"A Contract With God" is a 1978 graphic novel by legendary comics creator Will Eisner, and is often considered to be the first work to be a true "graphic novel". First published in 1978, the graphic novel has been updated with additional artwork and prefaces several times since then. Although much of Eisner's early work was fantastical "comic book stories", "A Contract With God" is a socially realistic work, detailing life in the tenements that Eisner was raised in, in The Bronx, as the child of Jewish immigrants. He says of the stories: "Some are true. Some could be true."
The book uses black and white line art and words to tell stories, with a layout less reliant on panels than most comic books. There are four interrelated stories, all taking place in a single tenement building. The first story, "A Contract With God", tells the story of a devout Jewish man, who, after the death of his adopted daughter, feels he has been betrayed by God, and becomes a secular real estate developer. The second story involves an "alley singer" who has brief dreams of escaping poverty. The third story is about a violent and sexually predatory building superintendent, and the fourth tells the story of upwardly mobile Jews going on vacation in a resort. The linking between the stories is mostly a matter of theme and place, than of sharing characters.
It is hard to give a summary of a work like this, in part because it was so original that it has to be read to be understood. There are some contradictory aspects in it: despite being "more serious" than most super-hero comics, the art is looser and more "cartoony", being somewhere between the art style of mainstream super-hero comics and cartoon strips. The first (and most important) story has external narration, in the others, the reader must understand through dialog. Although the stories are socially realistic, portraying the struggles of the poor, they are dramaticized, sometimes melodramaticized, with unlikely events occuring throughout the story. The art style is crude in more ways than one, with some episodes becoming quite grotesque and sexual (although not in a titillating way, for the most part). Given Eisner's stature, the unorthodox choices in storytelling and art are obviously exactly that: choices.
What the reader will get out of this depends on the reader. The documentation of life in the early 20th century will obviously be of interest to many, as will the immigrant experience and Jewish life. For a historian of comics, any work by Eisner is of interest, and especially one that invented the "graphic novel". I personally liked this work, although I admit I perhaps have not digested all of it yet.