February 2, 2006

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The Contract With God Trilogy, by Will Eisner (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 498 pages)

A+

Will Eisner, a storyteller who worked in pictures as often as words, understood that you can view any of the “big” issues through the small lens of an individual life. We’ve all had our struggles with the big questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? Who will love me? Does anyone have my back? Is there a God?

The study of history works much the same way. The repetitive pattern of human events — the rise and fall of empire — is mirrored every day on scales personal, familial and communal.

Eisner was a Jew who grew up in New York City during the Great Depression. He saw America at its best and worst, right from his front stoop. Fortunately for us, he remembered everything and developed the skills needed to effectively and powerfully share his experience.

The Contract with God Trilogy is a collection of three of Eisner’s best “graphic novels” — A Contract with God, A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue.

Together, the books make up a story about life, pain, sickness, lust, hopes, dashed dreams and change — all set within the few square blocks of Eisner’s fictional Dropsie Avenue. We meet Frimme Hersh, a devout man who accuses his god of welshing on a deal after the death of Hersh’s daughter. We meet a street singer named Eddie who blows his one chance at success when his focus on booze causes him to forget a very important street address. Then there is Jacob Shtarkah, whose good work puts him out of a job, causing him to wonder if there is more to life than just staying alive. And there is the look at immigration, as wave gives way to wave and the neighborhood changes and perhaps grows into something completely alien.

The stories in Contract are more or less based on actual happenings that Eisner heard about (or lived) and altered. They are human stories, made more so by Eisner’s simple but revealing artwork. (During World War II, Eisner was the guy who got the military to see that putting instruction manuals in comic book form worked wonders. He’s also the creator of The Spirit, a comic strip about a costumed vigilante, and the comic book industry’s highest award, The Eisner, is named after him.)

Students of history, art and sociology will find this book illuminating.

For anyone else, it’s just a hard story to put down.

Robert Greene

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