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 feels 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: 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.