Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

“A Contract with God” is a collection of four short stories, all set in tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue, The Bronx, New York, somewhere in the 1930's. According to Will Eisner, the stories are semi-autobiographical - they were based on his memories of growing up in New York city at around that time, among other immigrants, many of which of Jewish origins. The stories are based both on his experiences and on those of the people who surrounded him. In the preface to this edition, he says, Call me, if you will, a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak, and the never-ending struggle to prevail...or at least to survive.

These themes are indeed present in all four stories. In the first one, which gives the novel its title, a man, heartbroken over the death of his 16-year-old daughter, feels betrayed by his God. He believes that he had a contract with God, and that God did not honour the terms of the contract. Therefore, he decides that he is going to break the contract as well, and cheats his way into a rich and luxurious life. Things take a turn, however, when the man decides to make a new contract with God.

"Cookalein" is about a summer at a Jewish country getaway, where some of the tenement's inhabitants spend their holidays. It is a story about social ambition, love, passion, and betrayal. Like in the other stories in this collection, there is quite a bit of irony in the way things turn out.

"The Street Singer" is about a poor street singer just misses his chance of becoming successful… or does he? The singer will never know, nor will the reader. A perfect illustration of life’s much too common “what ifs”.

Finally, "The super" is about – you guessed it - a super who suffers the consequences of his just for young girls.

Like I said, I really liked the way all these stories perfectly illustrated how ironic life can sometimes be. The stories are full of disappointment and heartbreak, but also of hope and joy – they tell us how harsh defeat can be, but they also celebrate life’s little triumphs.

It was only some four years or so ago that I began to read comics and graphic novels more or less regularly. And because I am so used to reading text only books, I really have to push myself to give the artwork the attention it deserves. It goes without saying that, unlike in an illustrated novel, in a graphic novel the art is not just a companion to the text. It’s a fundamental storytelling tool that says as much – and often much more – as the words. All this to say that I am in awe of Will Eisner’s art. His drawings often say much more than words ever could. He is especially masterful when it comes to the character’s expressions – they can be powerful and subtle, intriguing and deeply emotional. Whenever I read one of Will Eisner’s comics, I always make sure that I go slowly enough to truly take in everything that is on the page, and read the bits of the story that are not written down.

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