Review by Ian Keogh
Having already produced several graphic novels about New York’s Jewish community, A Life Force sees Will Eisner return to the era in which he grew up, but this time embedding his fictional characters more thoroughly in real world events.
Setting his story during the 1930s depression, the rise of gangster culture, and during the appalling weather conditions of early 1934 means Eisner’s characters face even greater adversity than usual, and salvation is found in the smallest of events. In the tradition of Scottish hero Robert the Bruce taking a lesson from observing a spider in a cave, Jacob Shtarkah laid low by a weak heart watches the struggles of a cockroach that’s fallen from above. Elton Shaftsbury, once excessively wealthy, is considering suicide when offered 50 cents for a weekly task, and paranoid schizophrenic Aaron finds brief peace. Alongside them Eisner shows how such small moments can equally cost lives, such as an administrator finding it more convenient to return a form as incorrectly filled in than spend the time late on Friday afternoon to rectify her typing error.
Unlike his other stories, the background to A Life Force requires significant explanation of historical events Eisner uses to track his way through the 1930s. He provides them either via newspaper headlines and articles or as three-quarters of a page of handwritten text accompanied by an illustration. These accompanying compositions are strong and memorable portraits. Eisner really pouring the detail into the pages is apparent, as if needing the redemption of hard work himself. The sample art shows Jacob just about to have his heart attack, and his wife Rifa using her own lesser problems to manipulate their son. They, and everyone else are fully rounded people whose motivations are easily understood as Eisner skilfully weaves their stories together.
While all his stories are good, there’s a narrative complexity to A Life Force beyond Eisner’s other graphic novels. In passing he touches on an extraordinary number of issues. Racism, profit at all costs and the philosophical consideration of god all feature, as do other subjects, yet never distracting from the compelling drama on offer. Having ensured the main cast are sympathetic, Eisner turns the screw on them, but ties his plots up masterfully, including a second interpretation of a cockroach’s purpose.
A Life Force rarely rates a mention among Eisner’s best graphic novels, yet it’s his most life-affirming and optimistic outing, stressing cross-cultural friendship and is a real page-turner at the same time.
In preference to this single edition, it’s worth considering obtaining A Life Force combined with two other works by Eisner exploring similar themes as The Contract With God Trilogy.