Force Of Will
♦2017 is the centenary of the birth of heavyweight comics creator Will Eisner and WW Norton has just released a new version of his seminal A Contract With God so Tripwire gave its Senior Editor ANDREW COLMAN the job of assessing this new edition…
A Contract With God
Writer/ Artist: Will Eisner
Not that the work needed a reappraisal, but Will Eisner’s Contract With God, now nearly 40 years old and in its author’s centenary year, was due a celebration. It initiated the third chapter of Eisner’s expansive and illustrious career, after spending two and a half decades away from the comic medium. The new edition of this book is a sumptuous tribute to the paperback version from 1978 – a high quality hardback with an extensive introduction by Scott McCloud (which in its valedictory and scholarly thoroughness rather trumps anything else that might have been said about this book), a foreword about the graphic novel’s gestation and a preface from the creator, written in 2004.
Eisner’s preface, concise as it is, is crucial to our understanding of the book’s genesis – as it is here that he discusses the themes that inform the key story, A Contract With God. The tale, about an orthodox Jew who turns his back on his faith after losing his daughter, is based on a tragic personal loss, which, despite being eight year earlier, still overshadowed his life. It is from this juncture that Eisner developed what would become a genre – that of the autobiographical comic artist, baring his soul. Eisner’s classic early work, dominated by his serial cartoons featuring the Spirit, was edgy, dynamic, outre, even – a masterclass in experimentation with the form. His return to the medium dispensed with the symbolic, the larger-than-life, and caricatured villainy, replacing it with sombre woodcut illustration that was influenced by unfairly marginalised 1930s artists. The tone was still noirish, but gone were the bells and whistles – instead there was a pared down sentimentality, with harsh cityscapes and dowdy desperation as its inescapable backdrop. Eisner was keen to balance the brutalism of the Depression era here with warmth and nostalgia, but there is no question that the book wouldn’t’ve worked without the authenticity of hard experience – the final chapter, Cookalein, details a particularly grim rite of passage for a teenage boy that Eisner makes perfectly clear was himself.
Although Eisner claimed that this work signified the beginning of a new genre, the work’s main innovation was breaking new ground with the format – stark black and white illustrations that sometimes took up the whole page. Oddly enough it was the arrival of the underground cartoonists of a decade earlier that forced Eisner to rethink his relationship with the medium – if these talented, if somewhat misanthropic artists (whose prime objective often seemed to be about pushing the taboo envelope) had transcended the inflexibility of the mainstream, then surely he could as well. Robert Crumb’s greatest character was himself – but Eisner preceded his more personal outpourings by several years. And once again, this most cherished of artists had avoided doing a straightforward comic book – the “graphic novel”, a term bandied about for a while before 1978, allowed Eisner to once again sidestep the four color pamphlet.
A Contract With God’s strength, apart from its superb artistry (only Eisner could be luminous in his understated drawings) is its desire to accurately delineate the period in its setting – the sights, sounds and even smells are palpable, as are the serial losses and tragedies of the entrapped players that litter the hermetic tenements. The pathetic fate of the street singer and the Super, in chapters two and three, are heart-breaking yet necessary reminders that this bygone impoverished age was anything but romantic.
In the end, this document of an ever more distant time reinvigorated Eisner, leading to many more graphic novels by him about the Jewish experience, notably A Life Force, as well as the ever-changing metropolis that is New York. Not to mention that this book also was pivotal as an influence for all the alternative writer-artists that followed in its wake. Still a work that demands numerous repeat visits, and worthy of all the praise.
A Contract With God Centenary Edition is out now