The story is that Will Eisner was the first person to really try to tell a literary story using both words and pictures. I’m not certain that’s true, but his comic efforts do seem to stand apart from the typical superhero clichés, and also have little in common with the underground Comix of Crumb and the like.
The four loosely connected stories in A Contract with God do read like short stories more than comics. The linking device is an apartment building on Dropsie Avenue, an old style Jewish tenement in New York. It very well may be the location, but I was reminded of prose fiction by Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer as I made my way through the collection. Yet, Eisner’s characterization and writing fall far short of these masters, making his stories seem a pale imitation. In fact, I was reminded quite often of Anzia Yezierska’s work.
The title story is presented first, and though effectively rendered, the ending is a predictable one. Losing everything just when you’ve gained it all back is a worn plot device. The final story involves a group of city people going to stay at the same resort for the summer, and also is full of stock characters that provide little emotional resonance. In fact, one gets the odd feeling that the fifteen-year-old boy who loses his virginity is in some way a character representing Eisner himself.
Quite haunting was the tale of the building’s superintendent, an older man who is somewhat of a sexual deviant. He goes everywhere with his faithful dog, his only true companion in the world. He is tricked by a wily ten-year-old girl into giving her a dime so he can see up her gown, only to have the girl poison his dog and steal all of his money. Though horribly wronged, bystanders of course side with the girl and the superintendent commits suicide because he can’t stand the loss of everything he has. Even a full day later, this story still moves me.
Where Eisner really shines is in his ability to set a mood with his drawing. As the mourning rabbi walks through the rain and breaks his contract with God, such simple images are used to capture his grief. And the presentation of the characters artistically in the final story is well rendered, though it still fails to elevate them from merely a stock status.
Eisner is considered to be the father of the graphic novel, and this collection, his first real attempt, is definitely worth your consideration. In cases like this I wonder if learning about the inventor of groundbreaking effects so long after those effects are commonplace causes us as readers to devalue it in some way, or maybe merely are unable to separate ourselves from what we already know. Definitely something to look for in the future.