The Contract with God Trilogy by Will Eisner
Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is often hailed as the first graphic novel. In his preface, Eisner explains that he gained inspiration from 1930s experimental graphic artists, and attempted to combine the simple beauty of the “serious novels told in art without text” with words that would do justice to the New York memories “which have remained locked in the hold of [his] mind.”
This book is comprised of three chapters, originally published as separate books. A Contract With God begins with the title story of a man that loses faith after the death of his adopted daughter, and includes three other stories about tenement life in the Bronx. A Life Force is set in the middle 1930s and tells Depression tales of God, crime and the changing ethnic makeup of the Bronx, with the specter of WWII haunting the stories. Dropsie Avenue begins in 1870 and charts the evolution of a Bronx neighborhood up to the bombed out seventies.
Faith is an especially predominant theme in all the stories in The Contract With God Trilogy. Faith in God, losing religious faith, faith in friends and neighbors and ultimately, faith in humanity are all taken on. Unfortunately it seems that Eisner had little faith in his readers’ ability to understand and interpret his themes; the stories are often trite to modern eyes and moralistic to the point of dullness. They rely heavily on stereotypes. The superficiality of Eisner’s examination isn’t helped by his flowery writing style that tries to mythologize his characters’ predicaments. In an introduction to a story about a mentally ill man called "The Enchanted Prince," Eisner begins a page-long introduction to the man’s story this way: “Once upon a time a young prince was born in the Bronx… His name was Aaron. Unhappily, somewhere in the divine cauldron, where mysterious forces fabricate life, something went awry for Aaron, and in the soft circuitry of his brain and infinitesimal welding failed!!”
One especially glaring detraction from Eisner’s tales is his incredibly negative depiction of women. His female characters are drawn like dump trucks or bombshells or nothing at all. In almost every instance, women are desperate creatures whose desire for status or male attention (often the same thing) drive them to nasty, calculating deeds. These missteps often drive the plot of the stories in The Contract With God Trilogy and it is lamentable that in order to believe the action of the story, the reader has to swallow a lot of stereotypes.
In the Cookalein story from A Contract With God, which, despite its plot, gives great details on a long lost Catskills getaway, a young woman takes the train to the popular vacation spot in order to find “a rich manufacturer” to marry. She creates a high-class personality and ends up finding a handsome man with similar gigolo plans. When they discover each other’s true identities, she decides to laugh and he decides to rape her. Punching, screaming and rape are shown as ways the major way that these women get their (deserved?) comeuppance. Whether Eisner is just fictionalizing his memories seems irrelevant in the midst of so many images of violence (often coupled with sex and nudity). The one girl who is innocent of guile dies and begins her father’s downward spiral into depravity.
The architectural details in The Contract With God Trilogy are beautiful, but the human characters lack definition when they are in motion. One character can look ten different ways in one story and that occasionally makes the narrative hard to follow. Eisner’s drawings are the most evocative when his subjects are at rest. It is as if, in all the racket of a tenement world, he has managed to take a photograph that’s very stillness says volumes about the movement going on outside that split second.
In a time where graphic novels and memoirs are becoming increasingly less ghettoized as an art and narrative form, a reader who has read such richly engaging long-format comics by Marjane Satrapi or the Hernandez Brothers will have a hard time getting hooked by any of the stylistic or narrative techniques used in The Contract with God Trilogy. Eisner’s introduction is an exciting record of a life in comics, but the following collection, even with its additional drawings, is for fans and history buffs only.
The Contract With God Trilogy by Will Eisner
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.