Long held as the most respected and revered names in comic books, Will Eisner proved talented not only as a sequential artist but also as one of the first people to truly inspire the comic book medium as a legitimate art form. Having written two books (Comics and Sequential Art and Graphical Storytelling and Visual Narrative), numerous articles, and speeches, Eisner understood graphic novels as few others can. This exhaustive graphic novel, standing just a few pages shy of the five hundred mark, serves as the most appropriate final piece of Eisner, who died in 2005.
Though the three parts of the trilogy have been previously published, readers will delight in this unified piece and enjoy the preface written by Eisner as well as twelve new drawings by him. All of the stories revolve around the inhabitants of Dropsie Avenue (primarily 55 Dropsie Avenue), an imaginary street in the Bronx, and mostly concentrate on the Great Depression, though some of the pieces extend beyond that time period. Eisner’s collection works so fantastically because, throughout all the stories in this trilogy, he challenges readers by showing us the truly wonderful moments in life, then smoothly turning the story around to reveal the futility of life. Ultimately, his stories illustrate the juxtaposition of a constantly changing, even unstable world balanced with a continuity and sameness that follows us through the years.
Though not a “trilogy” in the tradition sense, the three different pieces certainly have correlations and hover around Dropsie Avenue with some repeated characters among them. Eisner’s choice of presentation does change from book to book, and the differences prove to be quite engaging. The first book, A Contract of God contains four separate stories. These stories are told in a simplistic manner that allows the reader to glide through pages and absorb the story, His innovative placement and use of readable text establish a much more embodied narrator than the typical exposition text, particularly in the title piece. Eisner doesn’t hesitate to show readers the bleak state of life during the Depression. No euphemisms are needed—he shows his readers the violence, sex, and emotion that ran rampant through the streets. “Graphic novel” takes on numerous meanings for this book.
A Life Force follows the ways in which love, tradition, organized crime, and politics affect the inhabitants of Dropsie Avenue more than they are willing to admit. Again, readers see Eisner’s hard work to create natural borders for his panels or to painstakingly integrate them into the scenery. The end results puts readers deeper into the story in a kind of physical sense that straightforward panels could not accomplish.
The final piece, Dropsie Avenue, may start out slow, but by the final panel, readers’ mouths may drop with Eisner’s sincere history of the imaginary Bronx neighborhood over the span of a hundred years from 1870 to 1970. The strongest theme to come from this story focuses on xenophobia and humankind’s constant fear of the outsider. Classicism begets ethnocentrism begets religious bigotry begets racism. Eisner smoothly guides his audience in very believable transitions of the neighborhood as it goes from a bourgeoisie settlement to the tenement slums of Depression to the crackhouses of the Fifties and Sixties and finally into a residential community. Though slightly scary, the history has a certain truth to it when considering the evolution of urban neighborhoods.
The Contract With God Trilogy stands as a behemoth of a graphic novel but certainly proves to be more than worth the time and money spent. Eisner’s graphic storytelling provides readers with enough to contemplate and enjoy again and again. Each piece earns its own compliments, and when put together in this graphic novel, the worth of each exponentially increases. With a style that manages to reveal both the futility and wonder of life in a mere few panels, Eisner’s talents have not been wasted; rather, he has helped advance the appreciation and respect of this art medium.