Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Contract with God Trilogy, a Review

Will Eisner is a rather significant individual in the history of the graphic novel, as well as the comic world at large.  He is, after all, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Graphic Novel.  In fact, the Eisner Awards (the comics' equivalent to the Oscars) are named after him.  Of course, any serious fan of graphic novels has read some Will Eisner.  Well, color me red and call me a strawberry, I can finally say I have.

The Contract with God trilogy is one large collection of three individual graphic novels: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, A Life Force, and Dropsie Avenue.  Each volume tells a complete story, though the three are interwoven and related.  The stories largely deal with racism, religious bigotry, and hard life through the Great Depression.  The colors are all muted sepia toned, seemingly from pencil.  This medium choice adds a bleakness throughout the book, certainly fitting to the setting.  Eisner's lines are sometimes rushed and simple, befitting of a comic creator of Old, but I think anything fancier (i.e., more Realistic) would detract from the story.

A Contract with God is composed of four smaller stories: "A Contract With God", "The Super", "The Street Singer", and "Cookalein".  In it we read the tale of a Jewish Russian man who comes to America and settles down on Dropsie Avenue, taking up residence in a Bronx tenement.  Life is hard and goes awry, and the story is grim and tragic.

A Life Force pretty much deals with man's goals in life, to love and be happy, and compares them to a cockroach.  This one at least has more characterization, and was easier to relate to than the first.  It also seemed to have more of a plot, one that was more than halfway interesting.  Still, the story was bleak.

Dropsie Avenue was probably my favorite of the three.  Its main character is Dropsie Avenue itself.  This story begins in the late 1800s and chronicles the development of the land and its Dutch settlers to where it is now.  We see the land change, moving from farms to tenements and factories.  We see the people change, phasing through Dutch, Irish, Jewish, Russian, Puerto Rican, African American, and many other races.  We see how the society changes and how it affects Dropsie Avenue.  I enjoyed this story quite a bit.
This review doesn't paint a pleasant picture of Eisner's acclaimed work, and that's probably because the story was so danged depressing.  Eisner was born in 1917, so he lived through the Great Depression and through the changes he's created.  In fact, he drew from his own experiences for many of these tales, and I suppose they're probably more autobiographical than we know.  Reading tragedy is hard for me to "like," per se.  

However, I can't really say that I enjoyed the read and thoroughly recommend you to all read it immediately, either.  I can understand and appreciate the history of this book, how it is largely responsible for the creation of the graphic novel industry today, and I'm thankful for this.  Still, the story is very complex and meticulous, weaving many threads through many characters and locations, and the book never rose above its potential.  

So do I recommend Will Eisner's Contract with God trilogy?  Yes, and no.  Yes if you're a graphic novel fan and are interested in reading something by a legend.  Yes if you enjoy stories told with a Great Depression setting, especially dealing with race, nationality, and religion.  No if you're new to graphic novels and are curious about them (for that I'd recommend Craig Thompson's Blankets for something Real, or Alan Moore's Watchmen if you like super-heroes in your graphic novels).  No if you're wanting something with color and something less depressing.  In the end, I'm glad I've read it, but I don't plan to read any more by the man, either.


contemplatrix said...

Dropsie Avenue is my favorite as well. (and available as a stand alone). I love Eisner's sense of movement and drama; but the reading is much more tenable on a summer day.

In becoming familiar with Eisner, it is easier to see how widespread his influence, though I agree the reading may not be just anyone's cup of tea.

good review...

~L (omphaloskepsis)

logankstewart said...

@L: Aye, Eisner masterfully moved his characters around and created plenty of drama, for sure.