Eisners A Contract With God an epic on Bronx existence

Before “Maus,” before “Ghost World,” Will Eisner created the graphic novel from scratch. He even coined the term.

Eisner’s legacy is that of a trailblazer. In fact, the comic-book equivalent of the Oscars are called the Eisners for that reason.

In 1978, Eisner started what became the “Contract With God Trilogy” when he was in his 60s. The 499-page work was finished in 1995 and is now being reissued in one volume, with additional illustrations.

It’s a barely fictionalized story of not just Eisner’s boyhood in a Bronx tenement, but a tale of the tenement itself, of the land and the people who lived there over the course of 100 years.

The trilogy is comprised of three separate books that become more epic with each page. The first part, “A Contract With God,” begins the cycle with mostly tragic and lurid vignettes about Jewish life in the tenements. These slice-of-life depictions are compelling and drawn with an easy certainty that comes from decades of experience.

The standout tale, drawn with an expressionist tinge, is a horribly ironic exchange between a brutish German super and a seemingly innocent pre-adolescent Jewish tenant. The art and story smash the assumptions Eisner initially poses about virtue and vice.

“Part II: A Life Force” packs a punch. Eisner assembles a huge cast of New York characters — like something from a Theodore Dreiser novel — and incarnates the Bronx of his early years. The outside world encroaches on this insular community: the Holocaust, leftist rabble-rousing, wave after wave of immigrants moving into the neighborhood. Eisner is able to create complex characters regardless of their age, ethnicity or moral character. And his draftsmanship says a lot with little. “A Life Force” is part history lesson, part Yiddishkeit.

“Part Three: Dropsie Avenue” is on a higher level. The land itself in the Bronx where Eisner grew up is the main character, starting in 1870 with Dutch farmers and ending in the 1970s with new developments going up on the land where tenements once stood and have been demolished. Figures from the earlier two books reappear among a cast of hundreds, including members of every group that has lived on the semi-fictional Dropsie Avenue.

The most remarkable part of the “Contract With God Trilogy” is the writer’s ability to simultaneously draw and tell a tale on a huge scale, while never neglecting the visual details and language needed for warm, idiosyncratic bits of character. It’s a lucid depiction drawn from the primal recollections of childhood.

“The Contract With God Trilogy” by Will Eisner (499 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, $29.95).