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Contract with God

Page history last edited by Teala Miller 8 years, 1 month ago

Creators: Will Eisner, writer and artist

Original Date(s) of Publication: October 1978

Publisher: Baronet Books

 

A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, a semi-autobiographical work, is often referred to as the first graphic novel, but many have argued that it is, instead, a collection of loosely related "graphic novellas." Eisner's book helped set the stage for the future of the graphic novel form.

 

Plot Summary

 

A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories is a collection of four semi-autobiographical stories - "A Contract With God," "The Street Singer," "The Super," and "Cookalein" - set in a 1930s tenement in the Bronx, with "Cookalein" also taking place at a vacation spot for Jews. Each story deals with aspects of "faith" as the predominant theme.

 

In "A Contract With God," we meet a man, Frimme Hersh, who looses his faith after the sudden death of his daughter. Hersh sees the death of his daughter God's violation of their contract. Eisner lost is own daughter to leukemia at the age of sixteen.

 

"The Street Singer" is a drunken man who sings in the tenement alleyways and is "discovered" by Diva Marta Maria, a once famous soprano. He could have had a singing career, but the street singer looses the opportunity because of his drinking and inability to remember where the Diva lives.

 

"The Super" is the story of the downfall of the lonely and hated Mr. Scuggs, the superintendent of 55 Dropsie Avenue.

 

"Cookalein" is the story of vacationing tenement dwellers who scheme their ways into what they hope will be the "good life"; however, there are unforeseen consequences of their actions.

 

Significant Features

 

In his keynote address at the 2002 Will Eisner Symposium, Eisner said that the subject of A Contract With God was one he "felt had never been tried in comics before, and that was man's relationship with God." This theme ties the four stories together, along with the 55 Dropsie Avenue tenement setting.

 

Eisner's black and white illustrations show the depth of the characters in a superficial, simplistic manner, and the characters change as the narrative evolves and the plot changes. For example, Frimme Hersh is first shown as a simple, traditional Hasidic Jew, but he is later shown as a fat, stuck up businessman wearing expensive suits. According to Scott O. Brown in "Flying The Standard, Part 2: Achieving The Standard," "These deliberate visual stereotypes advance the changes in plot and character immediately, communicating the difference between spiritual and earthly gain. Its deft and deliberate style and tight storytelling achieves our artistic standard." This sort of visual storytelling runs throughout the book, and in the stories we see the differences in cultural situations and experiences.

 

Eisner's artistic style depicts the New York of the 1930s, and the setting images are where we see the most detail. The juxtaposition of the detailed setting and the simplicity of the characters seems to bring the Bronx tenement setting to the forefront of the narrative: "Eisner puts the setting to use in a masterful way. Interweaving the tales within a specific setting . . . imbues a life into the setting that otherwise wouldn't exist, almost making it a character in its own right" (Brown).

 

A Contract With God exemplifies and historically situates New York City in the Great Depression era, but what is more significant is its publication history and influence of the graphic novel tradition.

 

Publication History

 

Will Eisner's book was first published in October 1978 by Baronet Books, simultaneously in hard- and softcover - the hardcover editions were limited to 1,500 numbered and signed copies. Called the "original graphic novel," Eisner's pioneering work was later picked up by DC Comics and was reissued by DC in March 2001 as part of The Will Eisner Library imprint. In 2006, W.W. Norton published The Contract with God Trilogy: A Life on Dropsie Avenue, a hardcover collection consisting of A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, A Life Force (1988), and Dropsie Avenue (1985).

 

On July 24, 2010 at Comic-Con International 2010, it was announced that Eisner's A Contract With God would be adapted into a film. The film's producers (Bob Schreck, Michael Ruggiero, Mark Rabinowitz, and Darren Dean) said that the work would be adapted into a screenplay by Darren Dean. Each of the four stories, which comprise A Contract With God, will be directed by a different director and brought together into one film. The film's directors include Alex Rivera, Tze Chun, and Barry Jenkins.

 

Impact / Influence 

 

Eisner's A Contract With God is often hailed as the "first" graphic novel. As the story goes, Eisner used the term "graphic novel," a term that Eisner first heard from either Richard Kyle or Jack Katz, to sell the book to a publisher. Eisner may not have coined the term, but he certainly popularized the graphic novel form.

 

Many have argued that A Contract With God is not a graphic novel, but rather it is a collection of four graphic novellas. Jim Steranko maintains that he was, in fact, the comic book creator who "launched the graphic novel form" (Strykowski). Steranko is quoted as saying that Eisner's A Contract With God does not "qualify as a graphic novel" because "it's a collection of short stories" (Strykowski). Red Tide, which is Steranko's seminal work, was published in 1976, and he refuses to back down from his assertion that he is the originator of the graphic novel.

 

Whatever the controversy, Eisner's A Contract With God was "certainly the first [graphic novel] . . . the world noticed" (Casey).

 

Critical Reception 

 

A Contract With God has received mixed reviews since its publication in 1978; for the most part, the book has been positively received. One reviewer criticized Eisner's especially negative portrayal of his female characters. Another reviewer noted Eisner's work with the subject of God, faith, and Christian eschatology as the beginning of a tradition with many similar works following in the footsteps of A Contract With God. On the academic side, Terry Ray Clark explored the notion of covenant theology within Eisner's book; and Derek Parker Royal examined the Jewish American experience within A Contract With God.

 

  • Los Angeles Times, "Every picture tells a story," by David L. Ulin, November 20, 2005
  • Society of Biblical Literature, "A Contract with God? Will Eisner's Seminal Graphic Novel as Anti-Theodicy," by Terry Ray Clark, 2012
  • Bookslut, "The Contract With God Trilogy by Will Eisner," by Carrie Jones, August 2006
  • Sojourners Magazine, "Holy Warrior Nuns, Batmas!" by David Wade, July 2004
  • College Literature, "Sequential Sketches of Ethnic Identity: Will Eisner's A Contract with God as Graphic Cycle," by Derek Parker Royal, 38.2 (Summer 2011): 150-167
  • The Jewish Quarterly Reivew, "Drawing Contracts: Will Eisner's Legacy," by Laurence Roth, 97.3 (Summer 2007): 463-484
  • Melus, "Reviews," by Monic Osborne, 32.3 (Fall 2007): 270-273 

 

References

 

  1. The Comic Book Database, "A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories"
  2. Comic Book Resources, "Flying The Standard: Part 2 - Achieving The Standard," by Scott O. Brown, November 28, 2006
  3. Comic Book Resources, "CCI: Will Eisner's 'Contract With God' Heading To The Big Screen," CBR News Team, July 24, 2010
  4. Comic Book Resources, "CCI: Steranko's Still Fighting," by Jason Strykowski, November 26, 2011
  5. Comic Book Resources, "The Basement Tapes: Issue #22," by Joe Casey and Matt Fraction, January 11, 2005
  6. Comic Book Resources, "Permanent Damage: Issue #101," by Steven Grant, August 20, 2003
  7. Comics Alliance, "The Secret Origin of the 'Graphic Novel': Where Eisner Heard the Term," by Chris Sims, December 6, 2010
  8. The Will Eisner Web, "A Contract With God"
  9. Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, "Keynote address from the 2002 'Will Eisner Symposium'," by Will Eisner
  10. Los Angeles Times, "Every picture tells a story," by David L. Ulin, November 20, 2005
  11. Society of Biblical Literature, "A Contract with God? Will Eisner's Seminal Graphic Novel as Anti-Theodicy," by Terry Ray Clark, 2012
  12. Sojourners Magazine, "Holy Warrior Nuns, Batman!" by David Wade, July 2004

 

Further Reading

 

 

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