“Will Eisner, born in 1917, saw himself as “a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak, and the never-ending struggle to prevail.” The publication of A Contract with God when Eisner was sixty-one proved to be a watershed moment both for him and for comic literature. It marked the birth of the graphic novel and the beginning of an era when serious cartoonist could be liberated from their stultifying comic-book format.” ~ from the cover flap
One of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after Will Eisner, and he is referred to as ‘father of the Graphic Novel’, so I don’t know what the heck I was thinking that it never crossed my mind to look for his works. But serendipity took over, and I got introduced to his work from the oddest source. When I went back to Indonesia in February, I flipped through a local newspaper to find a glimpse of intriguing illustration. The article was on the raise of graphic novel and the illustration belonged to Eisner’s A Contract with God, which I had never heard of before. Wonderment just surged through me. I thought I knew my graphic novels! I came back to Sydney and the week after found a tome of the book sitting on the shelf of my library. I had never seen it there before. Serendipity.
The Contract with God Trilogy is a compilation of three separate volumes: A Contract With God, A Life Force, and Dropsie Avenue. With 500 pages, it is graphic novel at its truest sense of the words. The stories revolve around the people in tenement buildings on Dropsie Avenue, the mythical street of Eisner’s youth in Depression-era New York City.
The Trilogy started with Preface by Will Eisner himself:
“This book contains stories drawn from the endless flow of happenings characteristic of city life. Some are true. Some could be true.
Born and brought up in New York City and having survived and thrived there, I carry with me a cargo of memories, some painful and some pleasant, which have remained locked in the hold of my mind. I have an ancient mariner’s need to share my accumulation of experience and observations. Call me, if you will, a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail… or at least to survive.” ~ Will Eisner
The first in the trilogy, A Contract with God has four short stories in it. The title story, according to Eisner, was “an exercise in personal agony”. It tells a story about a man who is outraged by the death of his daughter. He breaks his contract with God and turns to become a rich, but unkind, bitter man.
“My only daughter, Alice, had died of leukemia eight years before the publication of this book. My grief was still raw. My heart still bled. In fact, I could not even then bring myself to discuss the loss. I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an “adopted child.” But his anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine. I exorcised my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it. This is the first time in thirty-four years that I have openly discussed it.” ~ Will Eisner
Eisner continued to share how the other three stories came to be. My favorite is the one called The Street Singer. (“The street singers were men who appeared in the narrow space between the tenements to provide impromptu concerts.” ~ from the Preface) While the four shorts in the first book of the Trilogy are disconnected, the second and third book take a different approach, even a different way of illustrating. In A Life Force, the second book, we are introduced to many new characters in the tenements, disconnected at first, but they start to cross paths along the way, and everything comes together at the end. Dropsie Avenue is centered around the neighborhood, the main character. People and characters come and go, there are births and deaths, and we see how the neighborhood transforms for better or for worse. While the illustrations in A Contract with God are big–with one panel often filling the whole page, the second and third book in the trilogy are full of detailed illustrations packed with panels and text. Obviously the latter volumes were the more ambitious projects and they succeeded.
The preface was written in December 2004 by Eisner, and he died on 3 January 2005. Did he write the preface in the hours of his dying days? Knowing how important these books were for him made them all the more important for me too. The three volumes were originally published separately over long period of time, but I can’t imagine not reading them together. I encourage you to read all three of them if you can. Only then it would come full circle. In my mind all the little stories make one big tale of sadness and desperation, but also of hopes and luck. Like life itself.
Trilogy: 2005 (A Contract with God: 1978, A Life Force: 1988, Dropsie Avenue: 1995), 498 pp
Graphic Novels 2010 (book #6)