Monday, September 25, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Will Eisner

Title: A Contract with God
Writer and Artist: Will Eisner

via Amazon

Will Eisner is on a short list of the all-time masters of the comic book medium.  In fact, at least in the English language, he may be the most esteemed of them all.  The American industry's most prestigious annual award as well as its Hall of Fame are both named after him.  Among his many accomplishments, Eisner is credited with popularizing the graphic novel.

In 1978, A Contract with God was published.  While it was not the first sequential art piece to break from the typical superhero model, it demonstrated the broader possibilities for the medium.  In the strictest literary terms, "A Contract with God" is probably better classified as a short story (with an epilogue) than a novel.  But its long form, self-contained, reality-based narrative was a clear break from the episodic sensationalism which had dominated the English language industry for decades.  The black and white images were richly detailed and expository text was no longer confined to the usual boxes and bubbles.  The original release was, in fact, a collection of four short stories.  In addition to the titular tale, "The Street Singer," "The Super," and "Cookalein" were also included.

The material was definitely not for children, better suited to older teenagers and above.  Frimme Hersh, Contract's protagonist, feels betrayed by God.  But he's not Tevye, Fiddler's gentle-hearted hero.  Frimme deals with his frustration by becoming a ruthless, exploitative tenement landlord.  His story is a memorable parable juxtaposing what a believer might want his relationship with God to be with what that relationship actually is.  The other stories involve nudity, sex, alcoholism and violence against women, children and animals.  The message is clear: life isn't pretty, especially not when you're poor.  Those who survive are not necessarily virtuous.

However you might classify it, A Contract with God is a masterpiece.  While I wouldn't put it on par with Maus or V for Vendetta, later works owe an obvious debt to Eisner.  He wrote sequels.  I'll be keeping an eye out for those.

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