God (1978) and A Life Force (1988). All three works take place in a fictional neighborhood named Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. A Contract with God and A Life Force were both set during the Great Depression and based somewhat on Eisner’s own memories of his childhood in a Bronx tenement building. In this third graphic novel in the series, however, Eisner creates a narrative with a much broader and more ambitious scope. Dropsie Avenue is essentially the life story of the neighborhood itself.

Eisner begins his narrative in 1870, when the Bronx was largely farmland inhabited by Dutch immigrants. Once the English start moving in, there goes the neighborhood! Then just a few years later, the English find themselves saying the same thing about the Irish. Long-term residents depart in disgust as they see their property values drop, and conflict arises as each new wave of immigrants moves into the neighborhood, from the Italians to the Jews to the Hispanics and the African Americans. At first the Whites don’t want to live next to the Blacks, and the Catholics don’t want to live next to the Jews, but over time some learn to tolerate, respect, and even like one another. At each step in the process, opportunistic real estate developers change the face of the neighborhood, from agricultural fields to single-dwelling houses to tenement buildings. As the income level of the inhabitants progressively drops, racial violence, organized crime, drug use, and urban blight steadily rise. Some residents still hold out hope for the neighborhood, however, and make efforts to preserve and strengthen the Dropsie Avenue community.

Since Eisner spans over a century of history in about 170 pages, a lot of characters drift in an out over the course of the narrative. In some cases, Eisner can concisely chart the trajectory of a character’s life and fortunes in a single page of six to nine panels. Over time, however, the reader begins to notice certain prominent families who pop up generation after generation, and several recurring characters make their way to the forefront of the plot, such as the Jewish lawyer Abie Gold, the ragpicker turned landlord Izzy Cash, the Italian political boss Polo Palermo, and Ruby Brown, the daughter of the first black family to move into the neighborhood. Eisner expertly intertwines the storylines of a large ensemble cast, illustrating the drama of everyday lives with the elegance and eloquence of a classic naturalist novelist. After weaving such a rich narrative tapestry, however, the story’s only unfortunate flaw is an ending that is a little too convenient and too abrupt.

The art in Dropsie Avenue is superb, even better than the two prior graphic novels in the series. Even though Eisner did excellent work back in the 1940s, here a half century later he demonstrates that he is one of those rare artists that progressively improves with age until the very end of their careers. The page layouts are incredibly innovative, with the lives of the expressive characters meshing seamlessly with gorgeous drawings of urban architecture as detailed as architectural renderings. Eisner’s one weakness, artistically, is his depiction of the various ethnic groups that populate the story. Although he’s come a long way from Ebony White in the days of The Spirit, some of the Italians, Jews, and African Americans still have the feel of stereotypical caricatures (a common problem for a lot of comics artists). Overall, however, there is no denying that Dropsie Avenue is a landmark work of graphic literature capping off an absolutely phenomenal trilogy that is one of the most monumental achievements in the comics art form.
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