Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Looking To The Stars - Will Eisner's New York, A Review

Confession time. Despite all my years as a comic reader and a critic of graphic literature, I had not – until recently – ever read a single story written or drawn by Will Eisner.

I’ve seen samples of his art in the history books, of course. And I’ve seen many more works inspired by him. The artist who says that Will Eisner hasn’t influenced his work is either a hack or a poor student of comic history. Because in some form or fashion, Will Eisner has been an influence on the genre to a point where separating Will Eisner from American Comics is like trying to chisel the animal remains out of a fossil.

This is one of the reasons why the highest honor in graphic literature was named in his honor while he was still alive. But another reason Eisner may have been honored thus was because in addition to being one of the undisputed masters of his craft, he was also reportedly one of the nicest men one could ever hope to meet.

There is a story that several decades back, a magazine editor attempted to find someone in the comic industry to write a hatchet-piece about Will Eisner only to find that none of his fellow writers had a bad thing to say about the man or his work. This editor was reportedly forced to write the piece himself and even he was apparently unable to find Eisner guilty of any crime other than that his work was too sentimental.

This story is recounted by Neil Gaiman in his introduction to Will Eisner’s New York - a recent hardcover edition collecting four of Will Eisner’s graphic novels that are set-in or about New York City and the first bit of Will Eisner’s work I have ever seen intact. And if being too sentimental is a crime, Will Eisner was exceedingly, happily and above all else incredibly guilty. The four stories bound in this edition are many things but above all else they are a love letter to a city that may no longer exist anymore.

In his introduction to the first novel, New York: The Big City, Eisner notes that while the scenes he shows are taken from his home town of New York, that “I also know many other big cities, and what I show is meant to be common to them all.” Indeed, some scenes are universal to big-city life everywhere, such as Walls Have Ears in which a neighbor overhears the sexual acrobatics of his next-door neighbor and then has to maintain a straight face the next morning in the elevator. This is a problem that plagues every city dweller who ever lived in a small apartment, college dormitory or other form of prison cell.

But other scenes seem to be unique to New York, such as Subways - which depicts the fleeting daydreams of a male and female passenger on a subway train. She dreams that the handsome man is a lawyer who will give her the perfect marriage. He dreams that she is a rich heiress and kinky nymphomaniac who dreams of sharing her father’s money with a common mechanic. Of course other cities have subway trains and fantasies like this occur are common enough when looking at strangers in public. And yet, something about this particular fantasy seems to scream New York.

Eisner depicts all these scenes with an odd combination of both realism and sentiment. They are realistic in that we have all know or have met people like the ones Eisner depicts and that no matter how outlandish his brief plots are, they still read true. They are sentimental in that even in the scenes which show the darker side of human nature, such as when a woman is jeered by her neighbors while pleading for help fighting a purse snatcher, there is still a sort of nostalgic longing for the days when losing a purse was the worst a woman could expect on the streets of New York.

This realism and sentimentality in the face of outlandishness lies at the core of the second story in this collection: The Building. The story of four lost souls tied to the site of a recently demolished building, this is perhaps the most traditional story of comic heroism and villainy in the collection. There are no costumed crime-fighters or cackling masterminds here but there are the quiet sorts of good and evil that are, under Eisner’s pen, every bit as epic as any battle between Superman and Lex Luthor.

Monroe Mensh is hardly a Superman. In fact, he’s not even in good enough shape to be a passable Clark Kent. And yet there is little doubt by the end of his story that he is a hero, who knows full well the truth in Edmund Burke’s statement that, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

Inspired by the sudden death of a young boy in a drive-by shooting – a crime he is sure he could have stopped had he not frozen up when the shooting started – Monroe quit his job to do something where he could make a living saving children. Monroe tries to become a social services case worker, despite the repeated urgings of his boss to stick to fund-raising after the mousy Monroe proves able to do little against abusive fathers and children turned to crime. And yet, Monroe does not give up trying to do good until the day he dies.

Monroe’s quiet, desperate heroism is matched by the subtle villainy of P.J. Hammond – a second-generation real-estate tycoon who resorts to dirty tricks to buy the titular Building – the very first that his father started his empire with. Ironically, in trying to create a legacy for his father by reclaiming his first conquest, he loses the empire his father gave everything to build. In the end, Hammond’s only legacy is a building named after him - built on the ruins of the building he gave all to possess.

Another figure who destroys all they value in search of something bigger is Gilda Green, a backstreets girl who loved a neighborhood poet but abandoned her love for the security in marriage to an Uptown dentist. She still maintains her friendship with Benny – a friendship that turns into an affair which shames Gilda until she finds her husband is cheating on her as well. Even then she cannot bring herself to abandon security for the freedom of Benny’s love and she finds herself, in death, haunting the street corner where she and Benny met weekly.

The ghostly quartet is rounded off by Antonio Tonatti – an street musician with the face of Edgar Allan Poe. An aspiring prodigy, Antonio’s dreams of artistry were shot down at an early age. Still, he found a joy in playing his violin that transcended the rest of his life and when an accident at his union job left him with a pension for life and all the time in the world, he began to do just that on the street outside his home. A true bard, Antonio refused all payment and played only to inspire the downtrodden (such as a depressed Monore) and enhance the moods of young lovers like Benny and Gilda.

Despite this being a ghost story in the tradition of Dickens, this is a fundamentally realistic tale as Eisner tells not only of the passing of four souls but of the passing of a building and an era. It is a story that is spiritually close to Wilder’s Our Town, but The Building is a far more hopeful work.

Not as hopeful but just as heartwarming is City People Notebook; the third of Eisner’s works collected in this edition. Similar to New York: The Big City in format, being a collection of several short sketches rather than a continuous tale, this is a much more humorous collection of stories.

Humorous, it should be noted, does not always equal lighthearted. Some of Eisner’s stories here are dark comedies, such as Space Rights. One can’t help but feel guilty for laughing at this piece - partly because of the unseen victim of one man’s activism and partly because thanks to Eisner’s magic pencils, one doesn’t see the old punch line coming until it is too late.

But even this dark comedy pales to the guilt produced by laughing at Sanctum and Mortal Combat - the opening and closing chapters of Eisner’s Invisible People. The former depicts the tragically hilarious and hilariously tragic events that befall one Pincus Pleatnik after his obituary is wrongly published and he finds that the rest of the world is at best indifferent to the news of his death. The later depicts the increasingly deadly struggle between a middle-aged librarian and the mother of the man she hopes to rope into marriage.

No such humor exists, save humor of the most bitter and ironic kind, in The Power -the middle chapter of Invisible People and for my money, the best story in the entire collection. The story of a man who finds he has an amazing gift for healing and yet absolutely no capacity for finding a place in the world where he can use it to help people as he wishes, it is one of the most stunning stories ever written for the graphic literature medium.

Having read through all of this, I am kicking myself for not trying to track down the works of Will Eisner much sooner. I’m glad that my own library picked up this work recently – otherwise I might never have had the chance to enjoy it. At any price, this collection is a priceless bargain and well worth $30 American for a stylish and durable hardcover if your library is not fortunate enough to have a copy of Will Eisner’s New York.

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