Author: Will Eisner
I am treading on hallowed ground with this review. Will Eisner is nothing short of an icon in the world of comics, and in particular the graphic novel. The Contract with God is widely considered the very first graphic novel. The Trilogy is a work composed over a lifetime, a work Eisner revisited and completed across decades.
The framework itself is, I believe, quite genius. The centerpiece of the story is not a particular person or group of people, but rather the life cycle of a particular spit of land. Dropsie Avenue, a neighborhood in the Bronx, NYC, is fiction rooted in the experiences of Will Eisner. The novel traces the land and the personalities that came to call the land home. The bulk of the time is spent in the early 20th century. Time is best marked by the Great Depression and the various wars mentioned throughout.
“The tenement… always seemed to me a “ship afloat in concrete.” After all, didn’t the building carry its passengers on a voyage through life? (Eisner)
Book One, A Contract with God, traces the stories of four individuals – the Jewish man, Frimme Hersch, the man who made the contract with God; the Super at Dropsie Avenue, Mr. Scuggs; a lowly street singer; and a collection of individuals from the neighborhood on the farm for the summer. Book Two, A Life Force, features Jacob Shtarkah, a man whose stories are inspired by Eisner’s neighborhood. The third book, Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, was written almost 20yrs after the publication of the first, an effort to trace the history of Dropsie Avenue, the immigration & integration, the rise & fall, the circle of life. Because the story traces a century, there is no one protagonist, though certain figures do play prominent roles over the decades.
The book is masterfully illustrated. Eisner is a legend, and so this should come as no surprise. It is the kind of book you can read quickly, while at the same time being the kind of book from which you can appreciate every pen stroke. He uses negative space with brilliance – probably my favorite aspect of the artwork. From a pastoral standpoint, I am most disappointed in what I would consider excessive nudity in the first third of the Trilogy. I get it, art often includes nudity for one reason or another. But I would argue the nudity in this work is gratuitous and often unnecessary. However, it serves to feed the story, the arc of which I can only describe as an unfortunate exploration of depravity and empty religiosity. I found myself often describing the book as void of all hope. Dropsie Avenue is depicted as a neighborhood where many are born, barely survive, and die. Perhaps the only source of hope is for the few who escape.
Though not prominently featured throughout, the recurring character of most significance (or so it seems) is the cockroach. The cockroach is described as living millions of years, never changing, always surviving. Generations of humanity as well pass through Dropsie Avenue – of varying ethnicity & socio-economic background – portraying the same bleak outline. Never changing. Always – though often barely – surviving.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-9 (ESV)
As I closed the Trilogy, I realized that it stands as a powerful, and therefore very sad, depiction of the themes of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth, the Preacher/Teacher of Ecclesiastes, spends a dozen Old Testament chapters trying to find meaning in all that the world has to offer, only to find that all is vanity – chasing after the wind. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that humanity, viewed strictly within an earthly context, has no meaning. Purpose, therefore, must find its source outside this world, because even the most thorough exploration of this world yields unhappiness. Self-indulgence, wisdom, work, wealth and honor are cast aside by Qoheleth as ends in and of themselves. The residents of Dropsie Avenue chase these dead ends with reckless abandon in their efforts to survive. All along the way they question God’s existence, his motives, his purposes, but without the humility that yields godly fruit or any remote glimpse of righteousness. Every question, selfish in motive and tone, only presses the passengers aboard the tenement further into their own depravity. How could there be hope in such a story?
I considered putting the Trilogy down a fraction of the way into book two. I struggle pressing into empty hopelessness. I insisted on finishing for a few reasons. First, I bought the book. In my frugality (Bob is cheap!), I find encouragement to press on! Second, when a work is celebrated, I often want to know why. Third, because I have hope, I move forward hoping to find hope.
I am glad I finished the work, but not because I found what I was looking for. In fact, I am glad because I didn’t find what I was looking for. I couldn’t help but muster a faint smile upon realizing that Ecclesiastes is absolutely true. My heart is sad that so many, in the absence of hope, press inward rather than Godward. Yet my heart rejoices that, for those who are drawn near in his grace, God reveals a hope more glorious than words can describe. I am sure there are countless neighborhoods just like Dropsie Avenue around the world, though each may take a different shape and supply a different flavor. After all, Qoheleth teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun.
Had the novel attempted to provide an answer outside the solution of Ecclesiastes & the breadth of Scripture, I might not have been able to smile. But the overwhelming conclusion that the stained cycle of fallen life is indeed perpetual and inescapable by human means affirms everything the Scriptures reveal as a doctrine of man.
At the beginning of the Trilogy, Frimme Hersch makes a contract with God. He makes the contract based on his own expectations; expectations which were cultivated over years of misapplied promises. So many of us are guilty of believing that it is we who draft the terms and conditions of the relationship between God and man, when it is God – and God alone – who has determined the conditions of his gracious covenants with his creatures born of dust.
Because we are prone to misinterpret, misapply, and otherwise misunderstand God’s truth, I can absolutely see why a book like this is appealing. There is, after all, a healthy dose of earthly reality preserved in the ink. But it is an incomplete reality. It is a reality that points the finger at God without any attempt to know him. With the cycle of sin and devastation humanity has wrought on the earth, still God remains in perfect righteousness, love, and justice. The devastation of sin met the depth of divine love at the cross of Christ, justice and mercy at the intersection of two beams of wood where earth’s only pure and innocent blood was shed. Therein lies the hope the Trilogy, and humanity, so desperately needs – heavenly hope.
Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I recommend this book? Probably not. For those who struggle with images of the flesh, either for reasons of offense or temptation, I certainly do not recommend the book. It is in many cases offensive for my taste, and probably far too tempting for many. Beyond that, I can hardly say it is edifying to explore meaninglessness as an end. Ecclesiastes, for all its despair, is seasoned with glimmers of hope, a feature sadly avoided in this classic work.