Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Contract with God

As many of you already know, A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories is a graphic novel that was written and illustrated by Will Eisner back in 1978, making it the very first Graphic Novel. It was originally published by Baronet Books in both hardcover and trade paperback editions. In the intervening years it has not only remained in print and translated into numerous languages, it was — in 2001 — acquired by DC Comics, marking the first time it was published by a major publisher. As this month we are celebrating Will’s birthday, we thought that it would be time that we actually purchased this seminal tome, and, well actually read it.

Thus, while we were at MoCCA the other day (at the kick-off of their four-month-long Eisner Exhibit) we picked up a copy of the book, and then read it on the train ride back to CT.

As can be expected, it is so not like what we call a graphic novel today (which is to be expected, as Eisner was exploring new ground with this volume). The first thing that I noticed was that instead of several panels per page as in most modern-day graphic novels and comics, each page was essentially a single panel, and yet, not so much a panel as an illustration accompanied by text (sometimes in word balloons but just as often, not). Second, as its title indicates, it is not so much one story, but four inter-related tales linked by a single theme, all occurring around a specific (if fictional) tenement building in the Bronx.

According to Wikipedia:
The work consists of four short stories — A Contract With God, The Super, The Street Singer, and Cookalein — all set in a Bronx tenementin the 1930s, with the last story (Cookalein) also taking place at a summer getaway for Jews. The stories are semi-autobiographical, with Eisner drawing heavily on his own childhood experiences as well as those of his contemporaries. Utilizing his talents for expressive lettering and cartoonish figures, he links the narratives by the common setting and the common theme of immigrant and first-generation experiences, across cultures.
From my own perspective, reading the book gave me a wonderful look back into the beginnings of this, my preferred form of entertainment. The writing and illustrations display the very building blocks of this industry (much of which seems to have been lost if one were to look at most of what passes for comics these days). Still, beyond the beauty of the illustrations and the poetry of the words themselves, the stories themselves harkens back to a time of both neighborhood, and a piece of Americana that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

In a world full of pre-apocalyptic, overly-muscled, testosterone-enhanced, spandex-wearing neo-fascist, crypto-thugs (all calling themselves “Heroes”), the pure simplicity of Eisner's tales is like manna from heaven. If you have not read this book, or if you have read it and it is somewhere on a shelf in your den, you truly owe it to yourself to buy it today (or pull it off the shelf), and immerse yourself in the wonderful world of Eisner’s New York City.

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