The Anatomy of Expression: Will Eisner and ‘A Contract With God’
In 1978, the legendary Will Eisner released A Contract With God upon the world, a masterpiece that launched the graphic novel craze that would eventually compel your local Barnes & Noble to push aside mid-list Sidney Sheldon and Chuck Palahniuk novels to dedicate upwards of twelve feet of shelving to books like The Walking Dead Volume One, The Walking Dead Volume Two, Persepolis, and Superman: Earth One.
That’s the simple and untrue history of the graphic novel, and of A Contract With God in particular. Decades hence, we know more about how what we call the graphic novel came to be, what A Contract With God had to do with it, and how this seminal work was not always viewed with such esteem.
The real story is that Will Eisner, likely known at the time, if at all, as the creator of The Spirit — a strip that had barely been seen since the ’50s — wrote and drew this long comic book called A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories and the big book publishers in 1978 weren’t at all interested in such a thing. A small publisher (of mostly children’s books) named Baronet gave it a shot, but the few stores that stocked it didn’t know what to do with it.
In a 1998 interview with R. C. Harvey, Eisner recalled his excitement when Brentano’s in New York City — an upscale book store — decided to order a few copies, and he told Harvey the story about his “graphic novel” debut, and the story goes like this: Eisner held off from visiting Brentano’s for about a week, but couldn’t resist seeing his book on the shelves. When he approached the store manager, Eisner introduced himself as the author of A Contract with God and asked. “Where is it?”
He learned that the store had it out front, where it sold very well. But then a James Mitchner book came out so Eisner’s book was shelved with the religious books because it had “God” in the title, but it didn’t belong there, so it ended up in the humor section, but then a reader complained that it wasn’t funny, so it was taken off those shelves.
“Where do you have it now?” asked Eisner.
“In a cardboard box in the cellar,” said the manager. “I don’t know where to put the damn thing.”
Revisionist history may credit Eisner as a pioneer in the graphic novel field, and Eisner’s shadow still looms so large over the entire medium of comic books that it seems impossible that his work in 1978 wouldn’t have been a gauntlet thrown down to the industry. But it wasn’t Eisner’s A Contract With God that broke through the bookstore barrier. It was just a weird, largely ignored picture book when it was released; one that might have been appreciated by a certain portion of the readership, like the comic book aficionados who had been catching up with black-and-white Spirit reprints and were curious to see what Eisner was up to at the age of 61.
If A Contract With God was hailed as a masterpiece, and it was, that recognition came years later, when a few astute critics juxtaposed Eisner’s humane graphic-novel-that-was-really-a-collection-of-stories with the grotesque and ridiculous comics that were available on spinner racks. Compared to Arak: Son of Thunder or Dazzler, a book like A Contract With God must have seemed like a slice of sublime genius. It was about life and death and pain and suffering and love and sex and hope and despair. There were no Viking Native American barbarians or glittery roller skates to be found. A Contract With God had to be a work of high literary and artistic merit, because the other stuff that kind of looked like it certainly wasn’t.
I don’t know that A Contract with God is hailed as a masterpiece anymore. A landmark, maybe. Masterpiece? Not so much.
The conventional wisdom in comic book circles and maybe the fringes of the literary and/or art world is that Eisner’s real pioneering work was on The Spirit in the years right after he returned from World War II. That’s where Eisner made strides in comic book storytelling that have influenced nearly every generation of creators since. His work on the graphic novels later in his life is impressive not because of their content, but because they exist at all. He was ahead of his time with his intentions toward A Contract With God and his decision to devote the last few decades of his life to writing and drawing comics that might interest adults showed his keen awareness of the direction the medium would take. And while he might not have broken into the book market the same way later books like Maus and Watchmen would, he was certainly a shepherd of this new soon-to-be-stampede. And he remained a wonderful ambassador for the possibilities of comics.
It’s with all of that context that I reread A Contract With God recently, via the W. W. Norton edition published in 2005, which pulls it together with Eisner’s follow-up books, A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue under the title The Contract With God Trilogy.
A Contract With God reads differently now than it did when Norton first released their version in 2006, only a year after Eisner passed away. The year after Eisner’s death was filled with tributes to the old master. It was difficult to read anything in and around comics that wasn’t a variation of “Here’s What Will Eisner Meant to Me.” There was some backlash, as there always is when someone receives too many accolades, but 99% of the world seemed to agree: Will Eisner was the best.
In that light, A Contract With God didn’t stand much of a chance of a fair reappraisal. When held up as one of the first graphic novels ever by a guy known to be the grandmaster of comics, A Contract With God is a bit of an embarrassment. It’s full of hand-wringing and outrageous exaggeration. It’s a clumsy and overly-expressive pantomime of life, with bombastic narration and too-serious self-indulgence. The New Yorker labeled Eisner’s work “cornball histrionics.”
I would have agreed with that assessment in 2006. Now, I’m not so confident in dismissing A Contract With God. The “cornball” and the “histrionics” are visible if you come at Eisner’s work from the perspective of someone looking for realism or subtle emotional truth. But Eisner isn’t playing on that battleground. His approach to comics is one of pure expression first, realism not at all.
A Contract With God is operatic and grand and it doesn’t ever pretend to be anything else. Other than viciously personal. And it succeeds on all those counts.
Eisner writes, in Comics & Sequential Art — his seminal how-to book — that drawing is akin to calligraphy in its symbolic gesture and imagistic sweep: “…this is the art of graphic story-telling. The codification becomes, in the hands of the artist, an alphabet with which to make an encompassing statement that weaves an entire tapestry of emotional interaction.” To Eisner, drawing is not a kind of handwriting, but a kind of manufactured iconography-through-image-making, like hieroglyphics. Concepts expressed visually, in primal form.
That iconic, symbolic mode is the mode Eisner uses throughout A Contract With God, whether it’s in the opening story in which Frimme Hersh curses the heavens for the death of his daughter or the final story in which a summer vacation in the Catskills results in extreme sexual misconduct. Eisner doesn’t express sadness in his comics, he expresses SADNESS!!! with capital letters as tall as the sky and plenty of exclamation points for everyone in the world to hear. He doesn’t express lust, he expresses LUST!!! and, well, you get the idea, because Eisner won’t stop yelling it in your face. But it’s a powerful antidote to the kind of affectless melancholy that permeates the more critically-acclaimed dare-I-say-literary comics of artists like Chris Ware or Dan Clowes.
Eisner is more like a proto-Peter-Bagge, all flailing arms and unrestrained passion, and his work has never pretended to be otherwise, no matter how it’s been packaged.
But that energy alone wouldn’t make A Contract With God worth reading if it didn’t also have something at its heart. And it does: this is Eisner channeling his world into expressive form. It’s not about him, but the stories come from his life, and they are exceedingly personal, and not at all what you might expect. The first story, the one that gives Eisner’s first book its title, is not just about a man devastated by the loss of his daughter — though that’s how it begins. It’s about a man who rages against the fates by trying to control the physical world around him. He falls prey to his own selfish aims, and so the victim becomes the villain of his own story and dies the minute he realizes a moment of hope to make things right again. It’s a devilish story that goes far beyond its initial scene.
And that’s the story Eisner admits is based on his own anger and pain after the death of his daughter several years before. Yet he doesn’t make the father sympathetic at all. He pushes us to despise him, even in a story based on his own sorrows as a father.
The following two stories, “The Street Singer” and “The Super,” find their inspiration in Eisner’s childhood, and the characters who populated the city around him. Both stories are cruel and sinister and full of ironic tragedy. Though “The Street Singer” is a picture of alcoholism and domestic violence, “The Super” is the more deviant of the two, with explicit overtones of pedophilia. These are the horrors of childhood, made into Eisner’s expressive, iconic hieroglyphics.
A Contract With God ends with “Cookalein,” which is part pastoral romance and part retreat-into-the-wilds-where-animal-instincts-reign. The pastoral romance side is far from wistful, as the cast of characters on vacation have violent trysts with each other and rape is embroiled with sexual awakening. The complexity of the story comes from the layers of emotion, but it’s like an orchestra of screams of pain and longing. Like an Archie comic book plot directed by a vengeful Elia Kazan.
A Contract with God is still no masterpiece, but it’s not something that should be ignored, either. It’s a primal statement of emotion from a creator who had mastered the grammar and acoustics of comics and used it to blast a set of loud, nasty, confrontational songs at your face. Will Eisner may never be subtle, but he’s often unforgettable, and that’s as true here as it is anywhere.