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But in doing that research, I happened upon the controversy about Eisner's The Contract With God being the first graphic novel or at least the first book to identify itself as such. As I fell in love with the Bayeux Tapestry when I visited France earlier this year, the claim to be the first graphic novel was already suspect to me (the tapestry was created hundreds of years ago). It turns out that Eisner had used the term to appeal to a publisher, knowing that "comic" would most likely be frowned upon. He thought he came up with the term, but later found out otherwise. It would seem that with this admission Eisner is absolved off the mistake and indeed the Wikipedia article for "graphic novels" seems to pin the blame elsewhere, singling out a Time magazine article from 2003. However, on my edition, it appears that the publishers at W.W. Norton are not above perpetuating the myth for sales. The Contract With God "launched a new art form" declares a blurb on the back. It "marked the birth of the graphic novel" according to the inside jacket flap. I think most would agree that the success of The Contract With God helped popularize the term, but it certainly didn't create it.
I don't bring all of this up merely as interesting trivia (though I happen to think it is), but it's relevant to a discussion about the Contract With God Trilogy. As it was at the time, Eisner set out to do something he felt was different in comics. Besides creating a longer work, he was also interesting in appealing to an adult audience. For those who object to the term "graphic novel" for being too dismissive towards "comics," it would seem that's exactly what Eisner was after. Something literary versus, as he saw it, "two supermen, crashing against each other." And it's this preoccupation with distinguishing itself that occassionally works against the Contract With God Trilogy. Eisner tries so hard so hard to be literary he beats some themes to death— most notably a bit about how humans are similar to cockroaches— and it comes across as pretentious more than anything else.
But for all that I enjoyed the collection. Set on the fictional Dropsie Avenue of New York, The Contract With God Trilogy is a book primarily a book of characters. People hard done by who insist, with varying degrees of success, on overcoming their obstacles. My favourite of the lot is the third book, "Dropsie Avenue," which basically introduces the neighbourhood itself as a character. Racism, integration, and the cyclical nature of the city are major themes. It would appear to end on a bleak note, when just after Dropsie Avenue is rebuilt from the ruins, racial tension begins to appear once more. But there's also comfort in the idea of the cycle. Plus, we've already seen that despite the differences, those that find love, friendship, and success amidst such tension will also be a part of the cycle.
Admittedly, I was also enthralled with the book because we've decided on New York for our March break.