Sunday, November 05, 2006

Book-A-Day #110 (11/3): A Contract With God by Will Eisner

As I did at Worldcon, I cheated a bit for this convention -- I brought along an omnibus with several graphic novels originally published separately, on the grounds that each of them really counts as a "book."

(The equivalent book at Worldcon contained the three "Treehorn" books by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey.)

I've mentioned a couple of times that I've never read Will Eisner (aside from a short Spirit story here and there over the years), so the recent W.W. Norton omnibus The Contract With God Trilogy was perfect for my purposes: I could keep book-a-day going, and finally read some of Eisner's most famous books. And so, on Friday night before I went to sleep, I read Eisner's most famous single graphic novel (the book that either created that term or made it famous), A Contract With God.

A Contract With God is actually a collection of four medium-length comics stories, all about life in the middle of the Depression and centering on a tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. They're all a bit broad, but decent stories, though the kind of Jewishness of most of the characters seems to be straight out of vaudeville (that's the broadness, again -- the names seemed particularly weird to my ear, but they may be authentic, for all I know).

Eisner is good with characters, and I generally like his dialogue (though it does get dialect-heavy now and then, and some of his people are themselves overdramatic). I suspect the reason this originally made such a big splash, though, is because there's a fair bit of sex and nudity (tastefully shown) in the last story, "Cookalein." This was probably the first time a major comics figure had drawn naked breasts for legitimate publication, which possibly helped its acceptance. (I'm not suggesting the comics readers of 1978 were all prurient porn-hounds, but that seeing that comics -- "kid stuff" -- could tell stories about mundane, adult life relatively naturalistically, like a prose novel, must have been thrilling in the late '70s.)

I did enjoy A Contract With God, but I also got that feeling you sometimes get with great progenitors of genres (when you come to them, for the first time, many years later) -- a sense of "is that it?" I won't say that this is of purely historical interest -- it can certainly be read for entertainment, and I suspect readers with a more direct knowledge of Judaism than my own will get more out of it, anyway -- but it has been at least equaled, and I would say surpassed, since it was first published.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!

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