A Con­tract with God: And Oth­er Ten­e­ment Stories

Will Eis­ner

  • Review
By – April 26, 2017

To mark the 100th birth­day of Will Eis­ner this year, Nor­ton pub­lished a cen­ten­ni­al edi­tion of his mile­stone book, A Con­tract with God: And Oth­er Ten­e­ment Sto­ries. The book, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1978, is wide­ly con­sid­ered to be the first graph­ic nov­el and should be includ­ed in any com­ic book collection.

Eis­ner was one of the com­ic book pio­neers, work­ing in the medi­um before the boom that occurred with the intro­duc­tion of Super­man. In the 1940s, he rev­o­lu­tion­ized visu­al sto­ry­telling with his own take on the super­hero genre, The Spir­it, using film tech­niques in his sequen­tial art nar­ra­tives. Even when he worked out­side the busi­ness as an illus­tra­tor — for instance for the U.S. Army — he nev­er retired from comics and always believed in the poten­tial of the medi­um. He was over six­ty when he pub­lished A Con­tract with God.

The book is not writ­ten for kids seek­ing the next super­hero bat­tle. Instead. it is a long­form com­ic for more mature read­ers. Strict­ly speak­ing, A Con­tract with God is a col­lec­tion of four short sto­ries based on Eisner’s child­hood mem­o­ries. An inti­mate por­trait of immi­grant life in the 1930s Bronx, it is an homage to a van­ished world — not a glo­ri­fied past, how­ev­er, but a past with all its faults and ugli­ness. The trag­ic main char­ac­ters are all des­tined to fail, and each sto­ry presents a sur­pris­ing twist at the end.

The most mem­o­rable of these short sto­ries is the first one, A Con­tract with God.” This is the tale of Frimme Hersh, a right­eous man who is doing one good deed after anoth­er, and is told that God will reward you” — but wit­ness­es one cat­a­stro­phe after anoth­er. Eisner’s mod­ern Job moves from his shtetl in East­ern Europe to New York in the hope for a bet­ter life, but suf­fer­ing con­tin­ues to be the leit­mo­tif of his life. When he finds an aban­doned baby left on his doorstep, he rais­es her as his own daugh­ter and final­ly his life seems to have a pur­pose. But then, all of a sud­den, she dies, and Frimme los­es his faith. After sit­ting shi­va, he shaves off his beard, aban­dons Judaism, and starts a career as a greed-dri­ven real estate investor. But despite his finan­cial suc­cess, Frimme nev­er finds happiness.

A Con­tract with God” is a mas­ter­piece that even near­ly forty years after its first pub­li­ca­tion hasn’t lost its pow­er. As we learn from an intro­duc­tion writ­ten by Eis­ner short­ly before his death in 2005, the sto­ry was the most per­son­al, since he mourned in it the death of his own daugh­ter — a fact that was for many years unknown in the comics community.

With this book, the pio­neer of comics became the father of the graph­ic nov­el and paved the way for lat­er works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The beau­ti­ful hard­cov­er cen­ten­ni­al edi­tion, with a new intro­duc­tion by Scott McCloud, invites fans to redis­cov­er this mas­ter­piece and new read­ers to explore the roots of graph­ic novels.

Relat­ed Content:

Julian Voloj is a New York – based writer whose work has been pub­lished in the New York TimesRolling Stone, the Wash­ing­ton Post, and many oth­er nation­al and inter­na­tion­al pub­li­ca­tions. Born to Colom­bian par­ents in Ger­many, where he stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and lin­guis­tics, Voloj moved to New York in 2004. His fas­ci­na­tion for for­got­ten heroes and hid­den fig­ures stems from his own fam­i­ly his­to­ry and has been a leit­mo­tif in his non­fic­tion graph­ic novels.

Discussion Questions