Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dropsie Avenue — Eisner's Tenement Trilogy, part III

Note: This is a review of the third book in Will Eisner’s Tenement Trilogy. The first two books, A Contract with God, and A Life Force, were previously reviewed in October and November.

Anyone who’s spent time in an old part of a big city can tell you that neighborhoods have personalities of their own. San Francisco’s Mission District or North Beach, for example, or New York’s Hells Kitchen, have long, storied histories that developed as time moved on.

In Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, the third graphic novel in what I call Eisner’s “Tenement Trilogy” we learn the story of one fictional neighborhood in what is now the Bronx.

While A Contract with God was a series of short stories set in the Depression-era neighborhood and A Life Force essentially focused on an extended family through the 1930s, Dropsie Avenue focuses on the one character that is present through the series: the neighborhood itself.

The story begins in the 1870s on a farm owned by a Dutch family. A series of tragedies soon strikes the family and soon after, new folks, “The English” as they’re called in the story, move in.

In what will be a recurring motif, one of the characters laments the newcomers and feels the neighborhood (and property values) will suffer. Later, the Irish begin moving into the neighborhood and we see the same lament.

Then the same "they don't belong here" with the Germans.

The Italians.

The Jews.

The Puerto Ricans.

The “Negroes.”

In the 1910s, tenement housing goes up. Eisner shows us how corruption permeated every aspect of early 20th Century New York, down to the placement of subway stations and what organized crime would do to protect its investment.

Later on, as the story moves to the 1950s and 1960s, we see how the “old guard” in the neighborhood continues to be suspicious and hateful of newcomers — even when they once faced discrimination themselves.

By the era of the Vietnam War, the neighborhood becomes a run-down shell of what it once was. But we see that money is still to be made — if your morals are loose enough.

Of course, the building "mysteriously" burns down later.
Some say the "One Percent" are still doing stuff like this.

While the “Dropsie Avenue” neighborhood is fictional, the stories reflect some real-life history of New York. Obviously a composite neighborhood, Dropsie Avenue shows the struggles seen in many old cities as the United States grew.

Eisner’s storytelling in this book takes a little getting used too. Unlike the vignettes of A Contract with God or the clear, sometimes tense plotting of A Life Force, Dropsie Avenue reflects a continuing, ongoing history of the birth, life, death and rebirth of a neighborhood (with subtle hints that the cycle will continue). There’s 120 years of history to cover in a little more than 180 pages, so things seem condensed. We see couples meet, court, marry and have children in a few panels. Some characters last less than five pages before they move on – but we may see their children a decade or two later.

The pacing was hard to get used to, and somewhat confusing even for an experienced graphic novel reader such as myself. Eisner seems to eschew characterization and plotting at certain points because he was trying to say something important. Certainly Eisner has written one of the few graphic novels to tap into the controversial sociological theory of the neighborhood life cycle (joining last year’s ACT production of “Clybourne Park” as one of the few depictions of the phenomenon in the arts).

But Eisner also does something interesting in Dropsie Avenue. He makes a non-speaking, non-moving neighborhood into one of the most real characters ever seen in a graphic novel. You might not care much for the people walking on its streets, but by the end you care a lot about the neighborhood itself.

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