Tuesday, April 13, 2010


"A Contract with God" occupies a rarefied position in the world of comics.  It's probably not the first graphic novel, but was the first to gain widespread recognition.  It also comes out of a fascinating real-world story.  The book was written by Will Eisner, who helped invent comics in the 1930's, and returned to reinvent them in the 1970's with this book.  Who says that there are no second acts in life?


The stories in this book are powerful.  They're amusing, but the humor is more incidental, not the focus.  They deal with some of the most important issues in life: religious faith, the unfairness of the world, loneliness, poverty, crushed aspirations, love, coming of age.  Eisner's treatments of these topics is refreshingly unidealistic.  For example, this is far from the only comic to write about love, but here, in the context of first- and second-generation immigrants in Depression-era Manhattan, "love" means finding a wealthy husband or wife who will help lift you out of poverty.  If they're faithful to you and provide for your kids, well, that's a bonus, but it isn't essential.


The art is really good.  It doesn't feel revolutionary or especially creative, but has fresh, clean lines that are attractive.  The design is good as well.  Eisner takes advantage of the graphic novel format and often fills an entire page with a single panel.  I can imagine how liberating this would feel: he could take however many pages he needed to tell each story, not needing to adapt the story to fit a proscribed length.

Apparently Eisner wrote several other graphic novels after A Contract with God, and after reading this I'll be very interested in checking them out.  This was a great little piece of storytelling in the Studs Terkel vein, an honest look at the way of life among ordinary people.

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