The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue

Reviewed: February 13, 2008
By: Will Eisner
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
498 pages, $42.00

There’s a series of some three dozen awards named for Will Eisner. They are presented annually to comic book writers and artists who display exceptional merit in their work. They often go to examples of the hybrid literary form known as the graphic novel.

These are a very common form in today’s comic book world, and are usually composed of between 5 and 12 issues of a particular comic in which a fairly complex story arc is played out for the reader, a sequence which can stand alone as a worthwhile story even if it falls within the framework of a a regular monthly magazine.

That isn’t exactly what Will Eisner had in mind when he essentially created the format in 1978. By then Eisner, who was born in New York in 1917, had had a successful career in comic books, creating such characters as John Law, Lady Luck, Mr. Mystic, Uncle Sam, Blackhawk and Sheena. His most original creation was a noirish detective series about The Spirit, which ran as an 8 page weekly comic insert in many American newspapers from 1940 to 1952.

In a separate career that lasted until the 1970s he took on the production of training manuals for the US Army, but by 1978 he had returned to comics with a bigger vision.

Dropsie Avenue, the setting for all three of the extended tales in this volume, looks a lot like the setting for the Spirit mystery stories, but the mysteries here are those of the human heart and the struggle to survive in the low rent districts of Eisner’s childhood.

When he finished the work he couldn’t find a publisher at first. They didn’t know what to make of the work or how to market it. That they were wrong is shown by this deluxe Norton hardcover edition. Norton publishes a lot of classic literature, and nearly anyone who has taken an English 100 course at university has lugged an edition of the massive Norton Anthology around campus.

A Contract with God is the story of mankind’s search for the meaning of a relationship with the divine. There are four major chapters, each dealing with residents of Dropsie Avenue who are trying to find their ways in life. These are not happy stories, but they have a wry humour to them and are compelling.

A Life Force has a longer story arc and a very pointed comparison between the existence of two types of city dwellers: people and cockroaches. It could be seen as a difficult year in the life and times of Jacob Shtarkah and his immediate family in New York. They suffer through the Depression, the starting of a new business, a brush with the law and the Mob, and the trials of a growing family, all against the backdrop of advancing Nazi anti-Semitism in Europe. The story is told in 11 chapters.

Dropsie Avenue is the last of the sequence, created nearly 20 years after the first book. It is ambitious in that it is the life story of a neighbourhood, from its founding as a farming community in 1870 to its development as an upwardly mobile enclave, its transformations under a series of ethnic migrations, to its nadir as an inner city slum and its revival as a tidy suburban community of affordable homes. There is, of course, a clear hint at the end that the cycle will continue. Over 270 pages in length, the book is as comprehensive a piece of social analysis as anything on the History Channel, and yet it is as amusing as it is insightful.

These stories are adult entertainment. Don’t be fooled. Some comics are not for kids.