Will Eisner: An Analysis of A Contract with God and A Life Force
Will Eisner’s “Izzy, the Cockroach and the Meaning of Life” is a short narrative in the longer graphic novel, A Life Force. Eisner prompts the reader to contemplate the meaning of life. The setting is Dropsie Avenue, a common setting for most of Eisner’s graphic art. The important imagery of the city and Dropsie Avenue allude to the urban lifestyle of crowded streets and towering buildings. Eisner’s style in this narrative is similar to his style in the work, A Contract with God . He uses entire pages and irregular panels to illustrate his point. The very intricate detail put into each page shows Eisner’s devoted work as a graphic artist.
Eisner's story is about the meaning of life; he includes newspaper clippings and a description of 1934 and The Great Depression. This allows the reader to understand the difficult living conditions of the time. The depressing set-up causes the reader to understand why someone might question their faith in God. Also, the only positive newspaper clipping we read talks about the solidarity between the homeless people. Because they play board games together, they are not fully suffering. Because of their solidarity, they all act as a life force to each other.
Despite the depressing time period, Eisner does not choose to draw the city with dark shading. The drawings of the city in this story are light and detailed; the only dark shading in the story is on the back of a building (187). When the story moves into an interior, it is very dark and shaded in contrast to the outside (186). Eisner wants us to think of the city as a place of enlightenment, so he does not use gloomy images to depict the city. His art shows that he has faith in the city’s power to enlighten through other people or simple encounters that may occur in the city.
The city is a common theme in many of Eisner’s other works; interestingly, he adds a particular detail to this story's setting: the time of day. Is it sundown on a Friday, when light is beginning to disappear. It’s also sometimes known as “the magic hour” by photographers because the lighting is most intense at sundown. What is also important to this detail is that this is the time when people are walking home from the Synagogue. At a time when others' faith has been assured, Eisner's main character, Jacob Shtarkah, is questioning the meaning of life.
Jacob is introduced to the reader while he is being told he is no longer needed at his previous workplace. He is upset about the loss of his job and wage, yet, he cares more about the name mounted above the building he constructed. In this scene (188-191), the characters are indoors. There is a lot of shading and darkness in the frames. In this place, Jacob is not finding meaning to his life. He feels discouraged because he doesn’t see the benefit of his effort—the meaning behind his work. Instead, his name does not get displayed, and he is left without recognition. In order to illustrate that there is not a life force waiting for Jacob in that room, the setting is drawn with very dark shading.
On page 190, there are two, contrasting panels that are separated by negative space. The top panel's background is black and Jacob is standing in the light of the window—half of his body shaded. Jacob's boss, Benjamin, says, “You must face reality, Jacob...The building committee has decided once and for all! P-E-R-I-O-D!” (190). Similar to the plot of Eisner’s A Contract with God , the main character is let down by a force of power (the ultimate Will of God or a man’s), which weakens their faith.
The bottom panel of this page (190) shows him alone in light, more detailed than in the previous pages. He looks haggard, closer to death. The background is less detailed; (if the reader did not see any other panels, they would not assume he was in a building.) Eisner wants us to see Jacob up close and pay attention to what he is saying in this panel: “Me you gave five years, Goldfarb you are giving immortality !!” (190). Similar to God, the boss, or “committee,” has the ability to give eternal life. Eisner is illustrating the power of solidarity—anyone can be a force of life. The plaque will be there as long as the building will and Jacob would like to have at least that legacy, if not his job. Eisner gives the reader a reason to believe that Jacob's losing his faith; Jacob cannot see the product of his effort. In A Contract with God , Eisner illustrated that God's Will may not be easy to see or even secure in a contract; the very definition of faith is belief in what one cannot see.
On page 191, Jacob is leaving the dark room and walking toward the light outside. It looks as though he is walking into a holy place, illuminated with possibility and happiness—the city. Although Jacob is in a depressed state, he is walking out of the dark and into the light. Other artists may have chosen to draw it the opposite way. Eisner drew the city this way because it represents enlightenment at a time when people will be walking home from the Synagogue.
Jacob begins to walk also, and on page 193, he begins to walk into the alley. In the top panel (separated from the bottom by the skyline), Jacob is hunched over and darkly shaded. The second panel, he moves downward on the page; he is boxed in his frame while yelling, "A reason for living!" (193). Finally, the final panel illustrates that his faith and reasons for living are unstable.
Jacob feels like he might die and sits on the ground in the alley. His wife shakes out a rug and a cockroach falls down two flights (196). At first, Jacob is uninterested in the top panel. Eisner set up the three panels which are to be read vertically (from top to bottom). As the reader moves their eyes down the page, Jacob is beginning his descent spiritually; in the bottom panel, we see him hunch toward the ground.
While Jacob questions what the difference is between himself and the cockroach (198), Eisner is showing the reader that humans have the ability to ask, why? In order to find an answer, we have the ability to believe what is told to us—faith. Eisner further emphasizes his point on page 200, while playing with light and dark frames. Like iambic pentameter used in poetry, Eisner uses dark and light backgrounds to give his dialogue have rhythm and tempo. This effect causes it to read like a train of thought, the way one would think in their head.
After Jacob save's the life of the cockroach, his wife calls and he must make his ascent. On page 202, we see him begin to stand and walk, hunched over, up to his home. Like the cockroach, he struggles to stand, but finds a way to “flip over.” The next page shows the cockroach's ascent, yet he continues into a dirty can. These two images are together in the book’s binding; they are meant to be seen as parallel actions. Just like Jacob must find a way to continue on his way, the cockroach must too. They both act as a force of life to each other, similar to the way the homeless people found solidarity as a way to continue living. Jacob saves the cockroach from a foot and the cockroach, without a word, convinces Jacob that he has reason to live. Why? Because he is a life force to something, even a cockroach.
When Jacob begins to eat dinner, he tells his wife that he saved the life of an insect, not that he lost his job. Because Jacob cares about the immortality that the plaque would give him, he is a man of faith. But the force that brings him life in the end is the cockroach. Without his encounter with it, he would not have been well to ascend to his home. Because he is acting like a life force by saving the cockroach, he feels purpose and meaning in life.
Eisner is showing the reader that there is possibility for good in bad situations. He provokes the reader to think about the meaning of life and the force which guides us to do the things we do. For some, it may be God, but Eisner shows through Jacob that as long as a person has faith and the ability to question, they can become a force which guides and perpetuates life. A Life Force shows the reader that they too are a force of life and the city helps to act as a vehicle for it—an endless sea of concrete filled with many lives which need meaning.