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Will Eisner's A Contract with God comics review


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By Leroy Douresseaux
Mar 5, 2017 - 19:29

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A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (Centennial Edition) cover image


Introduction by Scott McCloud; December 2004 Preface by Will Eisner

A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is an original graphic novel written and drawn by legendary comic book creator, Will Eisner (1917 to 2005).  It was first published in 1978 and is composed of four comic book short stories that revolve around several poor Jewish characters who live in a tenement apartment building in New York City, apparently sometime between World War I and World War II.

A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (often referred to only as A Contract with God) was not the first graphic novel published in North America, but it was a seminal graphic novel because of its influence on other comic book creators to produce work that was more ambitious than standard superhero fare and children's comics, both in terms of content and format.

2017 marks the centennial of Will Eisner's birth.  In celebration of what would have been Eisner's 100th birthday, W.W. Norton & Company is publishing what is essentially a “Will Eisner Centennial Edition” of A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.  This new edition is a hardcover book and contains the four stories from A Contract with God reproduced in high-resolution from Eisner's original art boards.  This book also includes “Introduction to the Centennial Edition” by Scott McCloud (a comic book creator and friend of Eisner); the essay “A Brief History of A Contract with God;” and Will Eisner's “Preface,” written in 2004 for a 2005 edition of the book published by Norton.

THE LOWDOWN:  The narrative of A Contract with God is a short story cycle of four stories.  The stories are mostly set in a tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue, the Bronx, New York.  Tenements were apartment buildings built to accommodate the flood of immigrants that flowed into New York after World War I.

The title story, “A Contract with God,” opens the book.  It focuses on Frimme Hersh, a devout Hebrew man who grieves the loss of his adopted daughter, Rachele.  Hersh believes Rachele's death is a violation of his “contract with God,” violated by the Almighty himself.  Hersh rebels against his previous life, but years later decides he needs another contract with God.

Eisner's creation of the entirety of A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories was driven by his grief over the loss of his own daughter, Alice, but especially the story, “A Contract with God.”  I think the central message of this story is about man's foolish belief that he can actually not only initiate a contract with God or eternity, but also dictate terms and conditions.  I cannot tell if Eisner wishes to convey acceptance or resignation to fate and God, but the sense of futility is obvious here, while also being wearily hopeful.  Life goes on...

The second story, “The Street Singer,” is set in the 1930s and focuses on Marta Maria (not her birth name), an opera singer who long ago abandoned her career, and a street singer named Eddie.  Their chance meeting gives birth to hopes of a career revival for one and a debut for the other, but a simple error on both their parts endangers their bold plans.

Other than the 10 pages that depict Marta and Eddie's meeting and their sexual and professional consummation, I am not crazy about this story, although I like it.  However, those ten pages contain some of Eisner's best page and individual panel design of his late career as a graphic novelist, especially that two-panel page in which Eddie walks into Marta apartment and then, enters her boudoir.

The third story is “The Super,” which is about Mr. Scruggs, the mean superintendent of the tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue and his fateful encounter with Rosie, a poppet who might be one of the youngest femme fatales ever in comic books.  I am not a big fan of this story either, but it has some of Eisner's best cartooning of the human figure an exemplified in Mr. Scruggs.

In his post World War II work on his foundational comic book, The Spirit, Eisner frequently showed off his dexterity in cartooning the human figure in motion.  He matches that with the “The Super.”  This story opens with two masterful full-page illustrations, one suggesting Scruggs walking and the other a magnificent pose showing off Mr. Scrugg's physicality and his ability to intimidate using the threat of his physical prowess.

The final of the four stories is “Cookalein.”  The term refers to a kind of resort farm in the Catskill Mountains; 150 miles north of New York City.  City residents went to such places for summer vacations, and in this story, a wife and her two sons travel to a “cookalein” one summer.  However, marital stress lines between the wife and her husband, who will follow his family to the “cookalein” sometime later, grow wider, while the older of their two sons, Willie, has a life altering experience one hot summer night.

I have lost track of how many times I have re-read and perused all four of these stories in whole and in part, especially “Cookalein,” which is one of my all-time favorite Eisner works.  I had long hoped that Eisner would expand on this story, making it a larger, self-contained work or perhaps as a long-running serial featuring all the main characters from the story.

Over my many years of reading articles about A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, I have come to understand that some comic historians and aficionados consider this work to be the pinnacle of Eisner's career.  I don't.  I consider Eisner's post-WWII work on The Spirit, his comic book published as a newspaper insert during the 1940s and early 1950s, to be his best work.  I do think that A Contract with God is the height of Eisner's comics that are his personal expressions, both as a storyteller and as an artist working in the comics medium.  This graphic novel may also be the best blending of Eisner's expression of pre-World War II Jewish American culture in New York City with his own history as a boy and then as a young man before WWII.

I can say that I love A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories even with my mixed feelings about some of the stories.  In the times that I have read or looked over A Contract with God since Will Eisner's passing, I find myself missing him something fierce... although I never met him.

I READS YOU RECOMMENDS:  Anyone who reads graphic novels has not really read graphic novels until he has read A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.

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Last Updated: May 15, 2017 - 12:13

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