Contract with God – the first graphic novel?
The Contract With God Trilogy contains what is arguably the first graphic novel. It’s a series of stories linked by location and social group: about poor, first generation immigrants with New York during the Great Depression. Poverty is an obvious theme of the book, but on a higher level, it’s also about the meaning of life, or at least, the vain, human desire for metaphysical certainty.
As the first of its kind, it has some problems. Some of the characters use dramatic gestures to get across the tone of their words, which makes them look like actors posed on a stage, rather than real people. This is, perhaps, a holdover from superhero comics, where much the same thing happens, or perhaps the people Eisner knew while he was young really did talk with their hands and punch the sky for emphasis. The dialogue, also, tends to be a little theatrical: there’s more than one soliloquy for example. That being said, you might reply to me that I’m asking for realism from a comic book, which is clearly a matter of taste.
These quibbles aside, when I first read Contract with God as a twenty-something, it amazed me that stories could be told in this form, lacking strong elements of good and evil, cinematic powers, and the simplified visual palette of superhero costumes. The only other touchstone I had, really, that was vaguely similar, was the horror art of EC comics. I feel that this is closer, in both style and tone, to those books. I know how odd that sounds, but I do think Contract with God is closer to Creepshow than Superman, in look and emotional impact.
I recommend this, provided that the subject matter appeals. Its interesting in that its the first serious attempt to grasp the tools of sequential art and use them for novel-style narratives. My concerns about theatrically may be misplaced – many people like that sort of thing.