Back in high school, I had the chance to read some of Will Eisner’s work, and though I enjoyed it at the time, I never got around to reading anything of his again until now. In a way, this strikes me as strange, given his huge success as a cartoonist (which led to a comics award being named after him). He is credited with boosting the popularity of the term “graphic novel” when he published A Contract with God, which some people say is the first of its kind. The book follows the stories of various people living on Dropsie Avenue, most of who are poor, working-class immigrants. It was an important landmark in comics history because to Eisner, it was a step away from rapidly produced commercial comics into the realm of more serious, “literary” work. Because of this, I was happy to finally get my hands on a copy. I actually ended up with more than I bargained for, since apparently there were two more related books bundled in: A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue. In this review, I will go through each of the three comics compiled in The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue, comparing and contrasting them so you can get an idea of how they stack up (Note: after leafing through them all, it doesn’t seem like you need to read them in order—or read all of them, for that matter—but if you want to get a picture of how Eisner developed the series over time, I would recommend it).
The first impression I got when I started A Contract with God was that is was really different than anything I’d seen. The first four pages don’t have panel borders, and the first seven only have one image each. While it’s not uncommon nowadays for comics to utilize splash pages for dramatic effect, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in a row. To me, this was an immediate indication that Eisner was trying something new, and I think it had its desired effect. Each image felt very powerful and in a way lonely, which fit well with the somber themes of the book. The linework was also very beautiful, with painstaking cross-hatching and hand lettering in various styles. The stories themselves were enjoyable as well, though they were far from uplifting. Death, poverty, manipulation, seduction, and abuse are all featured. In a way, it shows the worst of humanity, and leaves the best out of reach. Will Eisner himself had a tough lot in life, particularly when he was growing up, and thus this feels like an outpouring of all his frustrations with the world. He even mentions in his intro to this collection that the short stories “A Contract with God” and “Cookalein” were based on personal experience. Overall, this book was a strong start to the trilogy, though it was probably the most cynical of the three.
A Life Force stood out to me as the strongest of the compilation, though I didn’t think so immediately. I remember in particular having mixed feelings over the newspaper inserts Eisner started using; while they did add a touch of realism to the novel, I felt that they varied in their relevance to the story, and thus could be a little boring. However, they happened less and less as the book went on, and the good parts just got better. What sets this book apart from the others was the cast of characters. Unlike the first book, the short stories in A Life Force shared more in common than just the setting of Dropsie Avenue. Eisner slowly introduced characters, and gradually interwove their stories together. This resulted in a satisfying cohesiveness and a strong attachment to the characters. Since the stories were connected, that also allowed for plot progression, which helped this novel be the most engaging. While the other two books were good, the middle one was the only one I felt I couldn’t put down because I just had to know what was going to happen next. I think the fact that it went from seemingly individual stories to tightly interwoven ones made this effect stronger, since it was exciting to realize which things were connected how. Because of this good story planning, A Life Force won my favor, and I was actually disappointed to see it end.
Though certainly not bad, Dropsie Avenue was the weakest link in the series in my opinion. I think the issue with it is that it takes a while to come into its own. It seeks to show the entire history of Dropsie Avenue, but as a result it spends very little time with each character in the beginning, sometimes only a couple pages. After reading the last book, where it felt like things were developing day by day with a shared cast, it was a shock to suddenly be hurtling through time like that. Thankfully, it does slow down significantly and starts to resemble the previous novel in that there are now familiar characters to follow. This allows it to focus on how immigration can affect neighborhoods in the short term, which I actually found more interesting. It has a broader view of ethnic conflict than the previous books, though only by a little. Interestingly enough, I thought Dropsie Avenue ended on an almost hopeful note; though it does showcase the hardships of growing up in impoverished neighborhoods, it seems to have a certain appreciation and nostalgia for the vibrant communities that live there, and shows just how much a street can mean to someone.
Overall, I thought The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue was a good read, and would recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more about Will Eisner’s work. I think his passion for the comics form and its potential comes through beautifully in his art, and the stories feel like they were very meaningful to him. I would say it’s up to you which combination of the three you check out, but A Life Force is the one I would most recommend. That said, I think they’re all worth reading, and I hope some of you will go check them out!