By Will Eisner
Most recently published by W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN: 0-3933-2804-X
Other editions are readily available
If Jack Kirby is the American comic strip’s most influential artist, Will Eisner is undoubtedly its most venerated and exceptional storyteller. Contemporaries originating from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds, each used comic arts to escape from their own tenements, achieving varying degrees of acclaim and success, and eventually settling upon a theme to colour all their later works. For Kirby it was the Cosmos, what Man would find there, and how humanity would transcend its origins in The Ultimate Outward Escape.
Will Eisner went Home, went Back and went Inward.
In 1978 he published (under the Poorhouse Press imprint of Baronet Publishing) A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, a collection of four original short stories in comics form. All the tales centre around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a typical 1930’s Bronx tenement, housing poor Jewish and immigrant families.
In the eponymous lead tale we discover how and why Rabbi Frimme Hersh renounces the signed agreement he made with his Creator after escaping the Tsar’s pogroms and fleeing to America and of his bizarre fate.
The Street Singer uses shades of O. Henry to examine ambition and desperation, while there are chillingly contemporary (by which I mean Last Week, not this decade) themes and overtones on view in the tragically unjust tale of The Super, before the volume concludes with Cookalein (the Yiddish term for a sort of Jewish self-catering working holiday).
In those impoverished days the families (sans fathers) fled the sweltering inner city heat of New York City for the cooler August climes of the Catskills Mountains (what’s become known as the “Borscht Belt”). In that heady freedom lives were changed forever and Eisner examines a broad cast of poor characters with rich aspirations in a memorably bittersweet tale.
Will Eisner was a consummate creator, honing his skills not just on the legendary Spirit but with years of educational and promotional material. In A Contract With God he moved into – and some might argue actually invented – the genre of truly sophisticated, mature comics. The themes and investigations here and in his successive graphic works rank with John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the use of fiction as documentary exploration of their respective social experience.
If I’ve been deliberately vague in the facts of stories contained herein, you’ll thank me when you read this book. And you really, really must.
© 1978, 2004. Will Eisner.