Cover image for A contract with God : and other tenement stories / Will Eisner ; introduction by Scott McCloud.
Title:
A contract with God : and other tenement stories / Will Eisner ; introduction by Scott McCloud.
Author:
ISBN:
9780393609189
Edition:
Will Eisner centennial edition.
Publication Information:
New York, New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

©2017
Physical Description:
xxxiv, 179 pages : chiefly illustrations ; 26 cm
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Summary

Summary

Will Eisner was present at the dawn of comics. In the 1940s, he pushed the boundaries of the medium with his acclaimed weekly comic strip The Spirit, and with the publication of A Contract with God in 1978, he created a new medium altogether: the graphic novel. It was unlike anything seen before, heralding an era when serious cartoonists were liberated from the limiting confines of the comic strip. Eisner's work was a shining example of what comics could be: as inventive, moving, and complex as any literary art form.Eisner considered himself "a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak, and the never-ending struggle to prevail." A Contract with God begins with a gripping tale that mirrors the artist's real-life tragedy, the death of his daughter. Frimme Hersh, a devout Jew, questions his relationship with God after the loss of his own beloved child. Hersh's crisis is intertwined with the lives of the other unforgettable denizens of Eisner's iconic Dropsie Avenue, a fictionalized version of the quintessential New York City street where he came of age at the height of the Depression.This centennial edition showcases Eisner's singular visual style in new high-resolution scans of his original art, complete with an introduction by Scott McCloud and an illuminating history of Eisner's seminal work. Now readers can experience the legendary book that launched a unique art form and reaffirmed Will Eisner as one of the great pioneers of American graphic storytelling.


Author Notes

Will Eisner was born March 6, 1917 in Brooklyn, NY. As a child he worked for printers and sold newspapers. He attended De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where his artwork first appeared in the school newspaper. His first job was at the New York American, but he lost that and found a job with WOW What a Magazine! in 1936. He created two features for the magazine, Harry Karry and The Flame. After the magazine went under, for a short time, he freelanced and drew stories for Comic Magazines before he and friend Jerry Iger formed a the Eisner-Iger studio. The two went their separate ways when Eisner joined the Quality Comics Group to produce a syndicated 16-page newspaper supplement. It was there that Eisner created his most well known character, the Spirit.

In 1942, Eisner was drafted into the army where he produced posters and strips for the troops. After the war, he continued the Spirit strip until 1952. It was during this time that he created the American Visuals Corporation, a commercial art company that created comics for educational and commercial purposes. Some of the company's clients included RCA Records, the Baltimore Colts, and New York Telephone.

Eisner had given up on the Spirit strip, but still produced new material for it from time to time. He chose to focus his efforts on a more mature storyline and so produced A Contract With God, which was published in 1978. It was the beginnings of the graphic novel.

Eisner also taught cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York, in addition to writing Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling. The Eisner Awards, one of only two comics industry awards, are named for Eisner and were established in 1988. Eisner's work was showcased in the Whitney Museum's 1996 "NYNY: City of Ambition" show.

Will Eisner passed away on Monday January 3, 2005 at the age of 87 after undergoing quadruple bypass heart surgery.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 1

New York Review of Books Review

MOST CARTOONISTS SPEND DECADES developing their craftin public before they're prepared to take on the challenge of a major graphic novel. Not Emil Ferris, who has slammed her oversized, 386- page magnum opus, MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS (Fantagraphics, paper, $39.99), down onto the table of comics by way of introduction. Drawn entirely on blue-lined notebook paper, it's a startling demonstration of Ferris's range, power and ambition. She has a portraitist's skill with tiny subtleties of expression and lighting and a New Objectivist's eye for the raw grotesquerie of bodies and their surroundings, and her illustrative technique extends from impossibly delicate hairbreadth shading to passionate marker-mashing scribbles. Set in Chicago in the 1960s, the book is narrated by 10-year-old Karen Reyes, who imagines herself as a wolf-girl with a fanged underbite. When her beautiful upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, dies under suspicious circumstances, Karen naturally wants to solve the mystery, but it involves deeper and sadder complications of adulthood than she can yet understand. A lot of those complications involve her beloved but rage-prone older brother, Deeze, short for Diego Zapata, who takes her to museums to show her classic paintings (which appear throughout the book, rendered in Ferris's intricately crosshatched pen lines). Deeze, Karen recalls, told her that Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" is effectively "history's first horror comic cover . . . and considering the whole arithmetic of boobs + monsters = horror, I guess he's probably right." Karen flits from strand to strand of her story: her mother's rapid decline from cancer, her painful crush on another monster-loving girl, the racial tensions that clawed at Chicago's social fabric at the time, and several long, wrenching digressions into Anka's experiences as a child prostitute in Nazi Germany. The terrible experiences she's processing are punctuated by flashes of simpler horrors - drawings of the covers of her beloved Dread, Ghoulish and Ghastly magazines (dead ringers for the real-world Creepy and Eerie, whose frequent contributor Richard Corben seems to have had as much of an impact on Ferris's artwork as his polar opposite, Lynda Barry). The book ends with something like a cliffhanger - a second and final volume of Karen's story is due this fall - but the incompleteness of a serial episode is appropriate for the way she tries to understand disaster as a promise that something else will follow it. Jason Shiga couldn't be much more distant from Ferris on the stylistic spectrum: His stories are entirely plotdriven, and his drawing skills are technically very modest (all of his characters are flat, bigheaded caricatures, trotting across rudimentary settings). Still, he uses what he's got brilliantly in the first two volumes of DEMON (First Second, paper, $19.99 each), a Grand Guignol comedy that he initially serialized online. (The remaining two volumes will follow later this year.) Shiga scatters panels loosely across each page, letting empty space sharpen the timing and staging of his gory farce. As the story begins, Jimmy Yee, the Everyman protagonist of many of Shiga's comics, is writing a suicide note. He hangs himself, and promptly wakes up alive and well in the same grotty motel. "I've been given a second chance," he declares before slitting his wrists, with the same result. After a few more attempts to kill himself end similarly, this version of Jimmy, a psychopathic actuary with a giftfor mental computation, figures out what's going on: He's actually a demon who possesses whoever is closest to him whenever his host body dies. Naturally, the government wants to use Jimmy as a weapon, and his path to freedom involves committing suicide over and over in increasingly ingenious ways (with a lot of homicide thrown in, too). The result is a bit like Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's "Death Note" - escalating mayhem based on a plot gimmick with very specific rules - except that Shiga delights in letting the simple cuteness of his visual style sugarcoat horrific gross-outs. At the climax of the first volume, Jimmy has to figure out a way to kill his current host body, armed only with "nearly an entire square of toilet paper . . . double ply." His solution is hilariously original, and so far beyond the pale that it has practically forgotten what the pale was. Gabrielle Bell is a supreme miniaturist. Her tart, wry comics generally make their point in a few pages, then vanish like an uncomfortable party guest. Discomfort, actually, is the chief subject and substance of her work: Her characters slump and stare at their nails, obsess over their social awkwardness, fret over what to do about mysterious smells. EVERYTHING IS FLAMMABLE (Uncivilized, $25.95) extends that aesthetic to a book-length narrative, a memoir of Bell's difficult relationship with her mother, Maggie. When Maggie's house, a four-hour drive north of San Francisco, burns down, Bell steels herself to help her find a new place to live. ("Can you put me on something that will keep me on my best behavior?" she asks a psychiatrist.) Through the six square, neurotically overstuffed panels on each page, Bell shows us the landscape of her mother's life, populated by feral animals and possibly dirty dishes. There's clearly some horribly painful family history, but we see it only in glimpses and elisions; Bell and her mother are more concerned with the business of getting a new little house delivered, getting a stove and plumbing put in, and figuring out whether the ex-con who lives in a trailer on the property is a danger to her or not. The subtext of it all is Bell's ceaseless struggle with her own depression and anxiety, which she frames as black comedy. "Sometimes it feels like I'm carrying some invisible, unwieldy object, like, say, a bicycle, with both hands over my head, while continuing to try to function normally," she notes (and draws herself doing just that). The bleakest section of the book memorializes the dead cats of her youth, several of them killed by Freya, a dog owned by her abusive stepfather, Jeff. "One day, when I came home from school, Freya was gone and Jeffwas looking mournful," Bell writes. "I didn't feel anything, but I'd learned to fake it." Over more than three decades, the Italian cartoonist who goes by the single name Igort has written and drawn fictional, historical, biographical and experimental books, relatively few of which have been translated into English. JAPANESE NOTEBOOKS: A Journey to the Empire of Signs (Chronicle, $29.95) is partly a remembrance of his experience working in the Japanese comics industry, and mostly an extended meditation on his long, deep fascination with Japan and its art. (As the subtitle suggests, it owes a bit to Roland Barthes's own book about Japan, "Empire of Signs.") It's a loose chain of commentaries on bits of Japanese culture that have made an impression on him - the films of Seijun Suzuki, the life story of the murderer Sada Abe, discrimination against the burakumin caste, the national fascination with chrysanthemums - illustrated with exquisite pen-and-watercolor images that filter iconic Japanese imagery through the visual techniques of European comics. Those observations are peppered by stories of Igort's personal links to Japan, where he's been unusually successful for a Western creator since the early '90s, when he got a job drawing comics for the publishing company Kodansha. (He tells the story of how his initial meeting there went on for three and a half hours: He didn't realize that it was his role to end it, and so his editor raised his rate three times, thinking that Igort was subtly negotiating.) His editors, he notes, told him that they were "honored to work with you, who in turn, in your previous life, were Japanese." That's the deepest longing of any cultural outsider, and like many such outsiders, Igort is particularly attached to the aspects of the country that are gone or vanishing. In the book's afterword, he relates a dream in which his translator imagined him as "a high-class woman of a certain age" in a kimono shop in the early 1900s. Such fantasies rarely involve being, say, a burakumin, but Igort's drawings of that posh, tidy vision are beautiful enough to get away with it. Most of Guy Delisle's longer graphic novels to date, like "Pyongyang" and "Burma Chronicles," have been memoirs of his travels. HOSTAGE (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95) is neither about the Canadian cartoonist's own experiences nor grounded in his canny observations of place: It's the story of Christophe André, who spent almost four months in 1997 as a hostage. Kidnapped from a Doctors Without Borders office in Nazran, Ingushetia, a Russian republic near Chechnya, where he was an administrator, he was taken to Grozny and handcuffed to a radiator next to a mattress in a darkened room. That was all André knew. He didn't speak his captors' language, got almost no information of any kind from them, and had no way of knowing when or how he might be freed. In some ways, this story, translated by Helge Dascher, is a bizarre choice to present as comics: André spends 300 straight pages as a captive, with very little change of scenery and almost no other identifiable characters in sight. (Delisle's thin pen lines are submerged in a bare handful of flat tones of gray and gray-green.) But the location captured here is less André's grim little room than his mind, as he tries to ward offexistential despair - a battle that lets Delisle transmute tedium into compelling suspense. We see the captive narrator struggling to keep track of the passing days, and to keep his mind sharp by playing memory games about the Napoleonic Wars. He makes tiny jokes, like naming the man who brings him his soup Thénardier, after the innkeeper from "Les Misérables." A heroic effort on Day 80 yields him a clove of garlic. Delisle presents André's eventual escape less as a daring exploit than as a panicked, fumbling victory over his interior monologue - the psychological prison that months of darkness, immobility and uncertainty had imposed on him. It's usually a slight to argue that an artist "hasn't found their voice yet"; in the case of the restlessly versatile Jillian Tamaki, it's an endorsement. BOUNDLESS (Drawn & Quarterly, paper, $24.95) collects short stories that are so far apart from one another in tone and technique that they could almost pass for the work of entirely different artists. Some of them are less narratives than brief, illustrated prose poems. If Tamaki (the illustrator of the Book Review's By the Book feature) has a favorite storytelling strategy, it seems to be dreaming up some kind of odd artifact of mass culture and then examining the way people react to it. "Body Pods" concerns a cult movie adored by some of the narrator's friends, and their reactions as its stars begin to die. "Darla!" is an oral history of a (nonexistent) short-lived pornographic sitcom from the '90s. ("It was a different time," the narrator deadpans. "You could never make something like it now.") And the Borgesian "1. Jenny" begins by imagining a "mirror Facebook" whose users' profiles begin to diverge from their real-world counterparts,' and goes on to follow one woman's obsession with her alternate self's love life. The book's highlight, "SexCoven," is a showcase for Tamaki's mercurial style. Nominally, it concerns a mysterious six-hour-long audio file with druglike properties and the communities that successively accrued around it in the early 2000s. The story starts offlike a documentary whose narrator is looking back on the phenomenon, but in the course of its 30 pages, it drifts through a sex scene, a psychedelic depiction of a SexCoven trip, "screenshots" of a digital video and more, with each sequence presented in a different visual idiom. The task of culture is to connect people in the world, Tamaki suggests, but the kinds of connections it creates are weirder than anyone could guess. This year is the 100th anniversary of Will Eisner's birth, an occasion marked by a new edition of his most celebrated book. A CONTRACT WITH GOD AND OTHER TENEMENT STORIES (Norton, $25.95), first published in 1978, wasn't the first self-described "graphic novel," but it's the one that made the term stick. At the time, Eisner was already an éminence grise in American comics: "The Spirit," the formally groundbreaking weekly newspaper-insert comic book he had written and drawn in the '40s, had been rediscovered by a new generation of ambitious cartoonists, and he had spent the previous few decades creating instructional comics for the Army and other clients. "A Contract With God" was a departure, not just for Eisner but for comics in general. (Booksellers were puzzled about where to display it.) It's a suite of four stories about the inhabitants of a tenement in the Bronx of the 1930s, where Eisner grew up. "Cookalein" involves the fraught erotic awakening of a young man named Willie. In retrospect, the book seems like a pretext for its bitterly melodramatic, rageful title story - drawn from the author's own life - in which a devout Jewish survivor of pogroms, shattered by the death of his daughter, becomes convinced first that God has violated the terms of their agreement, and then that the contract simply wasn't airtight enough. Eisner's writing here, by modern standards, is hamhanded. The book is overpopulated by ironic twist endings, overcooked dialogue and villainous specimens with wretched sexual urges. As an artist, though, the Eisner of "A Contract with God" was a master arriving at his mature style. His characters crumple, bellow and gesticulate as if they've got a huge stage they need to fill; his blotchy, wriggling lines magically fall together into the contours of a worn-out suit or the light on a litter-speckled stairwell. Even the book's layouts, with only a few panels on each page and frequently borderless backgrounds that dissolve in a hash of pen scratches, didn't look like anything else in their time. In the light of the four decades of graphic novels that have followed it, "A Contract with God" is a display of Eisner's mighty labor to invent a new form, in commemoration of a cultural moment that had already disappeared. What graphic books are on your radar this summer? "Guy Delisle's 'Hostage' is on my list. It's a nonfiction account of an N.G.O. worker's captivity in Chechnya for three months in 1997. In the back of my mind I'm always wondering how I'd survive something like that, so I'm curious to see how this guy did it. I'm also curious to see how Delisle draws a 400-page story that happens in one room. 'Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home' is by one of my favorite autobiographical cartoonists, Nicole J. Georges. And Gengoroh Tagame, best known for his gay erotic manga, has written a really sweet all-ages book called 'My Brother's Husband.' " - ALISON BECHDEL DOUGLAS WOLK is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean." He writes frequently about comics for The Times.