This epic book is considered the first graphic novel and was written by Will Eisner, whom the Eisner Awards are named after in honor of all his contributions to the world of comics.
Part I: A Contract With God– Four stories make up this Part I, all which are linked thematically with recurring issues of disillusionment and classism. The namesake story A Contract with God is about a devout Jewish man who gives up his faith after the death of his young daughter and how he feels that all his good works and that the religious contract he had written earlier were in vain. The Street Singer and The Super detail repugnant people and the misfortune that befalls them both. Cookalein weaves the stories of several characters staying at a blue collar resort in the Catskill Mountains, who are all striving to better themselves. This last story was fascinating and gives a peek into a forgotten chapter of how the lower middle class vacationed.
Part II: A Life Force– Much of the story centers around Jacob Shtarkah and his Jewish family as they all yearn for a better future. Within one family’s experiences you see a microcosm of what was happening in the larger world during the Depression and years leading up to WWII. Jacob wishes for more and struggles with an existential search as the eleven stories reveal the hopes and dreams of many in the Dropsie neighborhood.
Part III: Dropsie Avenue– My first thought on finishing this segment that it was the classic children’s book The Little House, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1942, on steroids. The story begins it’s 100 year arc in 1870 in the Bronx when there were still Dutch farms. After a few decades the farms have given way to an elegant neighborhood on Dropsie Avenue. The neighborhood has some newly rich Irish immigrants move in, and then some German immigrants. Both endure discrimination before leaving. The neighborhood begins a slow decline, with tenement buildings replacing the once stately family homes, until Dropsie Avenue is quite city like. The Depression hits the area hard, and a new wave of Italian immigrants move it, and slum landlords let the tenements go to ruin. While responsible residents remain, the years pass by with much social upheaval, until the neighborhood is razed for a new housing development. Then begins the cycle again, with a rather depressing epilogue.
Each story can stand alone, but they all fit together as a whole for they compliment one another in tone, under the same thematic motif of cultural and religious identity. The pictures are drawn in black and white with sepia overtones, and Eisner varied his page design to great effect in his storytelling. The cityscapes were well done, but the people he depicted veered between realistic portrayals and caricatures that were culturally insensitive. Ultimately, the saga of death and rebirth makes this a classic story that deserves all the praise it has received. It was a landmark book, that forever changed how a story could be told.
* Other excellent Eisner books are The Name of the Game & A Family Matter.