Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A Life Force by Will Eisner

Even better than A Contract with God
Will Eisner is one of the most acclaimed and influential creators in the history of comics. His 1978 graphic novel A Contract with God is credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel” and pioneering the art form of the literary graphic novel as we know it today. In that landmark work, Eisner presented a series of stories set during the Great Depression in a predominantly Jewish tenement building on fictional Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. Though not a sequel per se, Eisner went on to revisit this setting and similar subject matter in his graphic novel A Life Force, published in 1988. A Life Force is considered the second book in a Contract with God trilogy, with the third book, entitled Dropsie Avenue, published in 1995.

Though not as well-known as A Contract with God, in many ways A Life Force surpasses its predecessor. While that first book was technically a collection of short stories, A Life Force is truly a novel, one complete work of literature that develops over the course of roughly 140 beautifully illustrated pages. It features an ensemble cast of characters whose lives are interwoven throughout. Jacob Shtarkah is a Jewish carpenter who struggles not only to find enough work to survive but also to find some meaning to his existence. Elton Shaftsbury II is a former industrial aristocrat whose fortune is destroyed by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, forcing him to move into a Bronx tenement and restart his career at the bottom rung of the social ladder. He falls in love with Rebecca, Jacob’s daughter, despite the fact that her mother forbids her to marry a gentile. The tapestry of supporting characters includes rabbis, mobsters, union organizers, immigrants, refugees, neighborhood kids, communists, the homeless, and the mentally ill, all of which add color, complexity, and historical authenticity to the narrative.

Throughout the story, Eisner intersperses newspaper clippings from the era, which help to provide historical context to the social and political landscape of the Depression. These nonfiction interludes call to mind the collage technique employed by author John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy on American society in the 1930s. In fact, A Life Force bears a strong affinity to many of the great socially conscious novels of labor and class from the early 20th century, such as the writings of Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris. Rather than a contemporary account of the conditions of that era, Eisner writes from the perspective of hindsight, looking back on the world of his childhood. This novel, however, is not merely an exercise in romantic nostalgia or semiautobiographical reminiscence, as was sometimes the case with A Contract with God. In A Life Force one senses Eisner earnestly and intently striving to craft a literary epic that sheds light and insight on the Depression—his Grapes of Wrath, if you will. He goes far beyond the mere telling of individual stories to draw philosophical speculation into mankind’s universal drive for survival. What is this life force that keeps humanity struggling and slaving, like the cockroach, for some quixotic semblance of immortality?

Even the art in A Life Force is a step above the excellent work in A Contract with God. Here the page layouts are even more innovative, the characters more expressive, and the cityscapes more intricately detailed yet timelessly impressionistic. All three works in the trilogy were originally printed in a sepia-toned ink that subtly evokes both the antiquity of memory and the squalor of Dropsie Ave. Expertly written and drawn, A Life Force is a masterful work of graphic storytelling and a beautiful work of art.
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