A Contract With God
Writer and Illustrator: Will Eisner
Published by: W W Norton and Company
Did you know you can tell stories in comics other than opening cans of hyper-powered whoop-ass and blowing up things real good? Really. I love the costumed crime fighter myth but recently it was brought to my attention that people enjoy graphic stories with a more tangible human struggle in its pages. American Splendor was mentioned by an erudite clever young man and I agreed.
Next day people I’m among the shelves and find A Contract With God. There has never been a reading experience with Will Eisner I found less than a mind and eye banquet. I slowly sampled The Spirit over the years and really tasted its full noir flavor in the last decade or so. For decades, The Spirit epitomized all the greatness comics could be in its spectacular yet low-key film noir stylings. Anybody who ever would become anybody in this medium has been heavily influenced by Eisner’s body of work. It can’t be helped. He did a wonderful graphic autobiography on life as a cartoonist buried somewhere in the comic’s closet. I opened it up and dove right in.
It begins in the rain. Not just a little shower but a black drizzle of despair to drag down your heart. It is the storm of loss when you lose a dear one to death. The narrative words themselves run with rust. A broken man trudges silently, nearly washed away by grief and downpour. Here are some major evocative illustrations and a word has not been said. Oooh, Eisner’s got me now. Into the depths of human experience we go.
We have arrived at 55 Dropsie Avenue, the star of this book. It is a tenement building in the Bronx during the Depression. The old one, not the new one remade by the very same sort that plundered us all into the last one. Wankin’ bankers! Frimme Hersh has on this day buried Rachele, his daughter. Frimme has been betrayed, A devout man all his life and saved from the pogroms to represent his community in New York, Frimme had made a contract with God. It is inscribed on a small stone but it’s there in writing. He would live as a virtuous man and obey all the laws as a good man should and all he asked was to raise this little girl as his child. God took the girl with sickness. Frimme then turns his back on God. He gives himself over to the acquisition of wealth. He becomes a realty speculator. He buys 55 Dropsie Avenue and soon other buildings. He is living Donald Trump’s dream and in much the same way. He steals a little there, raises a few rents over here and inflicts suffering on all his former neighbors even those who showed him kindness. He is a one man Tea Party. Of course he grows fabulously wealthy. The blueprint is perfect and runs to form. At one point Frimme realizes he is rich enough by now to start buying back his soul. He begins negotiations with God once more. He drops dead of a heart attack. Frimme’s dead. That’s what I said. I am not a religious man on paper but I think about God a lot. The stone with a contract with God moved on in the story. This story will stay with me and make me wonder about petitioning the Lord with prayer and my own contracts I’ve drawn up. In the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “I do not think it means what you think it does.”
The second tale is The Alley Singer. A young man who sings in alleys for coins is seduced by a slatternly old diva who still has ambitions in the music world. She calls in a last favor with an old contact while she presses money into the singer’s hands. He drinks and gambles it away and abuses his pregnant younger wife who is already on the hag bag express. People are getting more desperate and crummier. I don’t think Eisner could have been so honest in the 40s or 50s. So he invented the first graphic novel in 1978 to tell these stories. The Super says more about perversion and the innate evil of the “innocent” than Nabokov could do in a whole novel.
Cookalein is about the old system of rural vacations New York City Jews would take before there were hotels or motels. Mothers would cook for their families while enterprising farmers would rent out cottages. This is an autobiographical piece although it isn’t directly said. Will, the teen of the main family in the story has a sexual encounter with an older woman and is caught by the husband. It isn’t quite what he wanted but then the story is full of hopeful people jockeying for opportunity to make their lives better and escape their squalid existence at 55 Dropsie Avenue. A rape happens. Some hearts and dreams are broken and perhaps an actual romance comes from the dreck. Will returns to the city changed and jarred out of childhood. Last page. This brilliant little film on paper is done. Merry Christmas.
by Bill Hilburn