Find Slices of Life in A Contract With God

folding fan

Image retrieved from The Graphic Mac (Dempsy, 2008)

Notes to readers:

1) A Contract With God, as discussed here, is one comic in a collection of Will Eisner’s works (2006); it is grouped therein under the same title with three other comics.  This story quartet also has been published as a stand-alone: A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories.

2) The length of this essay corresponds to the great number of features necessary for the study of four deeply meaningful comics.  The result shows the cohesiveness of the comics, and the organization of this essay will help to locate features of interest.

— A. Quinn

Introduction

Four stories, originally published between 1978 and 1995, make up “Part I: A  Contract With God” in Will Eisner’s comics trilogy published in 2006.  In the information-packed Preface, Eisner explains that he was born and raised in New York City, and influenced by the graphic art of Otto Nückel, Franz Masareel, and Lynd Ward (pp. xiii-xiv).  Eisner’s career was devoted to “combining and refining words and pictures” (p. xix).

In the stories, Eisner’s fictional tenement neighborhood is home to characters which are, at times, visually stereotypical. They include slouched elderly rabbis, a dolled-up young girlfriend, a busty musical diva, a drunken failure of a man, a lonely building ‘super,’ a sweet looking but evil young temptress, a gold-digging chick, and a frumpy intellectual.  Nonetheless, the characters experience and propel them up and down in life, and Eisner’s storytelling is compelling for new comics readers as well as established fans.

This reading response focuses on what Eisner offers his readers as he asks them to relish his ‘slice of life’ stories.

A Contract With God

Frimme Hersh is an orphan in late-nineteenth century Russia.  As a boy, he is rescued from ferocious anti-Semitic persecution and he dutifully creates a contract with the Divine. Later, in his permanent home in New York City, he lives his adult life as a devout Jew. The death of Frimme’s adopted daughter, however, devastates his faith and leads to a furious end to his commitment to God. Frimme becomes a greedy and unhappy businessman. His perceptive girlfriend offers to convert to Judaism, and Frimme is moved. He demands a new contract with God from synagogue elders. The results, however, are literally short-lived. The reader is left to ponder some basics in the human condition: spirituality, organized religion, ethics, economic class, grief, disillusionment, and emotional emptiness. In the “Epilogue,” heroic young Shloime Khreks finds Frimme’s original contract, and possibilities are left to the reader.

The Street Singer

The main character in this story is a poor husband whose melodic voice echoes in tenement alleys, earning him tossed coins and a promise of fame from a bygone operatic diva. She will make him a star! After returning to the reality of home with a badgering wife and baby on the way, he convinces his bartender and himself that stellar days are ahead. The problem is that he absolutely cannot remember where the diva lives and he only knows her stage name.  It’s back to drudgery and unfulfilled potential. The hopes in the story line are punctured by the realities of poverty, hunger, sex for favors, domestic violence, and giddy promises of success and fame.

The Super

Unlikable Mr. Scuggs is a cranky, scary looking tenement super.  He is fed up with his tenants, and finds relief in alcohol and the pin-up girls on the walls of his basement apartment.  When Mrs. Farfell fetches him to fix the hot water, her young niece catches his eye and later arrives at the door of his apartment.  The combination of his inebriation and her startling behavior leads to the provocation of violence and a suicidal ending.  These events are not unheard of in cruel domains where alcohol use leads to raw emotions and where evil causes tragedy despite the appearance of innocence.

Cookalein

Tenement dwellers escape to the country during the summer, and ‘cookaleins’ are inexpensive hotels where moms-in-charge cook for their vacationing families.  Other hotel-bound vacationers in Eisner’s story include a secretary looking for a rich husband, a conceited young man masquerading as a well-to-do, a medical student who plays sax in a hotel band, lonely Mrs. Minks, and fifteen-year-old Willie – who is strapping and naive.  None of the characters dominate this rollicking story, and neither do their summer experiences.  Plausibility and probability (terms from animation discussions in Disney’s Fantasia [2000; originally 1940]) fill this visual narrative with commonly known happenings: flirting, travel preparations, snobbery, chauvinism, unhappiness, infidelity, seduction, rape, rescue, and loss of innocence.

Eisner’s sequential art and the evocation of reaction

Each of Eisner’s stories begins flatly with a full-page illustration that has no frame, no gutters, and no text save for a simple number indicating the order of the stories.  These pages provide scenery, but no emotion. It is within each comic that the art conveys depth of meaning.  In “A Contract with God,” there is text-as-image, (such as Hebrew letters and punctuation which convey Judaic themes), predominance of full pages with no frames (surrounded by white spaces which serve as large gutters that emphasize the importance of the panels’ contents), and overflowing water and pelting rain that submerge Frimme Hersh in overwhelming grief.  Most pages are saturated with plentiful ink striations – angled to lead the reader through a driving story, or horizontal/vertical to halt the reader for moments of thought. From childhood through Frimme’s self-determined amoral metamorphosis, the panels go from small and detailed to large and blackened, communicating progression from the past into stark reality.  The catalyst for Frimme’s return to religion is his girlfriend, pictured close up with simple, appealing features.  The art quickly returns to striation with movement that culminates in a swirling yet rainless storm of death.  The backgrounds in the final two pages of the “Epilogue” are black and strong, forcing the reader to be somber.  Striated rays of lamplight and a glare of light on Sliome Khreks ask for closure: What is in that aged contract, and what will come of those who enter into its terms?

At the beginning of “The Street Singer,” vertical striation surrounds text in the atmosphere of an alley; this feature stops the reader and starts a new story.  Most of the subsequent pages contain three to five panels, with medium/neutral views and black or white backgrounds that allow for the exploration of numerous characters and components of the tale, and a variety of emotions.  High views and bird’s eye perspectives accentuate moments wherein the reader may ponder realities such as urban confinement, looming pressure, post-coital return to routine, and various bits of litter in the life of the everyman.

Close-ups, cluttered panels,  and moment-to-moment transitions give the reader plenty of tools for closure (McCloud, 1994, p. 70) in “The Super.” The reader gets to know Mr. Scuggs as a larger than life character on single-panel pages.  On pages where he is small among the details, however, circumstances are seen to whittle him down under the pressures of his job.  Swirling images ‘describe’ his sad escapes into alcohol-induced fantasy.  Dark surroundings on pages 116 and 117 give way to glaring, bright backgrounds that clearly show the rapid pace of Mr. Scuggs’s growing despair, and a billowy text balloon with creepy musical notes draws the reader’s eye to evidence of a twisted victory near the story’s end.

With a large variety of characters and events, the art in “Cookalein” is busy with details and a great number of text balloons.  In this final story of Part I in Eisner’s trilogy, vertical striations slowly return and increase, leading the reader to gaze down into pools of thought as “A Contract With God” nears its end.  The backgrounds get busy, and depictions of young Willie become more prominent.  By the final pages, Willie is large, deep and dark in thought, and surrounded by a sky filled with lines of background.  There is hardly a gutter in which the reader might look away.  The reader’s perspective is from behind Willie, and together they can look down on a city of many stories.

Other features of this comics quartet

The lack of color (i.e., the use of black and white only) in these comics suggests the years when color images/photographs might not have been commonplace.  For example, “A Contract With God” takes place toward the beginning of the twentieth century, and “The Street Singer” takes place “during the early 1930s” (p. 65).  Based on personal observations, the world of “The Super” includes a child in dress from the early to mid-twentieth century, and the vehicles depicted in “Cookalein” are from that era as well.

Audience and collection development

Six libraries in the Suffolk Cooperative Library System own this trilogy title.  Three place it with adult graphic novels, and two place it with graphic novels for young adults.  One library places it on the 741.5 shelves.

The content of the stories are appropriate for young adults and adults, but this title will probably circulate more in an adult collection serving readers who have observed or experienced some of the events.  Also, interest in middle-aged characters may be found more among adults.  Minor depictions of nudity and sexual activities are further considerations.  Regardless, young adults interested in comics in the library may know of Will Eisner, making it easy to search for his work by author regardless of collection.  Cataloging this work as a 741.5, however, may ‘maroon’ it; this consideration echoes Kat Kan’s ideas in “Cataloging Graphic Novels” (2016).

Final thoughts

A Contract With God was chosen for review here because at first skim among four choices, it appeared to be the least appealing.  A potentially negative review was in the works.   After reading only a few pages, there was an about-face in direction!  One can really sink their literary teeth into Eisner’s offerings.

If there is any doubt that comics can address everyday moments and the human condition with meaningful art, the stories explored here are evidence that comics can do just that.  Also, Eisner’s masterful comics make it easy to forget about format and think about content that is from the real world.

References

Dempsy, J. (2008). Create a hand-held fan from your favorite image [sample of a product created with a Photoshop action: Panos FX Fan]. Retrieved on February 22, 2016 from the website of The Graphic Mac at http://www.thegraphicmac.com/create-hand-held-fan-effect-your-favorite-image

Eisner, W. (2006). The Contract With God trilogy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Fantasia [60th anniversary DVD edition of a motion picture originally released in 1940]. (2000). Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Enterprises.

Kan, K. (2016). Cataloging graphic novels. Retrieved from Diamond Bookshelf at http://www.diamondbookshelf.com/Home/1/1/20/181?articleID=37812

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

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