New York City’s MoCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) is currently exhibiting Will Eisner’s New York: From The Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel. The exhibit showcases original pieces from throughout Will Eisner’s career, focusing on his portrayal of the city. It begins with original art from The Spirit, with a focus on splash pages where the comic’s title is embedded into the art. The exhibit goes on to examine Eisner’s portrayal of the city through various different lenses: the crowd that stifles talent rather than appreciates it in the tale of the boy who can fly, the tense yet deep relationships between tenants, and the simple city routine of nighttime trash collection. The exhibit also features Eisner’s portrayal of the progression of a section of the Bronx from when the first settler’s arrived, through its heyday, to its destruction, and on to its eventual rebirth. The final portion of the exhibit is dedicated to pieces influenced by Eisner.
While I have spent a decent enough portion of my life reading and studying comics, I had never read any of Eisner’s work before this exhibit. Just as many Japanese students studying manga have never read Atom Boy, though they know the name by heart, I had somehow come to be more familiar with the winners of the Eisner Award than with the works of the man it was named for. This exhibit, despite being tiny (the entire museum is about the size of a standard three bedroom apartment in New York City, and there is only only one exhibit on display at a time), allowed me to begin to appreciate no only how frankly amazing Eisner’s art and stories are, but also to get a glimpse into the extent of his influence on the comic world.
Eisner is largely credited with taking what had been a considered a childish medium associated primarily with humor and simple art, and demonstrating its potential to portray art and stories both sophisticated and complex, all the while maintaining the accessibility of the comic medium. He brings political and social commentary into what is purportedly a “superhero” comic (The Spirit). For example, in one of the works on display he criticizes the large number of government agencies that had lost their purpose but failed to be dissolved, leaving people to receive paychecks without doing any meaningful work. Religious tension is also present as he tells a story similar to his own experiences growing up as a Jewish boy in New York City. Of his stories featured in this exhibit there was a clear focus on the lives of those working to scrape by in order to make a better future for themselves. Yet, rather than focus primarily on the dichotomy between rich and poor, he focused on the details of the lives of poor tenants. Through all his works, the city not only defines the space in which the characters lead their lives, but plays an integral role in defining the characters and their interactions. The light, rain, and buildings that work together to create the defining aspects of Eisner’s city receive as much detail in their portrayal as the people, not just in terms of their physical attributes, but in terms of their personality.
While the majority of the pieces on display were in black and white, as that was what the comic was published in, the few color works were striking. In particular there is a painting of a New York street in which each section is painted differently. Yellow bathes the happy youth who is jumping. Blue washes the saddened figure on the street. Through this myriad of different colors we are able to see the city as both contiguous in terms of space, and divided in terms of the experiences of its dwellers, even as they stand beside one another.
We see the role that light, and with it color, plays in defining the people of the city in Invisible People. In an exception to Eisner’s trend again portraying rick and poor as a dichotomy, a crowd of men and women in bright clothing walk away from the viewer in the center of the painting. In the center of the street, they are in the sun, with all the detail and color that such a position entails. Their portrayal is detailed, and each figure is distinct: a woman with a fur, a man reading a newspaper, a man carrying papers, a person carrying an umbrella. In contrast to this are the dark figures walking along them on either side in the shadow of the buildings we can sense encroaching upon them on either side. Their numbers appearing vast in the boarderless painting, the bleeding making it seems as though the crowd continues beyond the page. These figures are painted on with white ink on a black background, with only enough detail to make out their hats, by which gender may be presumed, and the top of their coats. The affluent walk on a sunny day, while the poor walk in the dark night of the city’s shadows. The affluent are a group of colorful and unique individuals, while the poor appear as a sullen mass. Eisner’s use of color and light in this painting implies the walls of the city in which the scene takes place, allowing that light which does come through to act as a metaphor for society’s gaze on the people of the city that cares only for the affluent.
We see a similarly stunning use of color in Last of Yesterday. Here the painting is divided into two distinct color schemes: warm colors (reds, light purple, yellow, and orange) and cool colors (blues, greens, and browns). Here the young boy is once again washed in yellow light, this time from the lamppost. He looks out across the water to the New Jersey skyline alight with the sunset from New York City’s Westside. The water before him is dark with the coming night, and the skeletons of old ships long sunk peek out from its depths. In his hands he holds an intricate and beautiful wooden toy ship. His father stands beside him at the edge of the lamppost’s light, one foot on the raised edge of the city’s western boarder.
The cool colors focus on the dark and the old: the river already awash in the night’s darkness, the trash on the landing in the darkened space surrounding the boy’s halo of light, and the skeletons of ships from the distant past that seem to sink into the water even faster for the color scheme that blends the two together. In contrast, the warm colors focus on the prosperous city across the river where the sun is still shining, and on the young boy with his new boat, ready to take the place of the old boats in the water before him. Though the light on the world ahead of him will soon fade, the skeletons fading completely into darkness with the setting sun, the light of his lamppost will continue to illuminate him. Between these two worlds of light and dark is the father. While he stands in the light, he seems poised to move towards the darkness of the previous generations in the space before him, his leg on the barrier, and the hand upon his knee emphasizing that he is on the verge of transition. For the moment, though, he holds the boy’s hand and shares in the light and hope, in which the boy and his toy boat stand center.
While in the above paintings color is used to embed emotion into the scene, Eisner also shows a distinct ability to give streets emotion with just black ink and white paper. He does this in his series of paintings of different streets, each labeled with an emotion. “Angry Street” shows a narrow street with trash cans along it, trash strewn about them. The street is narrow, dirty, and crowded by brick buildings from a previous era, their old windows looking disdainfully down at the messy street below. The view is only of a small portion of the street, the center of the drawing being the building, with the street ending in another street to the right, and continuing on off the page to the left. Another painting features a deserted street, on which stand a man and a young boy with a portfolio, looking away from the viewer. The boy is supposed to represent Eisner himself. (I believe this one was called “Lonely Street,” but unfortunately I failed to write it down.) They stand in the middle of a wide street lined to the horizon with massive, standardized brick apartments with the occasion store. The street is massive, and seemingly endless, and they are tiny and insignificant upon it. Metal staircases trace zigzags down the walls of the apartment buildings. Everything is unremarkable, and tidy. For all the buildings, though, there are no other people, and no cars going down the street. There is not even the possibility that a car would pass down the street, as demonstrated by the two figures who stand unmoving in the middle of the street. They are by themselves, looking upon the apartments, stores, and wide street, all of this space with such potential to be lively waiting to be filled with people. The people in the street are not lonely, for they have one another, it is the street itself, waiting for its purpose to be fulfilled.
Even in instances where the city, with its endless streets and buildings, is not the subject of the piece, it is always an integral part of the scene in which it appears in Eisner’s works. When in the foreground all the details of the building are meticulously drawn, down to the individual bolts in bridges, tatters in awnings, gargoyles, and individual bricks. In the background their details fade, and they are delineated only by an upper boundary in a heavy line with vertical lines indicating their rigid, forever perpendicular stance against the earth to which they are bound. As they fade further into the background their lines become thinner, but never less straight.
Omnipresent too is the water for which Eisner is so renowned. It pools, drips, and pours. Dilapidated awnings cup it even as it overflows from the low point and streams onwards and always downwards. Like the buildings it falls upon, it forms a perpendicular line to the ground it races to join. It creeps into old buildings and puddles on the wooden floor boards. It spurts and rushes out from holes and cracks. It reflects and distorts the light. Its presence is as vivid and detailed as that of the other characters, and it plays as one of them. The people huddle from it, play in it, and ignore it.
Together, the light, colors, water, and skyline create for the viewer a city that feels real and alive. Just as it becomes the theme of the story in Dropsie Avenue, we sense throughout that the city is just as much a part of the story as the characters playing out their lives in it. It confines, outlines, and enlarges the plane on which they live, limiting them with its small tenant rooms and inspiring them with its skyline. Through it all light and water streams, emphasizes, dilutes, and reflects. Rather than serving as a backdrop, we understand the city as that which makes the characters who they are, and that which puts the story in motion.