(Spoiler Alert: This book is old.)
Western literature has your Hemmingways, Melvilles, Shakespeares and Steinbecks [canons love dead white men]. Visual art has its Rembrandts and Da Vincis. And comic books have Will Eisner. For those not in the know, Will Eisner is definitively the grandfather of comic books as a serious art form, stating that in the preface of A Contract With God that he created the arty term ‘graphic novel’ only in the hopes of acquiring a greater chance of success at selling his work to a publisher. Eisner is also the guy who the most prestigious comic book award, the Eisner Award, is named after. Therefore I knew I had to eventually get around to reading A Contract with God if I hoped to maintain any credibility on the day I’m interrogated by a fellow comic book nerd. And although I went in with some trepidation given that I’ve rarely enjoyed works of art from a newly budding field, I took the plunge over the weekend and read the four stories contained within.
After completing it though, I was happy to have read it to discover that Eisner not only was the first to create a long-term graphic narrative for adults, but because he also did so with nary a tights or spandex in sight. Instead, Eisner’s ‘graphic novel’, a term that makes me cringe whenever I use it, focuses on the denizens of Dropsie Avenue, a Depression era America urban tenement and a recreation of the culture and space that Eisner lived in for much of his youth.
The four stories all tackle the misery that these cramped quarters induced in the people, and what was most surprising was how unsentimental Eisner is throughout, and how the starkness of the material assisted in making the medium seem like a viable form to say something about the human experience that perhaps isn’t replicable in purely textual work. For instance, seeing the physical transformation of Frimme Hersh following the death of his daughter does so much work to make us see where his priorities have shifted that Eisner never has to stress it by means of text. The images in his work also convey the passage of time in an elegant manner that perhaps would take a literary author much more work to pull off.
As for technical skill, Eisner was a master of facial expressions that convey the full range of emotion, rarely transforming the people in his work into the caricatures they could easily fall into. Done in only inks, Eisner puts lots of detail into the people of Dropsie Avenue, conveying their ethnic culture and financial status with a well-placed hat or tacky jewelry while providing scene work only when the people are interacting with the world around them, or setting up the narrative as in “The Street Singer,” which opens from a bird’s eye-view of the alley between two tenements where the eponymous character sings to the tenants for spare change he uses to fund his alcoholism. It’s a great image that conveys the poverty and dilapidation in which these people live in as well as their close-quarters.
Thematically, all the stories concern the frustration its characters experience as a result of their station in life. Whether it’s Mr. Scuggs, the Super, who is hated by everyone for his job, or Fannie and the others in ‘Cookaleen’ who leave for the country on a summer vacation to escape the oppressive city. These people all seem to believe that if only they had a bit more money then all the problems they experience would disappear (whether that’s infidelity, addiction, or apathy). Most disturbing is the persistent violence against women in the text where sexual assault is treated lightly even by the victims. One scene in particular made me look away as a man tore of a woman’s clothing once he finds out that she isn’t the heir to a fortune he led her to believe, and therefore not worth courting but only advancing his own sexual needs.
Now that I’ve read this book, I haven’t decided whether I’d like to check in on the other stories Eisner wrote about the Dropsie Avenue citizens. Part of me is curious to see how his skill evolves as others begin to work in the form while another part just wants to put them and the Depression behind me in favor of more spandex and tights.