(Druid City, Volume 2. Read the graphic novel online.)
Often touted as the first graphic novel, A Contract with God is one of Will Eisner’s highest achievements. For those unfamiliar with Will Eisner, he is considered the “Orson Wells of comics” and is among the most prolific artists in the business, alongside Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka. A Contract with God is a book that was completed after Eisner had ended a long career in commercial comics in the 1950s. A Contract with God features four different stories set in the Bronx, mostly centered on a tenement building called 55 Dropsie Avenue. Since including a full first act plot summary for each story in my Plot Summary section will take too long, I will instead sum up each of the four stories in one sentence below. A Contract with God was originally published through Baronet Books in 1978.
The first story is the titular, A Contract with God. This follows the fall from grace an older Jewish man experiences after he fells wronged by his God after his adopted daughter dies. The second story is The Street Singer. An amateur singer who serenades random tenants from the ground floor is given an opportunity to train with an aging opera star, which he squanders. The third story is The Super. An antisemitic and incompetent superintendent is tricked into suicide by a clever girl who wants her building and people to have better living conditions. The fourth story is Cookalien. This is a rambunctious and memorable story recounting some of Will Eisner’s fictionalized experiences vacationing with other tenants from 55 Dropsie Avenue.
What impressed me the most about the artwork in this book is how economic and practical it is. Not a single stroke of ink is wasted, and there’s always the right amount needed on wide shots, establishing shots and close ups. For example, faces can be detailed with less than twenty strokes of a pen in panels where there are multiple characters in frame, but in close ups the amount of details becomes very deliberate and engrossing, with over a hundred strokes of a pen being used in some cases. Buildings are drawn loosely, with a lot of detail, but not with an eye for detail that fits the exact architecture of the building down to the last brick (probably the best way to draw buildings). I was also amused that the first graphic novel set the trend of including nudity within its pages, not advertising this fact at all, but just throwing it in there. I find it liberating that movies and music have to label their explicit content, but comics have been able to get away with doing whatever they’ve felt like from the very beginning.
I think that human ugliness is at the core of all of the stories. No otherworldly force is at work causing hardship or conflict in any of these stories, even though the title of the book may betray that core theme at a first glance. The lead character of the A Contract with God story believes that his good deeds and heroism earlier in life warranted him the ability to never have to suffer the way he does when his adopted daughter dies. He turns his back on his deity and his morals when it becomes clear that the ephemeral appreciation for his acts will never translate into a permanent state of happiness. Instead of accepting the fact that nothing he can do can prevent horrid things from happening, he instead bitterly chooses to become horrid himself, to save himself the pain of receiving nothing for his good work. It’s an accurate depiction of an ugly reality of how good intentions mixed with high expectations can ruin a person’s moral backbone.
The fault in the lead character from The Street Singer is obvious. He beats his wife and young child (going so far as to throw the infant against a wall) and believes in magic feathers that will save him from poverty while doing nothing to improve. His one chance at actually hitting the big time is trampled not because of some well deserved comeuppance, but because he can’t remember his benefactor’s address. Both of the characters in The Super are ugly at their core; the superintendent himself is also physically repulsive. The super is a massive racist, and the girl is willing to poison a dog and have a man driven to suicide in order to accomplish her goals. Crafty, but ugly.
The Cookalien demonstrates the core ugliness of people and our skewed expectations the best, because it is set in an environment where some of the poorest people in the Bronx go to let their hair down and try to impress each other with false riches. Every character is hiding a core feature about themselves while trying to find love or satisfy lust. The simple dishonesty ends in very quiet disasters, where every character moves on with their life having fulfilled one of their goals, but also having compromised on something they should have never given up.
The Cookalien is the story that makes the book worth reading. The other three stories are very well detailed parables that have simple messages, despite their characters being more fleshed out than your average parable. The Cookalien is more unique in how it establishes about eight different characters and gives them all depressing characters arcs with different take-aways. If all of the stories could have been intertwined like the ones in The Cookalien, with the common setting of 55 Dropsie Avenue, I probably would have liked it more, but certain parameters such as when the stories take place prevent that kind of concurrent timeline from happening. It isn’t my favorite graphic novel ever, but it is the first, and I must say that graphic novels got off to a good start with Will Eisner.
Back when I was a sixteen year-old kid in a public school English class, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was required reading. Being a full blown fan of Japanese animation and manga at the time, I imagined most of the setting with an anime-esque styling to it. Picture my surprise when, thirteen years later, I found myself looking at all of the figments of my young imagination splashed across an actual graphic novel’s pages. I was the only one to enjoy Hawthorne’s classic in my high school class, and had read it at least one other time in college for my own sake, so I was quick to pick up the Manga Classics version of the story once I saw it on my local library’s shelves. I was amused by the novelty at first, not only did the particular styling have a connection to how I first experienced the story, but I was curious about how a story that was so richly defined by it’s prose would be represented in a medium that uses mostly images and dialogue. My curiosity was rewarded, because I really liked this book, as it accomplished every ambition the adapters had and did justice to the descriptions written in the original masterpiece. The story was adapted by Crystal Silvermoon and drawn by SunNeko Lee.
This is most likely just a formality, because anyone who didn’t go to a private school has likely had to shove The Scarlet Letter in front of their eyeballs at some point, but the story is set in 1640’s Puritan Boston, Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, who has conceived a child whilst her husband is presumably lost at sea, is condemned for adultery, and a scarlet “A” is embroidered on her clothing to mark her sin to the rest of the populace. Standing before the town with her newborn in her hands, she views her husband, Roger Chillingworth (an alias) in the crowd. While she is in jail, Roger cures her child Pearl of physical aliments, and also makes Hester take an oath that she will not reveal their marriage to the townsfolk. Chillingworth sets out to find the man who had the affair with Hester, while Hester retires to the countryside to raise her baby after her release from jail. Pearl grows into a rambunctious, impish and blasphemous child. If not for the interference of the kindly minister Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl would have been taken from the Hester a long time ago, as the clergy imagine Hester to be too sinful to properly raise the child. Meanwhile, Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale to act as his physician, and to confirm a suspicion. Just in case there are those who don’t want the story spoiled (and so I don’t have to post the Cliff’s Notes), I’ll stop the plot summary here.
The visuals are honestly just out of this world once the story gets going. I found myself laughing at some of the manga visual conventions being incorporated into the classic story too early, such as a metaphysical snake being used to represent Chillingworth’s terrifying hold on people, but other conventions of manga worked very well, such as the chibi expressions of Pearl. Really, everything about Pearl is depicted perfectly, whether it be the other worldliness of her eyes, to the expressions she has that amplify her impish and sometimes disturbing nature. Hester’s scarlet “A” is the only thing in the book that is depicted in color, which does add to the unique qualities of this novel, even if it is on the nose. I was blown away by how accurately portrayed three environments were. These were, for those in the know, the scaffolding in the middle of the town (which is also eerily far from the other residences), the beach outside of town when Hester and Chillingworth confront each other for the last time, and the scene in the forest, my favorite from the book, which was so excellent with it’s dappled light and character expressions that it pumped up my rating for this book. The only complaints that I have are that the character designs for Dimmesdale and Chillingworth (Roger, in particular) didn’t mesh with what I was expecting and seemed out of place. Dimmesdale has a frail disposition from the outset, which seems to contrast with how he should be becoming more frail with time, and Chillingworth’s design motif is so hokey that I thought a more subtle approach would have been better.
Pearl. Hell yes.
Dimmesdale. Better than Gary Oldman, I guess.
Chillingworth. No. Stop.
The best thing about The Scarlet Letter for me is how it was a strong critique of religious practices and the treatment of women, without completely leaving the faith. While I am a strong atheist, I do appreciate how the characters deal with the hypocrisy and hardships that their religion brings down upon them without abandoning it, as it truly wouldn’t have been a realistic conclusion for them to make, given how immersed they were in it because of their Puritan culture. Hester’s dual role of Scarlet Woman and Saintly Ablewoman makes her a truly admirable character and one of my favorites in literary history. Her defiance in the face of what was unfair let her keep her dignity and change the people around her for the better. Dimmesdale’s journey of giving into temptation and struggling with the release of his desires was more interesting to read through this adaption. His facial expressions during his final segments of the book do a great job of signifying how hard of a time he is having living with two separate desires and goals. He can’t be the sort of dual character that Hester is, but finds absolution in release and confession. Pearl’s depiction as more of a symbol than a person is also displayed well in this adaption, perhaps more vividly than through prose on the page. The manga aspect of this adaption truly brought out the symbolism and allowed for the limited, but well defined cast of characters to be drawn and utilized in expressive ways.
I really feel like this novel ended up being more than the sum of parts, and when I feel that way, I award the book a Top Tier rating. I wasn’t expecting a gimmicky idea like this would have such a great impact on me, but it was so good that I couldn’t resist writing a 1000 word review singing its praises. If you’re a fan of The Scarlet Letter, I think this adaption does it far more justice than any of the movie adaptions. It uses the great things about manga and the greatest things about comics to punch up a story that was so vividly described, even though not much happened in it. This novel also inspired me enough to start reviewing graphic novels again on the regular, so thanks for that.
David Small is a Detroit-born children’s book author and illustrator. His illustration credits include Imogen’s Antlers, Once Upon A Banana and The Christmas Crocodile. Stitches is his first graphic novel, published in 2009 by W.W. Norton. Stitches is the story of David Small’s traumatic childhood and teenage years.
The story begins in 1951, with a long series of establishing shot panels complete with narration by the author, telling us his old stories of powerlessness, all tied to the unfettered anger and mental instability of his family. Small’s chief tormentors are his mother and maternal grandmother, both products of a world where women were expected to fulfill “The Feminine Mystique” and nothing else. The free floating anger of these women, who were confined to such limiting roles, is visited upon their children and spouses. While Small’s book deals primarily in coping with the idea that neither of these maternal figures ever truly loved him, his liner notes at the end make it clear that he wants now, in retrospect, to understand them in a way he never could when he was younger.
Much of the page-real estate is spent on Small’s childhood. These segments are devoted to flights of fancy about his fears and inability to change anything around him. As Small ages, a clearer narrative thread is established where he begins to develop a growth on his neck. In what was likely 1961, he undergoes surgery to remove the growth, and this procedure leaves him with half of his vocal chords; practically mute. Much of the rest of the novel focuses on how such a seemingly innocuous surgery could have such a devastating effect. His family is to blame.
The illustrations are rendered in ink for line art, and ink washes for value. The linework is penned quite loosely. It isn’t a meticulously drawn affair. What stands out are the slightly more fantastical imagination sequences and the perpetually angry facial expressions on almost all of the human figures. Another detail that stood out is how dazed the human figures look due to how lightly colored the iris and pupils of their eyes are; it’s a nice touch. I also enjoyed how furniture and architecture was not penned with much regard for structural integrity, as it added to the believability of a very wacky looking house that makes an appearance late into the novel.
David Small’s memoir told a gut-punching story that I can’t even come close to relating to, due to how lucky I generally am in life. I felt just about as bad reading this as I did reading a memoir aside from Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. All I can say is: damn the 50s were a fucked up time to be alive. The most jarring element of the story is how often the illustrations go from featuring whimsical escapism to innocence-shattering realism.
This style of memoir is undoubtedly my favorite kind. Memoirs of people living troubled but ultimately balanced lives are nice and all, but I really get into ones written by people who have experienced things that I can hardly even imagine going through myself. I don’t regret picking this one up from my local library, and due to the number of accolades this novel has, I don’t think it will be a difficult task to find it at your local library either.