Saturday, March 30, 2013

"A Contract With God" by Will Eisner

On the occasion of Will Eisner's birthday earlier this month I promised that I would track down and read his ground-breaking book A Contract With God. It is considered the first "graphic novel," a term Eisner himself coined. I talked about what a genius Eisner was in my earlier post, so today I want to just review this work.

A Contract With God is a collection of four short stories woven around the tenants of an apartment building at 55 Dropsie Ave in the Bronx. The action occurs in the late Thirties or early Forties. "A Contract With God" tells the sad story of Frimme Hersh, who loses his young daughter to a sudden illness. "The Street Singer" tells the story of Eddie, an alcoholic who spends his days singing in the alleys between the tenements. "The Super" is the superintendent at 55 Dropsie Ave, an unpleasant man named Mr. Scuggs. And "The Cookalein" is about what happens when several Bronx residents go to the Catskills on summer vacation.  According to the introduction to the 2006 volume, a cookalein is a Yiddish-English word which means "cook alone." "It describes a summer resort on a farm where the guests cooked their own meals." They seemed to be the precursors to the low-charge motels and hotels that started in the late Forties. The family at the center of this story gets a room on the farm and their mother has to cook for them in a shared kitchen. They interact and witness the actions of various other guests in the other bungalows.

Each of these stories is interesting in its own way. When Frimme Hersh's daughter dies, he throws out his old "contract" with God and heads in the other moral direction. Eventually he returns to his old synagogue and asks his former spiritual advisers to write a new contract. This story is fascinating in the atleast two ways: 1) the way we humans think we can understand God's will is pure hubris; and 2) "Good" and "Evil" are really very much linked.

"The Street Singer" seems most like an episode of The Twilight Zone or some other similar "gotcha!" O. Henry type story; every time you think you know what is about to happen you find out you are totally off. The fourth to last page from the end, when Eddie suddenly realizes what has happened, is a real zinger.

"The Cookalein" seems to me to be the most standard of the stories. The Boy and The Girl are not what they seem to be, and only we readers know it; compared to the other three is seemed the most ordinary. The illustrations accompanying the story are wonderful, however; the expressions on the boy's face in the barn as he watches what unfolds tells us more than any description or scripted words possibly could.

And lastly, there is "The Super." This is the most depressing of the four stories, which is probably why Eisner chose not to end the collection with it, although I will. We are led to believe that Mr. Scuggs is the type of man we should not care for: his demeanor, his way of speaking, and even his dog suggests to us that he is an unpleasant man. When I realized that he was not the most evil character in his story, I was shocked. This was another story where I did not see what was coming. For me, that is high praise indeed.

In the introduction to the 2006 edition Eisner writes that all of these stories are semi-autographical. As you can see, there is nary a super-hero or alien in sight. And yet, these are comics and yes, they are entertaining as hell. If you enjoy the plays of Neil Simon or the movies of Woody Allen in New York City, I think you will enjoy this book. It should be at your local library or bookstore. Give it a try; I heartily recommend it.

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