Friday, May 30, 2008

A Contract with God

A Contract with God
by Will Eisner
Norton, 2006 (originally published 1978)

Hillary Brown:  Whew, this is indeed a tough one to jump into, considering how highly esteemed it still is, even 30 years after the fact, but it seemed an appropriate choice for us to talk about, first as a way of demonstrating that we don't just to have to review things that are timely, and second because of Eisner's role in The Ten-Cent Plague, in which he appears as an incredibly significant figure in the world of comics, one who shaped the artistic development of that field and provided an important contrast to the sleazy horror and shock stuff of the time. So, I suppose the biggest question is: just how good is A Contract with God? Is it medicine that must be swallowed (a la Theodore Dreiser), or is it genuinely enjoyable? What surprised me the most is that I found it the latter, despite absolutely dreading the book (I should trust my husband; he read it and loved it before I did). It's been held up for so long as the best of the form, and I think that, even without some mental compensation for its age and pioneering nature, it's really excellent, in both writing and art. Calling it a "novel" is a bit of a stretch, as it's really four short stories, but you could group it with short-story cycles like those of Fred Chappell, Wendell Berry, and Tim O'Brien, as the stories all portray a particular specific place, even if none of the characters overlap. And it doesn't seem to have a huge, overarching goal or a statement to make about that place. It's not a message book so much as a sketchbook.

And the art. If you had to pick either writing or art as the book's greater achievement, I don't think there's any question it's the art. Eisner's page structure is certainly novel, without panels and with the text smushed up right into the images, but it's the incredible expressiveness of the figures that stays with me. It sort of makes you realize how little a lot of comics artists can draw to see how absolutely natural the poses are in A Contract with God. There's one page in particular, in "The Street Singer," that features the title character being thrown out of a bar, then picking himself up, and, while you can't really see his face, the gestures and body weight and movements are completely convincing. The opening pages of the title story, too, which show buckets of rain coming down, soaking the rabbi who grieves his way through the streets, convey beautifully the feeling of being caught in seemingly neverending rain, mirroring inner state in outer environment. Both the people and their
surroundings slouch and bulge and ooze and, basically, feel thoroughly human and earthy. It's not gritty so much as graspable.

Garrett Martin: Yeah, I wanted you to start this discussion because A Contract With God is so daunting. I had no idea where to begin with this one. Eisner is unimpeachable, and rightfully so; he and Kirby are neck-and-neck for best comic art dudes ever, and nobody did more to expand the visual scope of the medium. Eisner's like the Welles and Hitchcock of comics, in one single solitary body. Even without A Contract With God, his importance would be recognized. And though Contract was vital for proving book-length comics dealing with adult subject matter were viable in America, and remains a really good book in its own right, I think its importance is more historic than artistic.

Now, I've got no problems with the art, of course. It's pretty much flawless, full of the fluid linework and amazing characterization Eisner's known for, along with his distinctive sense of design. It's beautiful, expressive stuff, and I wish it went along with a script that was a bit less melodramatic. Obviously, some of the four stories are better than others, and, like you mention, they don't share characters or even themes, per se, but all of them break for the grand dramatic moment whenever possible. I'm sure depression-era tenements weren't the most understated of places, but A Contract With God still would've been better served with a bit more subtlety. Also three of the four stories would be stronger if they just had more room to develop; things move too quickly in the title story, "The Street Singer," and "Cookalein." That last one, in particular, seemed to be headed towards a truly excellent examination of class and Jewish society before rushing straight to the various climaxes. It's like Eisner couldn't wait to finish off the plot after introducing the setting and the various characters. As it is, "Cookalein" is a great story cut just short of exceptional. It's the most ambitious, but also the most underdeveloped.

HB: I'd say "Cookalein" is my favorite, and, while you may be right about it seeming underdeveloped, I sort of like Eisner's desire to shove 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag. Yes, there are moments in all the stories that are a bit overwrought, but there are also a lot that are surprising, especially "Cookalein." Sure, you see the central mistake (both boy and girl dress up fancy to catch a rich spouse and are taken for rich themselves, each by the other), but do you see what comes after that? In some ways, if Eisner had been more interested in explicitly examining class and Jewish society, the stories might not come off so well as they do. He's more Philip Roth than Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I appreciate that. There's little in the way of wisdom offered or even reflection. For example, take the title story. I kept trying to think about it literarily: what does it mean? Is it an atheistic story? What exactly is that contract? And none of the thinking really worked. What happens happens, and sometimes it goes the way you expect it and other times it doesn't. It's not necessarily that the universe is a place of complete chaos and that each of us is alone, subject entirely to the whims of fortune, but sometimes it is.

One thing I've seen from looking around online is that a lot of people seem to think the stories have incredible emotional power, and I don't know if I'd quite go that far. I mean, sure, it's sad that Frimme Hersch's daughter is dead, but it's really artistic power rather than tugging at the heartstrings that gives the book its oomph.

GM: Whatever emotional power could be here is undermined by the lack of focus on character. "Cookalein", particularly, could've used more character moments.. I mean, one character is raped, immediately falls in love with another character, and then suddenly it's two months later and they're engaged. Eisner does such a great job introducing the characters, but then doesn't follow through in his rush to the conclusion. It's disappointing, and diminishes the impact of some shocking and important scenes. That lack of character development dovetails with the lack of thematic clarity to reduce the potentially powerful into melodrama. Maybe that reinforces that the main character is the setting itself, both the tenement and the conditions that lead to and arise from living within, but, again, the text doesn't entirely bear that out.

I don't think the title story is atheistic, as there does seem to be a higher power at work. I think it's saying that God doesn't negotiate with people, and it's foolish to thing He/She/It would. God's like nature, like that storm pouring down on Dropsie; rage all you want, but there's nothing a man can do to change anything. The ending, with the boy finding the "contract", isn't hopeful or pessimistic so much as a sign that things are cyclical and people remain the same. That boy's making the same mistake as Frimme Hersch.

HB: I think you're right about the title story. I've been pondering on it more while waiting for your response. It's not that God doesn't create contracts with man (covenants, yo), but they originate from above, not below.

I suppose you're right about "Cookalein," too, but still... it's a comic and not one with the space to expand much on character. In a serial, you at least have the room to develop personalities slowly, but in a short story with a bunch of protagonists what can you really do? Even if it were a more straightforwardly literary work, you simply have to leave a lot unsaid.

Am I actually denigrating comics in comparison with literature and, therefore, doing exactly what annoys me about Eisner? Damn it. I suppose I am. But I'm doing so in thinking about truly great literature. I don't think I've read a comic book yet that stands with, say, Moby-Dick, and even the very best of the form are only reaching to the level of better contemporary novels, like The Corrections, perhaps. Still, it's a young medium yet, and at least Eisner was reaching. I certainly don't want to downplay his achievement--it's both an important book and a good one--and in some ways I appreciate his lack of restraint, his willingness to shove in sex and violence that's undeniably titillating, but assessing his creation against works in other genres does show some of its weaknesses.

GM: Like I said, it's more important historically than artistically. And you're right, it is a young medium, and was obviously younger 30 years ago. A Contract With God is one of the first comics to aspire to literature (pronounced with the toniest of PBS accents), and can't really be compared to Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment or whatever (at least you can hold it next to Robinson Crusoe and give it points for not being the most boring thing in the world). To really appreciate what Eisner was doing you have to view it alongside other comics of the day; it's not genre work of any sort, it's not juvenile like most underground comics of the '60's and '70's, and it doesn't have to deal with the daily grind and punchline pressures of adult-minded strips like Doonesbury. It's simultaneously more personal yet more literary, and more understated yet more graphic, than most other comics that came before it. Yeah, it's not entirely successful, and a number of superior works followed, but it's still important in the way that, say, Birth of a Nation is important. But, y'know, without pissing any right-thinking person off.

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