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Will Eisner and Three Visions of New York

Eisner new yorkNew York, New York.

Is there any city that has featured in as many stories, songs and films? Ok, maybe Paris, but ignoring that - definitely New York. The representations of New York are as varied as its famously melting-pot population, but there are threads and themes that connect them.

Will Eisner’s New York; Life In The Big City is a classic collection of vignettes and short pieces about New York, published between 1981 and 2000. It is perhaps the most famous graphic text dealing with the city itself. It collects four of Eisner's works: 'The Building’, ‘City People’, ‘Notebook’ and ‘Invisible People’ - all drawing on Eisner’s lifetime of observing the people of New York and the changes it has undergone over the years.

Eisner the buildingThe version of New York Eisner presents is intimate, yet the ghosts of his themes can be found in numerous other depictions of the city. Two particular examples are the animated short which accompanies Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue from Disney’s Fantasia 2000 and ‘New York Song’ from the album Snow Magic by the band Dark Dark Dark.

We’re all aware of, excuse the pun, the fairytale of New York. It’s been shown in countless movies that New York is a strange and unknowable place filled with magic and danger, isolation and love, history and change. Eisner shows these characteristic dichotomies in New York by moving his stories from the sublime joys of city life to its pains, terrors and struggles. This is the New York of taxis and subways, tenements and skyscrapers, rushing businessmen and women and kids playing in fire hydrants on hot summer days. It is also the New York of affairs, abusive spouses and isolation. Love, loneliness and life are Eisner’s touchstone themes. In none of his stories is this so clear than in ‘The Building’.

To take Eisner’s own words from the introduction:

after many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical.

Perhaps this is why, in order to talk about the palimpsestic and destructive nature of the big city, Eisner chose to write what is essentially a ghost story.

A street musician, a man trying desperately to give his life meaning, a woman who never gave up her poet lover until the day she died, the rich landowner for whom the building became a special obsession; all end up dying - timed around changes surrounding one skyscraper in the city. None of their lives could really be called happy, but rather, they are tales of missed chances and destinies unfulfilled. It is the force of the building - and by extension the city itself - and the accumulated lives and stories that have occurred around it that holds their spirits there for one final redemptive act. The four ghosts prevent a freak accident turning fatal in the climax of the book, Eisner’s comment, perhaps, on how the city takes care of its own. In true New York style, however, this is not a happy story but a hard one.


The animated short ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for Disney’s Fantasia 2000 is remarkably similar. Set in the Great Depression, the cartoon features another four unhappy lives that intersect in the bustle of the city. A construction worker with dreams of becoming a musician, a little girl neglected by her parents and being raised by a succession of tutors instead, a wealthy man used by his controlling wife and an out-of-work and out of luck type without a penny to his name.

Throughout the short, the four main characters are rushed through their lives by the pace of the big city, each in a private world of unhappiness. From different vantages they see a pair of ice skating figures, this moment of beauty and freedom compelling them all to break free and keep trying for life. Just as in Eisner’s ‘The Building’, the characters, without ever meeting one another, change each others’ lives. Both Eisner and Fantasia 2000 recognise that one of the inherent dichotomies of the city is that no matter how much people go through their lives alone, interaction is unavoidable, and the collection of small human acts is what gives the city its life.

Dark Dark Dark are a band from Minneapolis who, nonetheless, seem to me totally suited to New York. Like Gershwin, they are influenced by jazz and have an old-world Americana feel. The mournful sound of the accordion, matched by the wavering and mournful tones of the lead singer seem to perfectly match up to a New York winter - especially when set against the recurring themes of death, winter and loss which feature on the 2008 album Snow Magic 


Their focus on loss and mourning pushes the dark fairytale-like quality of New York even further than Eisner. No song does this more than the eighth track, New York Song.

‘New York Song’ acknowledges straight away the harshness of the city opening with lines describing the winter (“so so cold”) and counterpointing it later with the stifling heat of the New York summer (“like breathing on the hottest day / I think I would rather suffocate”). Narratively the song revolves around two lovers who drown but “while their bodies were lost / Their souls stayed around”. Like ‘The Building’, New York does not let these ghosts move on. Instead they must “wait for the spring when the ice will thaw.” The darkness of this song comes from an awareness of the dangers of New York.

Both Eisner and Fantasia 2000 also recognise this aspect of the city: it can grind people down, even to the point of death. Using the darkness of the city in this way all three of these representations show the city itself to be an active force working on their various protagonists. Dark Dark Dark focus more on the elemental aspects of the city while Eisner examines the interaction of the people and their home, but both are aware of the inherent magic of the place. Dark Dark Dark present in their enigmatic lyrics and the swirling otherworldliness of their instrumentals what Eisner recognised in his introduction to ‘The Building’, there is something “unexplained and [...] magical” about the city which can affect those that live in it.

These are only three of the thousands - if not millions - of representations of New York City, and here I have really only touched the surface of Eisner’s work. His awareness of graphic comedy, his eye for cityscapes and his deep understanding of the people which inhabit them is second to none. Disney and Dark Dark Dark are tapping into a deep fount of New York stories and themes: a city whose character in modern myth Eisner helped to form as much as he was influenced by it.  


New York; Life In The Big City by Will Eisner, published by W. W. Norton (2006)

‘Rhapsody in Blue’ from Fantasia 2000, directed by Eric Goldberg, music composed by George Gershwin and influenced by the cartoons of Al Hirschfield.

‘New York Song’ from Snow Magic by Dark Dark Dark, Supply And Demand Music (2008)