One of the earliest books termed a graphic novel, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is a collection of four short stories set in a 30’s-era fictional Bronx neighborhood. In Eisner’s world, the denizens of the Bronx gossip about their neighbors, scheme to escape the terrible realities of tenement life, and hang an endless supplies of laundry to dry. Families fall apart over the weekend, and drunks fling their infant children across rooms in drunken rages. A whole page is devoted to the word “Shaddup!” Throughout, Eisner consistently falls into what Peter Schjeldahl calls “cornball histrionics.” While the idea of the illustrated story perhaps lies with Eisner, the cartoonists that have come after him—Ware, Clowes, the brothers Hernandez—are far more subtle and believable storytellers. In Contract, Eisner figuratively draws his characters and situations in primary colors. Simplistic lessons abound: honesty is good, greed is bad, no man is above God. His characters emote hugely and gesticulate wildly, often with a fist raised to the heavens.
Dialect is painfully written out (“…a whole month we can play pinochle wit no wimmen to booder us!”) and obvious as it is shallow. The most egregious amalgam of Eisner’s ham-fisted delivery is the third story in the book, titled “The Super,” where a heavily accented and lazy German building superintendent is hectored by his tenants and beguiled by a young girl who, for no apparent reason, poisons and kills his dog. The police are called, speculations of molestation arise—we are shown he is a pretty shady guy with pictures of naked ladies on his walls—and he offs himself in his room, holding his dead dog while the cops bang on the door. The melodrama is fever pitched, and each panel furiously tries to outdo the last in upping the ante until the fulcrum shifts, and the Super’s misery is now darkly stupid, unintended, comedy.
There is a surprising sexual frankness in three of Contract’s four narratives, including the aforementioned “Super.” Women are objects (once a man used sexually and the book ends with the tone of wistful lost innocence as he gazes into the alley from the fire escape) and sex is either portrayed as infidelity, desperate attempts at personal gain, or attempted rape. This sentiment may ring true with hardened, cynical readers, but on paper, it comes off here as preachy and dull.
Historical revisionism can happen when old forms are forced to find new respectability. Comic narratives have been around since Trajan’s Column, but the medium has been coerced onto a quest for literary acceptance, and Eisner has been chosen as the its patriarch, a claim that has less validity when Speigelman, Crumb, or, if literary merit is a criterion, Harvey Pekar, are brought into the discussion. Certainly a thing to be studied as an artifact, Eisner’s A Contract with God was indeed among the first entries into to the nascent canon of contemporary graphic narrative. It is a shame that the human stories it tries to tell are painfully, well, cartoonish.