Off the Shelf: The Contract with God Trilogy

The Contract With God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie AvenueThe Contract With God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked up The Contract with God Trilogy from my library recently since I had been reading a lot of graphic novels as of late & I wanted to learn more about this Will Eisner guy that keeps getting name-dropped. All of the stories in this book follow the inhabitants of tenements in the Bronx, specifically 55 Dropsie Avenue. These are stories about the immigrant experience in America, pursuing a better life with new opportunities, navigating societal obstacles & trying to find the meaning in it all.

Oftentimes I would find myself reading one of the stories & thinking, ‘Oh, that’s like [insert different author here].’ The short story “The Super” is like something out of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. “A Life Force” is akin to works by the Singer brothers. The last third of the book, “Dropsie Avenue,” was the most enjoyable to me because it was like reading Faulkner, albeit compressed & taking place in an urban setting. I struggled to find what new perspective Eisner brought to these stories & it seemed mainly to just be the art.

But even still I had a hard time enjoying Eisner’s work because that Golden Age look of his cartoons brought such a weird tone to everything. The story “Cookalein” is a prime sort of example–its ultimately meant to be a comedy in the classic theater sense (focuses on relationships, the community coming together, maturing, and yes, sex). But there is a brutish undertone to the adult relationships (a woman gets raped (but not really because the guy has ED???), another woman gets smacked around for cheating & she is instantly turned on) that makes the cartoonish look of the panels jarring, to say the least.

Ultimately, I’m willing to concede that I don’t have the best frame of reference here: graphic novels & comics aren’t the main medium I gravitate to as a reader & I might be missing something. As stories, the pieces in this collection are written well enough & I can see that Contract with God could have paved the way for other comics artists who were interested in creating realistic narrative fiction the same way prose writers already were. But I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more Eisner until I know a little bit more about his place in the comics field.

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