This past week, we had what would have been the 94th birthday of one of the most talented men to every create comics: legend Will Eisner. Were the comics medium a musical instrument, he was its most proficient virtuoso. Sadly, in the current superhero-saturated industry, a large amount of comics fans have yet to read any Eisner. If you’re one of those people – don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone – there is no work of his that I recommend more highly than his masterpiece A Contract With God. Follow the cut if you somehow need convincing.
Comics have always been tied to action-filled genre fiction, and there isn’t anything particularly “wrong” with that. But, to paraphrase Scott McCloud, there’s no reason to believe that the medium can only be used in a manner resembling those roots. Obviously, in this day and age, it is easy enough to find a non-action comic, even if they are in the minority. Without Eisner, though – and this comic in particular – I am sure we would be even harder-pressed to find them than we are now. In the 1970s, having been publishing his iconic series The Spirit for well over two decades, Eisner decided to do something he hadn’t before: a very personal, non-serialized graphic novel that was far removed from the action/adventure of his successful franchise. The medium would never be the same again.
A Contract With God tells four different short stories all set in single tenement building on Dropsie Avenue (well, the last one not quite as much, but still). They don’t aim to tell of fantastic journeys of derring-do; rather, they tell incredibly human stories of life, love and loss in a world that may not be as bright and clean as we wish it would be. The cast of characters are primarily of Jewish descent, as was Eisner himself, but each story is written with such feeling and power that Eisner is able to strike a chord within the reader, no matter what his or her background. Take, for example, the first story, which tells the story of a man forming a pact with his God, and his struggle with acceptance when that contract is seemingly broken. Personally, I am not a religious man, yet that story remains to me one of the most powerful and striking ones within this collection.
It’s a myth that Will Eisner coined the term “graphic novel” – though he did popularize it – but he did create one of the most concise terms for defining what makes comics what they are: sequential art. And that’s exactly what this volume is. Every single page, every single panel flows into the next one effortlessly, making you feel like you’re viewing a majestic painting, rather than just holding a small, bound book. Every character leaks a myriad of emotion onto the page, and every movement needs to be given a thorough examination to ensure that, no, they aren’t actually moving. Eisner was the expert at telling stories with pictures – so much so that I posit that this book would be a masterpiece even if you went through and removed every bit of text. Not that I would support such an action. Eisner’s prose is nothing short of beautiful, never saying anything more than what needs to be said, and using the perfect choice of words for every individual sentence.
A Contract With God was neither the first graphic novel nor the first comic devoted solely to normal life rather than fantastic adventures – both had been around the alternative comics scene for some years, the latter most notably with Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, which started publication in 1976, two years before A Contract With God saw print. Still, Eisner’s most well-known work was one of the first major successes of either camp, serving as a beacon for all – not just those frequenting more underground comics shops – of the medium’s inherent versatility. It’s splendor is just as resonant today. If any one comic needs to be read and owned by every comic fan, it is A Contract With God.