There is a tiny irony in the fact that when Will Eisner coined the phrase “graphic novel” in 1978 to describe his work A Contract with God, the book in question did not have the single plot of a unified novel. It was instead a set of four shorter narratives joined by a common setting at No. 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. The first of these is the properly-titled “A Contract with God,” and it concerns the moral vicissitudes of a Jewish immigrant in New York. The other three stories center on a Depression-era “street singer,” the building superintendent at No. 55, and a summer vacation season.
The Contract with God Trilogy collects the original book with its two sequels, both of which fully merit the “graphic novel” label. The Life Force is a complex story centered on the carpenter Jacob Starkah, and taking place mostly in 1934. Dropsie Avenue spans more than a century of transformations of the Dropsie neighborhood, pulling the events together into a single tale of striving, corruption, and transformation. The Trilogy volume is supplied with a preface and some new interstitial art from Eisner.
When he composed these pages, Eisner had already developed his techniques of visual storytelling to a high pitch, and throughout the work the characters and plots are presented with startling efficiency, while the compositions are striking and effective. The illustration is all in monochrome inks, presented in this handsome hardcover with uniform dark brown line art on ivory paper.
All of these stories raise powerful moral and emotional concerns, leavening them with occasional humor. They also clearly incorporate a level of memoir that powerfully documents 20th-century cultural history for the Bronx. I read a copy borrowed from the local public library, and I strongly believe it deserves a place in such collections.