Every year, on the week of his birthday, the comics world celebrates the legacy of Will Eisner. Eisner’s work in the comics field is legendary. From his groundbreaking work in The Spirit newspaper serial (including pioneering the splash title page), to inventing the graphic novel, to his contributions to comics education and analysis through titles like Comics And Sequential Art, to his pioneering of alternate publishing paths, there are few creators who have contributed more to the comics field than Eisner. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’d like to break down one of my favorite comics pages, which comes from his graphic novel, A Life Force (available in the seminal Contract With God trilogy).
Here is the page:
You might notice that his is not one of Eisner’s spectacular splash pages, rather it’s a regular storytelling page from the middle of the story, but it’s an incredible bit of visual storytelling where every element serves a purpose.
First, a bit of background: the story is about the human will to live even in the face of the poorest conditions. The human life lived in poverty is compared, through a series of vignettes to that of a cockroach. On this page, our protagonist Jacob, is on the ground, forlorn, in an alley underneath his tenement apartment on the fictional Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx.
Let’s start with panel 1, which is part of a row of 3/4 of the page-length skinny vertical panels. Despite the length of this panel, the character, Jacob, is drawn small. There is a lot of white space between him and the top of the panel, and there are no word bubbles either, which emphasizes the size of the negative space. The size of the figure relative to the space highlights his smallness and enhances the central conceit of the story, the comparison of the human’s life with that of a bug.
This contrast is further emphasized in panel 2, which is identical in size and shape to the first panel. In this panel, the hand-lettered words call down to him from the sky, high above the alley where the protagonist finds himself. The figure of Jacob is a bit larger than it is in panel 1, though his attitude is slightly changed, as he now gazes up toward the sound of the words (more on this movement later), but the there is less negative space in the panel, both because of the size of the words, which are large for comics dialogue, and because of the lines in the background which extend further up the panel. The words seem to fill the panel, which contrasts it with the emptiness of the one which immediately precedes it.
In addition to being large, the words are unbounded by a speech bubble, further contrasting them with Jacob’s dialogue in the panels immediately preceding and following this one. It is also spoken by an off-panel character (the speaker is not visible in the panel). These physical characteristics of the lettering, along with the repetition of Jacob’s biblical name, give the dialogue a biblical feel and remind the reader of the themes of the search for meaning and humanity’s relationship with the God found throughout the Contract With God trilogy. Since we do not yet know the speaker, we are reminded of God calling down to a prophet. Even when we find out the speaker in the next panel, the idea of God speaking to a human remains in our minds, layered simultaneously with the revelation of the speaker’s true identity. This technique is unique to the sequential story medium (through there are similar techniques in other mediums like the Homeric simile), as it relies both on the distinction between the individual, static panels, and the sequential nature of the story.
In the third panel, the off-panel dialogue is gone, opening up the space of the top half of the panel again. In the bottom half of the panel, the figure of Jacob continues to grow. Not only is he drawn larger, but his pose has changed as well. In panel one, he is hunched over, leaning against a wall, almost lying down. In panel two, he looks upward as he hears the voice. In panel three, he has started to get up. His back is straighter than it is in other panel, and we see his face more clearly as well. This upward movement is further enhanced by the placement of the speech bubble, which identifies the off-panel voice as “Rifka.” His attitude has changed from downcast, to questioning, to at least a neutral pose. This positive shift, along with his growth in size and his rising from his prone position further hints at the divine voice theory. Perhaps there is something god-like in the voice? Perhaps there is revelation? Inspiration? Perhaps there is–or is going to be–a change.
But no. In the final panel of the top row, the dialogue beats Jakob down, both literally and figuratively. It is, in fact, his wife, yelling down from their tenement window at he good-for-nothing husband, exasperated at his antics, and ordering him to come upstairs for supper. The content of the dialogue is enhanced both by the amount of words and by the shape of the panel. The words can hardly fit in the skinny panel, and extend down much further than Rifka’s previous dialogue. The openness of the negative space is gone. The sky is crowded with the words, which beat down on Jakob.
This is also the first panel where both characters speak. Jacob’s words, still bounded by their traditional speech bubble, move upwards over his head, creating a visual conflict with Rifka’s words. From the relative size of the words, it is apparent who is winning. Indeed, despite his agreement to come upstairs for dinner, Eisner draws Jacob a bit smaller, and much more bent over than in the previous panel.
The bottom row of panels is markedly different from the first. There are three distinct actions, but unlike the top row, there are no panel dividers. This gives the sequence a continuous motion where we do not pause as long to consider each image, rather we see the action more continuously.
It is important to note, that though Jacob gets up, he is still bent over, hunched beneath the weight of his problems, bent and nearly broken by his life’s burdens. We never see his face in these panels, and the anonymity of these actions make them synecdochal for the human experience. The bent over poses, the short height of the panels, and the smallness of the door in the final panel recall the metaphor of the cockroach as well, as Jakob seemingly skitters down a narrow passage, back to a hole in the wall.
In addition to the panel-by-panel storytelling, there page as a whole is constructed brilliantly as well. The four tall, skinny panels on the the top row, recall the Dropsie Avenue tenements. Though there is no establishing shot of the neighborhood on this particular page (that happened earlier in the story), the tall thin shapes resemble high-rise apartments, and the fact that there are four of them squeezed into the top row remind the reader of the crowded, urban setting.
The long length of these panels also pushes down on Jacob, who is hunched beneath their massive weight in the bottom row. This reminds the reader of the environmental factors which contribute to his depression, and further highlight the effects of the setting, which is another key motif which runs through Eisner’s trilogy.
All-in-all, this page is a masterclass is sequential storytelling, a reminder of the power and possibilities of the comics form, and a strong example of Eisner’s skill both as an artist and writer. I encourage you all to check out or refamiliarize yourself with his work.
I know I will the next time I sit down to write a comics script.
Happy Will Eisner week to you all.
Connect with me on facebook, twitter, and instagram for all my latest news, discussion, and creative endeavors.