Friday, October 28, 2011

Eisner’s Tenement Trilogy — A Contract with God (pt. 1)

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was probably the most-influential comics creator from which most casual fans had never read anything. Unlike publicity hounds like Stan Lee, trendsetters like Jack Kirby or unsung heroes like Julius Schwartz and Carl Barks, Eisner has flown beneath the popular radar.

But his influence was so great that the comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscars — awarded each year at Comic-Con — is known as the “Eisners.”

Eisner’s most-famous creation was the noir-ish hero The Spirit, which became a big influence on Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Batman work and the subject of a horrible 2008 movie. But his most personal work is his trilogy of graphic novels inspired by Eisner’s depression-era childhood in New York. The “Contract with God” trilogy (named after the first book in the series) is a series of vignettes set in tenement housing, centered around the (fictional) residents of 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx.

A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, the first book in the series, was released in 1978 and is widely (if apocryphally) considered the first “graphic novel” — a work released in book form from the start and not simply a collection of previously published comic books.

The volume, both written and drawn by Eisner, starts with the eponymous first story, outlining the life of an Orthodox Hasidic Jew named Frimme Hersh, as he immigrated to the United States after a pogrom and became a pillar of the community. The titular contract with God is made in exchange for good fortune, then broken when the protaganist’s daughter dies (not a spoiler, that’s within the first few pages). The developments from there take a twist right out of EC Comics’ horror stories.

A page from the eponymous "Contract with God"

The second story, “The Street Singer,” about a drunken alley singer’s encounter with an over-the-hill opera diva, also has a twist, but is the least compelling story in the volume.

If the first story had a twist out of EC Comics’ horror stories, “The Super” has a twist out of EC’s crime stories. Telling the tale of 55 Dropsie’s alternatively hated and pitied superintendent, it’s a tightly wound, yet disturbing tale dealing with ambiguous victimhood centered around an accusation of pedophilia.

A page from "The Super"

Finally, “Cookalein” deals with the country jaunts from the city that Jewish families who could afford to do so often took in the 1930s. It also has by far the most characters to keep track of: a poor boy and poor girl both pretending they're rich, a teenage boy subjected to the advances of a married woman, small kids discovering the joys of “camping.” Plotwise, it includes portrayals of date rape, infidelity and true romance. This story was confusing at first with its myriad of characters, but developed into an interesting case study of how fish (repressed ones at that) deal with being out of water.

One of the few pages from "Cookalein" printable on a family blog.

The book deals with some heady topics for something written by a Depression-era kid in the ‘70s, and the art and storytelling are fine. But I had issues with the book. Eisner’s stories in the first volume aren’t much more than a series of vignettes centered around the same neighborhood — without much of a unifying thread. It’s a piece of Americana, but A Contract with God’s contents feel like they’d fit in a simple anthology, rather than a groundbreaking piece of comic literature.

But one of the biggest criticisms I have was made in other reviews as well: Eisner’s art is great for the pulps, but when dealing with serious subjects it seems a bit cartoony for the matter at hand. Not to say that simple art is bad for serious subjects — Craig Thompson’s Blankets is an example where simple art works well with adult themes — but Eisner’s characters almost look like caricatures in some places.

Still, A Contract with God was a good read and a great look into multiculturalism for the uninitiated. The next volume, A Life Force, is purported to be the best of the series. Expect a review of it soon.

Note: This is a review of the first book in Will Eisner’s Tenement Trilogy. The next two books, A Life Force, and Dropsie Avenue were later reviewed in November and December.

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