Underground Film Journal

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The Contract With God Trilogy

By Mike Everleth ⋅ April 13, 2006

I had always wanted to get the original A Contract With God by Will Eisner. Originally published in 1978–way before I would have been able to properly appreciate it–I had seen various versions of its reprintings over the years. I have probably even held it in my hands in various comic book stores, but there was always something newer, shinier and fancier to buy instead of this classic work.

But ultimately, I’m glad I never did buy that book because it made it so much easier to snatch this trilogy collection right up, which combines the original A Contract With God with its two thematic “sequels”: A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue.

I only own a small sample of Eisner’s incredible body of work. I have a couple of Spirit magazine reprints, Kitchen Sink’s Spirit Color Treasury, the graphic novella Family Matter and, one of my favorite all-time graphic novels, The Dreamer, which is a memoir of Eisner’s pivotal career in the dawn of the comic book industry (only he changes people’s names, but you can figure out who he’s writing about).

About the term “graphic novel,” it was actually coined by Eisner to describe his original Contract With God in, as he says in this collection’s introduction, “a futile effort to entice the patronage of a mainstream publisher.”

Contract, though, isn’t a “novel” in any sense. It’s actually a collection of short stories. The first one, which shares the same name as the book, is about a deepy pious Jewish man who feels betrayed by God and turns his back on his religion. Contract sets the tone of the entire trilogy by being terribly bleak and heartbreaking, made even sadder by Eisner’s tragic revelation in the introduction about what inspired him to write this tale. There are flashes of hope in the rest of the trilogy, but the overall theme seems to be that life is a series of tragedies that must be persevered through.

The original Contract also includes the stories “The Street Singer”–about an alley entertainer who has to choose between the bottle and having a singing career; “The Super”–about a sleazy, rotten building superintendent who meets his match in a little girl (think The Bad Seed); and “Cookalien”–which Eisner claims is an autobiographical, and if it is that’s some way for the man to lose his virginity. “Cookalien” is also the most novelistic out of the first batch and sets the path for the two sequels with its overlapping storylines and actually ending on a positive note.

A Life Force was written and illustrated five years after Contract and in the beginning gives the illusion that it too is going to be another batch of short stories. The first one being about an older Jewish man who waxes philosophic on man’s struggle to survive by comparing his own life to a cockroach’s. But as the different stories emerge and slowly become interconnected, plus Eisner throws in newspaper stories and facts about the Depression (when Life Force takes place), it becomes abundantly clear that this is one long interconnected novel.

Eisner also claims in the collection’s introduction that Life Force‘s main character, Jacob, is an autobiographical stand-in. Although Jacob is a carpenter and not a comic book writer/artist, you can see the similarities when Jacob reaches the point in his life when he should be retiring, but takes up an entire new business, just as Eisner did in producing complex literary works in his 60s after previously toiling in escapist entertainment.

In addition to the much suffering Jacob, we meet his nagging wife, his entering-spinsterhood daughter and the non-Jewish financial whiz she pursues romantically, a couple of Mafia goons, a young, idealistic Communist and the former flame Jacob rescues from an increasingly Nazi-fied Germany and many more. Eisner weaves the stories of all these deeply fascinating characters together into a rich, complex tapestry making A Life Force the real centerpiece of the book–both literally and emotionally.

The final book of the collection, Dropsie Avenue, reminded me of a fleshed-out version of the famous Robert Crumb work “A Short History of America” that shows a wooded area slowly being transformed into an overly congested street corner (you can view the images here).

While the entire trilogy takes place on Eisner’s fictional Bronx street (with a minor exception of “Cookalien” where Dropsie residents head upstate), Dropsie Avenue chronicles the neighborhood’s evolution from an 1870 Dutch settlement to burnt out tenement street a hundred years later. Eisner crams in a lot in about 170 pages with, like A Life Force, recurring characters who pop up throughout the years, some from childhood to retirement age and some who disappear for large portions only to pop up later in surprising fashion.

Sadly, the inventor of the term “graphic novel” passed away several months before this release (Eisner died Jan. 3, 2005). The Contract With God Trilogy was also quite possibly the quietest graphic novel release of 2005. It was published back in the November and I didn’t even know it had been out until I saw it on the book store shelves several months later. At least the good news is that although Eisner tried to entice “real” book publishers into buying his original Contract, at least his dream finally did come true (the Trilogy is published by W.W. Norton).

Buy The Contract With God Trilogy at Amazon.com!