Will Eisner is famous for all manner of things, not least of which is a comics career spanning more decades than most readers will have been alive. But it was with this book, A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories that Eisner is credited with bringing adult oriented novel length comics to a wider audience. Prior to this, America was fixated with monthly series and newspaper strips. Eisner took the basic components of the form and constructed a very different work of quality and influence.
This collection of four stories takes us back to the Bronx of the 1930s as seen through Eisner’s own eyes, when tenement blocks were crammed with European immigrants jostling their way to a better life. Each story is about a different character, based on a real person, with one thing binding them all – an overwhelming desire to lift themselves out of the tenements.
The fact that it isn’t specifically about Eisner himself seems to bring a little more gravitas to the work, as there’s less need to focus on half-remembered detail and more space for exploring his characters and their dramatic lives. In stark contrast to the more ambitious To the Heart of the Storm, we’re left with a feeling that these characters are keen observations rather than two-dimensional stereotypes. The tenements themselves provide a weighty, almost gravitational backdrop, drawing Eisner’s cast back into the black holes of poverty and depression no matter how hard they try to leave.
The book barely shows its age despite its venerable years, with the history of New York’s Bronx as relevant now as it was when it was written. These short stories are unique in the medium and justly deserve the reverence they receive.