||[Feb. 26th, 2009|11:14 am]
100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)
#53 DROPSIE AVENUE – Will Eisner
“We were here first!”
The imaginary New York neighbourhood of Dropsie Avenue was the backdrop for several of Will Eisner’s comics, like those in A Contract With God And Other Tenement Stories. In this book the setting becomes the story as he traces the street’s origins from its settlement by Dutch farmers in 1870 through over 100 years of history including two world wars, the Depression, riots, fires, family tragedies and waves of new arrivals.
Each time they arrive – the Dutch making room for the English, then the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Hispanics and blacks – the same story repeats. Each time the old locals complain about the tone of the neighbourhood being lowered along with their property values. Sitting on their stoop two Italian matrons bitch about the street’s first Jewish boy getting engaged to a good, Catholic, Italian girl and how it’s a sign of the times. But it’s a sign seen in every time by every ethnicity as each new group settles down with their families and starts to see themselves as Americans and everyone else as outsiders.
Over the years Dropsie Avenue inches its way downwards, each influx of newer, poorer residents a symptom rather than the cause. It begins melodramatically with the moment an upwardly mobile Irish couple simultaneously drop dead from the sheer shock of being informed that their daughter’s been arrested for prostitution. Crime, real estate and politics blend together from the moment a dodgy construction deal guarantees a train station will be built next to empty property so that cheap tenements can be built there. Bootleggers come in with Prohibition and years later the drug dealers follow. Each war is followed by boys coming home as men, hardened by their experiences and inured to violence. Gangs form. Landlords become slumlords.
The years fly by, shown in silent montages where a couple can go from their first meeting to a marriage in three panels. These are contrasted with drawn-out moments like a whole page devoted to a boxing match that sees an Italian boy defeat Irish Mike and give himself a reputation as a local hero that kickstarts a career in politics. Eisner’s rubbery people live and die, weep and wail, fight and wave their arms around in passionate confrontations while the windows break and buildings slowly decay like the stubborn teeth of the town behind them.
The political movers and shakers, and in particular a lawyer named Abie Gold – the Jewish boy who married that Italian girl – have moments where they look out over the street and perceive the cycle of history beginning to repeat as their home spirals into its own gutters. It takes a singular effort of will, and a lot of money, to attempt to break or even slow the progression that takes a place from a snooty, high-class English neighbourhood and turns it into a ghetto. The blunt force of history is resilient and no matter whether property values go up or down, the old locals in the world’s Dropsie Avenues will always be suspicious of the new arrivals.