Book Title: The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue
Author: Will Eisner
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 528
Format: Hardcover (Library)
Reading time: 4 hours
Date Finished: 2/17/17
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My impressions: It’s sad but true: when I was working a booth at the 2004 Comic Con in San Diego, Will Eisner, who’s perhaps the greatest comic book creator of the 20th century, walked right by me. I saw him and wanted to briefly acknowledge him and tell him how much I admired his Spirit comics and his non-fiction Comics and Sequential Art, but he looked confused (he was very old) and I was afraid, so I didn’t say anything to him. Sadly, I never got another chance to speak to him; he died in January of 2005. While I don’t know how much it would have meant to him to have another would-be comic creator thanking him for his incredible contributions and influence, I still regret not taking a chance to find out.
With that said, it occurred to me this year that I’d never taken the time to read Eisner’s most personal graphic novels: A Contract With God, A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue, a trilogy of graphic works that centered around a single tenement block in the Bronx in New York City. (Honestly, I’d tried reading through A Contract With God 15 years ago and found it a little too grown-up for my tastes at the time, which reflects on my maturity then and now.) The Contract With God graphic novel is really a series of short graphic fiction stories about different people (mostly Jews) living in this tenement during the 1930s. In the introduction to this compilation, Eisner indicates that these stories were largely drawn from his personal life, and the one I found the most interesting is about a group of neighbors who all go to the same “Cookalein” for vacation – an upstate farm that’s been converted into a cheap vacation property and where the women can cook in the farmhouse while the men and children roam around the farm’s grounds. The experiences Eisner relates here (including sexual awakenings, people playing at being rich and marriages crumbling) are quite interesting in the context of the unusual setting.
The second graphic novel, A Life Force, is the strongest of the three, and though it was published 10 years after A Contract With God, it returns to Dropsie Avenue and tells a complexly interwoven narrative of residents whose lives intersect in strange ways. In many ways, this volume feels more like a play than a novel, right down to the point of entry character who sees some poetic connection between his life and that of a cockroach he “saves” in the opening scene. There’s a considerable amount of drama as relationships between characters of varying cultures and backgrounds are explored, and even Nazism (a specter on the horizon during the period in which this book is set) is explored through the eyes of Jews in New York. Eisner’s storytelling here is incredible, and it’s quite unlike any other graphic novel I’ve ever read outside of the author’s own work; it shows such a mastery of visual and textual interaction that it stands on its own as an inimitable work.
The third graphic novel, Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, is more of a series of vignettes throughout the history of the land that becomes Dropsie Avenue. This story starts with the original German settlers of the 19th century and goes all the way up through the 1990s (when this graphic novel was published), and it’s equal parts heartbreaking and sentimental as it explores the intersecting lives of Dropsie Avenue’s residents. This book also shows particular focus on the ugly racism amongst immigrant cultures and towards the Jews and Black residents who ultimately move in to the area. What amazed me the most was that few characters received more than a handful of pages, and yet Eisner infused so much spark and spirit into each that every one of them was distinctive and memorable.
I will say that part of what helped this book be more accessible to me at this point in my life is that I work in an office with Orthodox Jews (and thus am more familiar with their culture and terminology) and I also have spent the last few years reading up on many different facets of racism. I’m not sure I could have appreciated the Contract With God trilogy in my younger years because it’s a reflection of a grandmaster of visual storytelling relaying the lessons of his life through his own cultural experiences and lens. Even now, I found it challenging stuff in places in spite of how accessible it appeared to be. But I’m a better person for reading this collection, and I’m struck by how much I’ll be thinking about it in the days and weeks to come.