The First Graphic Novel?: A Contract With God by Will Eisner

            Unless you’re a big-ass book nerd, you’ve probably recently heard of Philip Roth because of the new alternate-history hit on HBO called The Plot Against America. The story revolves around an alternate 1940 election where Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR and creates an American fascist state rather than implementing the New Deal. The centerpiece of which is a middle class Jewish family in Newark, the youngest son of which (in the book at least) is actually named Philip Roth. Though a product of Roth’s later career, written in 2004 with his last novel being written in 2010, the work deals with the same themes that run through most of his fiction: Jewish identity and the immigrant experience.

            I’ve read exactly two books by Philip Roth, but these themes featured heavily in both works. Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus, tells a love story between two young Jewish teenagers, one wealthy, the other working class. Though the primary struggle the young lovers face is one of class difference, the main character (who is working class) notices the more ‘immigrant’ behaviors of his relatives and is secretly ashamed of them. He equates the abandoning of these behaviors with success, as evidenced by the wealth and ‘American-ness’ his girlfriend’s family displays.

            Portnoy’s Complaint, is both the novel that catapulted Roth to mainstream success and another book with a young Jewish man at its center. Like the character in Goodbye, Columbus, Alexander Portnoy is a young Jewish man descended from recent immigrants. Among the many Freudian neurosis that make up his personality are issues with his mother, his girlfriends, his manhood and is identity as a Jew. It also ends with one of the single funniest jokes I’ve come across in a book.

            Roth made a career on writing from the perspective of a Jewish male and he should be respected for it, because his books are great. A lot of the ones I’ve yet to read are considered modern day classics. Sadly, Roth had the ego to match his impressive body of work. Many of his main characters are thinly veiled versions of the writer. Hell, the character Nathan Zuckerman, the subject of several Roth novels, is a fictional Jewish writer that’s pretty much just Roth with a different name. This ego led Roth to do some pretty ridiculous things. Supposedly he would dress up in a suit and sit in his publisher’s office waiting for the Nobel Prize nomination every year, almost like him getting it would be a forgone conclusion. He was also known for being a bit of an arrogant jerk. Johnathan Franzen, a potential Nobel Laureate one day, pulls similar nonsense. Which makes Bob Dylan’s 2015 Nobel win absolutely hilarious.

            Whatever anyone’s individual assessment of Roth’s work or personality (I love the former, probably for the best I never met him), his undeniable success stems from his ability to write captivatingly from his point of view as a mid century Jewish man. It helped that he was writing in a style that has a whole Nobel Prize dedicated to it. In his life he was showered with Pulitzers, National Book Awards and PEN/Faulkners, but what if he had chosen to tell his stories in a less illustrious medium?

            Will Eisner was a Jewish-American cartoonist that became famous for drawing superhero serials like The Spirit. Nowadays, comic books are a cultural force whose characters dominate movie screens. Writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have produced comics that stand up to any modern work of literature. In 1978 Eisner published a collection of four illustrated stories about Jewish immigrants living in New York City tenements in the early 20th century. This was at a time when comics were considered trash for kids. Something to be read and thrown away because that’s about all the importance it had art-wise. This collection of stories represents one of the first steps in the changing of our culture’s view of comics as an art form. In another universe, they’d be stories in a Philip Roth novel. This is one of the first graphic novels ever produced. This is A Contract With God by Will Eisner.

The Story:

              This graphic novel consists of four stories, only vaguely connect in that they take place in working class Jewish neighborhoods in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. Taken together, they paint a picture of the hard scrabble life for new Americans a century ago. They run the gamut from realist portrait to moralistic fable, usually falling somewhere in between.

            The most fable-like of these stories is the first and most memorable, the titular “A Contract With God.” Centering around a young boy that escapes the anti-Jewish pogroms the czars of the late 1800’s enacted against Russian Jews. He travels to America with a stone tablet that has a ‘contract’ with God written on it. He lives a righteous, traditional Jewish life and adopts a daughter, only to have her ripped from him by tragedy. The old man’s railing against God are the most affecting, both for the sacrilege and for the unsettling realistic rage that comes with loss. He feels betrayed and abandons his contract. The old man rejects his pious ways and instead adopts the ways of American capitalism, shaved payot and all. Not to spoil the ending, but the moral of the story is that God’s plans for us are unknowable, and he laughs at our attempts to control our own fate.

            The other stories are entertaining, but a lot of the time they reek of a Puritanical mid-century moralism that can be strange to encounter outside of the early seasons of Mad Men. The second story, “The Street Singer” involves a drunken bum who makes a living singing in the streets. He’s overheard by a washed-up opera singer who invites him to her apartment, gets him hammered, seduces and him and arranges a comeback for herself as his manager using her old contacts from the entertainment industry. Everyone in this story is a piece of shit and its cathartic watching their plans come to nothing. It’s by far the lightest of the four.

            The last two stories are where things get weird. “The Super” is centered around the German super of a tenement building whose horniness is matched only by his loneliness. The tenants treat him like crap and he’s a jerk to them in return. His dog, alcohol and a basement room full of porn is his only solace. Long story short, an underage daughter of a tenant comes to his basement room and takes advantage of his lonely horniness to poison his dog and rob him. The whole thing ends with suicide. This is definitely the story that I think about most. It’s extremely upsetting in its content and its moral message. That’s the trouble with realism I suppose. Both major characters, the super and the young girl, are both pitiful and contemptable in equal measure. The man is lonely and abused, but a straight-up pervert. The girl is poor and looking to get ahead, but she also willingly uses her sexuality to ruin a man’s life and kill his dog. This story is all shades of grey and leaves you feeling dirty at the end. It’s probably the most viscerally powerful story in the collection.

            The final story is the furthest on the realism spectrum and also has the most clear-cut examples of outdated morals. Entitled “Cookalein,” it centers around a group of loosely connected working class Jewish people that travel to summer resorts in the Catskills on yearly vacations. This phenomenon was a thing for Jewish people in New York City from roughly the 20’s to the 60’s, if you’ve ever heard the term ‘Borscht Belt, these resorts are what it refers to. The characters are a mix of genders, goals and backgrounds. Some are young, some are old, some are men and some are women. Some are hoping to meet a spouse, others are hoping to escape their marriage for a little while. Some want to save money for school while others hope to stumble into a wealthy marriage. Between the activities, parties and dinners that were the staple of these summer getaways, there’s a fair amount of horror. People cheat on their spouses, people are rejected and humiliated by their crushes, women are seduced under false pretenses. The most harrowing scene involves a man raping a young woman he believed to be rich after finding out she was putting on airs. The woman character is treated as a victim of karma, she led a man on and was punished for it. The guy faces some minor embarrassment, but goes unpunished and the now fallen woman ends up with the hardworking med-school nerd she blew off the whole story.

            These stories have all been told time and again throughout literary history. They’re closer to fables or folktales with a Brooklyn veneer than imaginative short stories. They’re well told, though. And the drawing is unique looking, with panels blending in to each other in non-standard patterns that make the work look more avant-garde than the standard comic book. It’s an interesting look at the culture of Jewish neighborhoods in mid-century New York, made with a style that is refreshingly realistic compared to the majority of the comic output that is published today.

Quote of the Story:

             “At the exact moment of Hersh’s last earthly breath…a mighty bolt of lighting struck the city…Not a drop of rain fell…Only an angry wind swirled about the tenements. On Dropsie Avenue the old tenements seemed to tremble in the storm.  It reminded the tenants of that day, years ago, when Frimme Hersh argued with God and terminated their contract.” –Will Eisner

Keep or Donate?:

              This book is more a historical document than a literary one. It’s good, but it straddles the line between comic and short story in a way that doesn’t always work. Comic book fans expecting superheroes or bright colors will be disappointed. The artwork looks great, but regular people drawn in black and white aren’t for every comic fan. Literary types might be put off by the generally simple, predictable arc of the stories. It’s the comic equivalent of watching a classic black and white Hollywood film. You recognize its quality, but the things that made it groundbreaking have long been surpassed in terms of spectacle by modern Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a graphic novel I highly recommend everyone read, but only the most intense comic book historians will want to keep it.

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