Arts A contract with life

Why bother? A mystery ably tackled by two stunning graphic novels

Graphic novels can be draining to read: The action is usually fast-paced and the reader must knit the narrative by correctly interpreting the visual cues in the panels. When the stories are emotionally fraught already, the sense of drama is heightened and personalized because the experience seems to mimic the brain's method of recreating memories in response to stimuli, telegraphing images, physical sensations, and feelings in rapid-fire succession.

This is especially true of North Country by Shane White, a new graphic novel from NBM's ComicsLit imprint. In the slim volume, the author confronts the trauma of a childhood dominated by emotionally, and sometimes physically, abusive parents as he flies home for a visit. Flashbacks to scenes in which the family dinner was a chamber for arbitrary torture alternate with present-day interludes in which any event - bumpy weather, a glimpse of an orange backpack - can fuel another anxiety-ridden reverie. One panel in particular captures the psychogical impact of the character's ambivalent homecoming. "The more I come to understand my past the more hopeful I am for the future," reads a frame. In the next three, the character shrinks into a little boy dragging oversize baggage with him as he heads down the jetway.

As grueling as it is to read at times, North Country is a story of emotional healing and redemption, and White's masterful color illustrations, which frequently change tone and style, keep the reader riveted to the page even when he or she would rather turn away.

The anointed father of the graphic novel, Will Eisner, tackled equally difficult and controversial subjects, in brief the entire scope of the immigrant experience from political wards to Communism to back-alley abortions, but a man of the last century (born in 1917), he used humor and caricature to make his tough material palatable. Nonetheless, Eisner, already the successful creator of The Spirit comic strip, had a hard time finding a publisher in the late '70s for the first installment of his Dropsie Avenue trilogy. Now, with the graphic-novel industry topping the bookkeeping charts, W.W. Norton is releasing the complete cycle, The Contract With God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue on the heels of Eisner's The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which exposes the creation and dissemination of the infamous anti-Semitic fiction.

Eisner's illustrations, characterized by heavy, expressive black lines and exaggerated features, turn every character - from an aging Jewish father distressed that his children are marrying goyim to a privileged descendant of early Dutch settlers who reinvents himself during the Depression - into a familiar relative. By anchoring several stories to a single tenement, 55 Dropsie Avenue, which endures through a century of hard living, Eisner emphasizes the cyclical nature of the immigrant experience: As second and third generations assimilate, they denigrate the next crop of hopefuls, whether its Eastern European Jews, Southern Italians, or Puerto Ricans. At the end of the trilogy, two men no more than a generation off the boat themselves discuss the new neighbors as they mow their lawns. "See how they decorate their houses ... weird colors, dinky ornaments. Yeech," complains one. "It'll change the whole character of Dropsie Gardens."

North Country
By Shane White
NBM/Comics Lit
$13.95, 96 pages
ISBN: 1561634352

The Contract With God Trilogy
By Will Eisner
W.W. Norton
$35, 528 pages
ISBN: 0393061051

Eisner uses the indestructible cockroach as a metaphor for the mystery of the will to survive in a world that can be unbearably cruel, a theme that binds Dropsie's disparate tenants: "So, then, what's the difference between us??" Jacob Shtarkah inquires of the lowly insect at a particularly desparate point in his life. "You ... just want to live! For you it's enough! But me ... I have to ask, Why!?"

Thirty years later, White confronts the dilemma of judging another generation that struggled against the odds, and despite the intervening wars, the '60s, and the self-help movement, his absolution is applicable to Eisner's protagonists, too: "They had more responsibility than any of us could have understood ... They were young and scared, and like survivors clung together to make it through."

By Elaine Wolff

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