Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

A Contract with God is Will Eisner's first graphic novel, and, in fact, is commonly considered to be the first "graphic novel" ever written. The introduction in my copy made it sound like Eisner or his agent coined the term to gain some respectability, since Eisner was coming from a long career in comic books, with his iconic superhero, The Spirit.

Reading Contract now, decades after its publication and the sea change it helped usher in regarding how the literary establishment views sequential art, it's hard to believe that it was ever necessary to dress it up in special phrases. A Contract with God holds up beautifully both as a work of visual art and concise, thematically-heavy storytelling.

So with that out of the way, what's it all about? There's a little irony in the label "graphic novel" as applied here, since the volume is really a short story collection, comprised of four narratives related primarily, maybe only, by their protagonists' shared neighborhood, the fictional Dropsie Ave. in New York City in the 20s and 30s. Eisner based the stories on people he had known--he claims in the introduction that all four stories are true, even though he has heavily fictionalized them--and you can feel the grit coming through, although the artwork isn't exactly Frank Miller... but more on that in a moment.

The stories within aren't lighthearted romps. More often tan not, they deal with pitch black thematic material and pitiful, desperate people. The eponymous story opens the collection, and by page three, Frimme Hirsh is walking home from his preteen daughter's funeral in the pouring rain. The story concerns the titular contract, made by the saintly Fremmie when he was young, and plays out like the story of Job if Job had turned on God during his trials. Screaming, "We had a contract!' you can almost see Fremmie's faith collapse, as he goes from saint to shyster to successfully exploitative businessman in a few evocative panels. Eisner was working out his rage at God on the page--his own seventeen year old daughter had recently died when he wrote the story--and every ounce of it is there on the page, from Fremmie's slumped shoulders to the dead rage in his eyes.

The story ends, as do the other three, with a Twilight Zone-like twist, albeit nothing supernatural, but unlike many stories of this nature, the power in the stories isn't from the sudden veer--it's from the finely sketched characters who are being put through the ringer and, more than often, emerging badly damaged.

A quick word on the art: Eisner let the story dictate the art, so, as that approach might indicate, page layouts vary from a dozen panels to pages with one central image and a lot of text. But the text is good, and those images... I am not qualified to critique the visual arts, but Eisner's drawing are some of the best I've seen. Not photorealistic, but real, loose but disciplined, and, most importantly, communicative. There's no confusing Eisner's character with each other--from their faces to their clothes to their posture and body language, the man was a master of the form and it shows on every page.

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