Will Eisner’s A Life Force: A Graphic Portait Of The Depression


Will Eisner

Will Eisner

Given that he grew up during The Depression as a Jewish person in a culturally diverse neighbourhood, it is no surprise that Will Eisner has made a career out of documenting the culture of New York’s working-class neighbourhoods during the 1930’s through his graphic work.  In providing a documentation of this life, Eisner often delves into an existentialist exploration of the meaning or purpose of life, and perhaps no work best exemplifies this than his graphic novel A Life Force, which details the lives of a handful of denizens from his mythic neighbourhood on the fictional Dropsie Avenue, first introduced in the graphic novel named after the streetA Life Force is especially effective at placing the struggles of individuals against the backdrop of broader social movements and historical events, offering a kind of history from below that details how individuals struggled and managed to define life on their own terms against seemingly deterministic events.  Eisner explores the dichotomy the exists between Marxism and capitalism, explores some feminist issues, religious divides and the indifference of xenophobia through a compelling narrative.


An illustration from the novel.

An illustration from the novel.

One of the things that seems to be consistent with much of Eisner’s work is his sympathetic presentation of the working class.  As the novel starts, a Jewish carpenter named Jesus Jacob has just completed building a study hall for the local synagogue.  Upon completing his work, he is released from his job, and in the middle of the depression, knows that he will not be able to find work.  His employer tells him the building he made “will be called ‘The Yetta and Morris Goldfarb Study Hall’” (7), after the name of the man who donated the money to build it.   Jacob, who receives nothing other than his pay, notes that he is only given “five years” whilst Goldfarb is given “immortality” (8).  This conflict is emblematic of the struggle of the working class as Jacob, like many working-class people, does not own his labour.  Others pay for it, and the end product belongs to somebody else, whilst no long-term security is offered to workers.  For the employer, this is simply a transaction, but for the worker, it is not “just a living”, as Jacob notes that he was “making a something” (11).  One might argue that a fair compensation package was agreed upon, but these types of agreements always put working-class people at a disadvantage because if they lack the capital to invest in their own work, they are often at the whim of those who do have the capital.  It is hard to draw conclusions through this, but what is clear is that the working-class are dis-empowered to a large degree.  It is through this narrative that Eisner sets up the conversation on communism.



Karl Marx, largely regard as the god father of communism, not to be confused with the god father of soul, James Brown.

Karl Marx (aka Santa Clause), largely regard as the god father of communism, not to be confused with the god father of soul, James Brown.

Though Eisner’s presentation of the working class seems sympathetic, his presentation of communism is not favourable.  He presents communists as intolerant, as one communist leader states that “All religion is regarded as a social opiate” and argues that there must be “No classes” and “No religion” in order for their to be “no bigotry” (68).  Whilst this does seems like a fair assessment, or at least one that John Lennon would agree with, and it does demonstrate how religion creates barriers between groups of people, its totalitarian view on religion is the kind of attitude that facilitated the antisemitism of the era and prescribes an intolerance to people who have embraced a faith.  This totalitarian approach to thinking applies to other aspects of though as the communists in the narrative refuse to allow an open dialogue at a union meeting, stating that “There is no need for diversionist debate… in a socialist society” because “the state will provide guidance for all social thought” (68).  In control of both thought and religion, the communists that Eisner presents make no allowance for free thought, and in instances where such division exists, violence is employed to enforce unity.  Eisner depicts this when the union beats up a foreman who doesn’t wish to join and then says that a “delegate’ll be comin’… on Monday with the union contract” and threatens that if they “don’t sign up”, the union thugs will return with more violence (69).  Eisner also presents the communists as manipulators of the media as they set out a plan to put women and children in front of the protest and incite violence on the part of the police so as to generate sympathy for their cause when they attack women and children (68).  This seems to sit in contrast to Eisner’s sympathetic view of the working class and provides a skewed and biased interpretation of the communist movement as people who resort to violence to secure their ends, harming the very people they claim to be empowering.  Though such violence and manipulation were present, the movement was not as universally malevolent as Eisner’s presentation seems to suggest.


ALifeForce1Despite this exclusively negative portrayal of communism, Eisner is not supportive of the government response to it, as he portrays the government as being equally totalitarian in response.  Eisner’s chapters are usually introduced with news headlines that inform the reader about actual historical events that were going on during the era.  One of the headlines notes that “Communist literature [was] banned in” New York prisons”, going onto note that the rationale behind this was that “There are some things you cannot permit where there are feeble-minded and easily influenced persons around” (65).  This logic is flawed for several reasons, not the least of which being that it assumes all prisoners are ‘feeble-minded’.  Many people resorted to theft during The Depression in order to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families, and their ‘criminal’ conviction had nothing to do with their intellect.  This argument is also paradoxical, as a communist supporter is imprisoned when one “Revolutionary [is] jailed for painting ‘Vote Communist’ on [a] Bronx Street” (65).  Supporting the communist party publicly often led to prison, and so this patronizing parental view that ‘feeble-minded’ people need to be protected from the influence of certain ideas did not only apply to criminals prisoners, but to the general public as well.  The government, then, sees itself as some parental figure whose job it is to dictate how its citizens think, making them no different than the communists that Eisner is equally critical of.


Barack Obama (left, obviously), and Herbert Hoover (the old stiff on the right) both issued executive orders on immigration, but Fox News only supports one of them, because the other is an example of a dictatorship.

Barack Obama (left, obviously), and Herbert Hoover (the old stiff on the right) both issued executive orders on immigration, but Fox ‘News’ only supports one of them, because the other is an example of a dictatorship.

With Barack Obama recently issuing an executive order giving temporary residence to thousands of undocumented workers, Eisner’s conversations about immigration is especially relevant. During the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws, many Jewish people sought to escape Germany, but Herbert Hoover (the only president to invent a vacuum cleaner) had implemented “an executive order… restricting immigration.  Due to rigid enforcement of the rules under Hoover beginning” (93), it then became difficult for Jewish people to escape Nazi oppression in Germany. Eisner notes that in the face of German anti-Semitism, the “U.S. Secretary Of Labor” turned a blind eye and claimed that “increased immigration… would complicate U.S. unemployment problems” (83).  America’s own self-interest fueled its xenophobic attitude, viewing an increase in landed immigrants as a problem rather considering the human rights issues at hand.  This xenophobia is expressed by Elton, one of the narratives protagonists.  When he loses his apartment, he expresses distaste at the thought of living “In the Bronx… among immigrants” and asks if he “Could… still use [his] old address… to keep up appearances” (40).  This demonstrates not only his own xenophobic tendencies, but also the prevalence of such xenophobic attitudes as Elton felt the need to keep up appearances for others who might dismiss him as an immigrant should he have an address in the Bronx.  A man named Weiss reinforces this as he changes his last name to ‘White’ for the same reasons, hoping that xenophobia/anti-Semitism won’t impact the way he is perceived.  Eisner’s narrative illuminates the fallacious nature of such xenophobia, though, as people from all kinds of backgrounds are able to succeed by embracing each other.  Elton falls in love with a Jewish woman in the Bronx, dispelling his negative view of ‘immigrants’, Jacob finds work for an Italian neighbour, and the immigration laws are eventually relaxed.  With similar attitudes facing undocumented immigrants coming into America today, Eisner’s work is emblematic of the reasons why we should be more tolerant and understanding of those whose home countries do not afford the same opportunities offered in the developed world.


Though Will Eisner seemed sympathetic to women, his portrayal of them was not always productive from a feminist stand point.

Though Will Eisner seemed sympathetic to women, his portrayal of them was not always productive from a feminist stand point.

Whilst Eisner’s casts women in subsidiary roles in the novel, he does touch on some important feminist themes, most especially in regards to their roles as mothers.  Jacob’s wife, Rifka, finds that both of her children are pursuing lives other than the ones she had envisioned for them, with both marrying gentiles (not to be confused with textiles).  Her response is one of panic as she asks what she has to live for and notes that her “children are all [she has] in the world”.  She goes onto question “Why [she] should… go on living” without them (26).  Rifka goes through a similar crisis later when her husband asks for a divorce, as her life had been defined by the domestic duties she carried out for her husband (122).  This serves as a precise critique of the patriarchal custom that relegates women to the domestic sphere.  While Jacob at least has his work, and the buildings he creates, Rifka has only her children, and once they have left the home, she no longer has a purpose.  Jacob, though, can continue to work until he chooses not to, and when he is done, he can still see his life’s work fulfilling its purpose.  In relegating women to the domestic sphere, patriarchal custom does not give them the space and freedom required to define their own meaning in life, making them vulnerable to the whims of the people on whom the place their purpose.



ALifeForceA Life Force is an ambitious work, but it perhaps takes on too much for such a short piece.  Eisner does an exceptional job of invoking sympathy for the plight of the working class, but much of this is undone in his portrayal of communism and socialism, which seems unbalanced at best, though he expresses legitimate concerns about the reality of such political movements.  In making the communist organizers out to be the ones manipulating protests and inciting violence, he inadvertently down plays the level of premeditated violence that peaceful member of the labour movement endured and paints all members of the movement with a broad, unflattering stroke.  Though his criticisms of government censorship seems fair, they are not thoroughly explored with as much vigor as his negative portrayal of union organizes.  The fact that Eisner makes women mere background figures in most instances, and frames their concerns in a comedic manner does weigh down the work, and a more rounded presentation of women with fully developed characters would have certainly improved the work, but it is clear that Eisner is empathetic to the plight of women and is aware, to a degree, of the oppression they endure, even if he lacks a thorough understanding of their struggle.  As for the art work is delightful in its simplicity and ability to invoke a wide range of emotion with just a few well-placed lines.  Though there are obvious short comings, the work is still an enjoyable piece that helps to push the boundaries of the genre/mode in which it was written and serves as a document of sorts that offers insights into the political atmosphere of the Depression and allows the reader to see how problematic analogous situations in contemporary politics are.


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Works Cited:


Eisner, Will. A Life Force.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2006.  Print.



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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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