Monday, April 8, 2019

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

Pioneering literature in words and pictures
Will Eisner is widely regarded as the greatest artist in the history of American comics. Of course, that honor can be debated, but there are probably only one or two other candidates who could claim such a title. Eisner garnered early acclaim in the 1940s for his groundbreaking work on the crimefighter comic The Spirit. Three decades later, however, he launched a career renaissance by pioneering the art form of the literary graphic novel. Eisner, by his own admission, did not invent the graphic novel. That was done by artists of the early twentieth century such as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, who produced wordless novels composed entirely of woodcut illustrations. Eisner, however, spawned the art form of the graphic novel as we know it today—comics as a form of literature—and the work which started it all was A Contract with God, published in 1978.

Technically, this book is not a novel but a collection of short stories. The four related narratives all center around a tenement building, located at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx, and the lives of its inhabitants, who are mostly Jews of the poor and working classes. The stories take place in the 1930s and are based upon Eisner’s own memories of growing up during the Great Depression. In form and tone, A Contract with God sometimes calls to mind Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, particularly in its often frank and disturbing depictions of sexuality. Eisner’s melding of scripted prose, dramatic dialogue, and sequential art is thoroughly modern and innovative in technique, but his narratives often harken back to older forms of storytelling such as melodrama, opera, and good old-fashioned Borscht Belt humor.

The book’s opening story, “A Contract with God,” is an intensely serious piece about a man’s relationship with his deity. Frimme Hersh, an immigrant from Russia, has made a personal pact with God to live an honest and righteous life in exchange for familial contentment and the promise of future just rewards. When his beloved daughter dies, however, Hersh questions the validity of this pact, rages at his maker, and changes the course of his life. This powerful and moving tale, rendered in rain-soaked and dark-shadowed visuals, is the entry most evocative of the soul-searching works of Masereel and Ward. In the second story, “The Street Singer,” Eisner recalls a class of men who survived by spontaneously serenading the courtyards of tenement buildings in exchange for tips. This is a shorter and more lighthearted tale, yet it still deals with crippling Depression-era poverty, alcoholism, marital infidelity, and domestic violence. All the more jarring, therefore, when the story effectively ends with a punchline. Next up, “The Super,” focuses on the superintendent of the tenement, who, as the representative of the slumlord, is viewed as a villain by the building’s residents. The plot of this story features a Lolita-esque sexual encounter, which Eisner relates with a brutal frankness that would likely inspire controversy if published today.

As good as these stories are, the final piece, “Cookalein,” is the book’s true masterpiece. A cookalein is a lower-class country resort where the vacationers would do their own cooking. As the summer destination for many of the Dropsie Avenue families, the cookalein becomes a dramatic social setting where married people cheat on their spouses, young singles shop for mates, parents pimp their daughters, and many a young man has his first sexual experience in the arms of a “cougar.” Eisner masterfully juggles multiple storylines in a tour de force of storytelling, both verbal and visual. If by the time you get to this final story there is any doubt that Eisner’s graphic novel was true literature, “Cookalein” puts such doubts to rest. Even if you are a hardcore literati who has never read comics before, A Contract with God will convert you into a comics fan.

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