Memory lane

Review of "The Contract with God," a graphic novel by Will Eisner.

contract with god 88.298 (photo credit: )
contract with god 88.298
(photo credit: )
'All day the rain poured down on the Bronx without mercy. The sewers overflowed and the waters rose over the curbs of the street. The tenement at No. 55 Dropsie Avenue seemed ready to rise and float away on the swirling tide. 'Like the ark of Noah,' it seemed to Frimme Hersh as he sloshed homeward. Only the tears of the thousand weeping angels could cause such a deluge. And come to think of it, maybe that is exactly what it was… after all, this was the day Frimme Hersh buried Rachele, his daughter." With hints of the Yiddish greats and echoes of ancient Jewish folktales, so begins A Contract With God, Will Eisner's first full-length graphic novel and the first book in the Contract With God Trilogy. The inspiration for the trilogy came from Eisner's formative experiences growing up in the Bronx. The setting for each of the tales is Dropsie Avenue, the "mythical street" of his youth. While the street is a patchwork of memories woven together, so are the stories he depicts. As Eisner writes, "This book contains stories drawn from the endless flow of happenings characteristic of city life. Some are true. Some could be true." Born to Jewish immigrant parents, Eisner grew up in Depression-era New York, where teeming streets and colorful characters provided him with a canvas for his later works. In the preface he writes "…I carry with me a cargo of memories, some painful and some pleasant, which have remained locked in the hold of my mind. I have an ancient mariner's need to share my accumulation of experience and observations. Call me, if you will, a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail… or at least survive." It is this constant struggle to survive that Eisner portrays so adeptly. A Contract with God consists of a quartet of interwoven stories. The eponymous first story tells the heartbreaking tale of the pious Jew, Frimme Hersh, who loses his only daughter, makes and breaks a covenant with God and ends up as a Dropsie Avenue slumlord. The tenement at Number 55 is also the scene for two of the other stories in the novel, including "The Street Singer and The Super," which involves a little girl called Rosie who poisons the dreaded super's dog before bumping off the super himself. In the final tale, "Cookalein," the inhabitants of the tenement decamp to a summer bungalow resort in the Catskill Mountains where things are not always as they seem. In "The Life Force," Eisner appears in disguise as fictional character Jacob Shtarkah, whose existential search for the meaning of life reflects Eisner's own lifelong struggle. The story chronicles not only the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, but also the rise of Nazism and the spread of left-wing politics throughout the poorest neighborhoods of New York. Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood is both the final book in the trilogy and its high point. In this magnificent portrayal of a mythical street as it evolves over 100 years, Eisner recreates each new generation of immigrants in what he calls "an unending story of life, death and resurrection." Though the book focuses on the experiences of people living on the fictional Dropsie Avenue, the street is the protagonist. As Eisner has said, the book is "a biography of the street itself, through the physical evolution of the block, the rise and fall of the tenement building at No. 55 and the ethnic and social changes of its stream of occupants." Eisner's idea and execution are outstanding. He captures the electrifying ethnic tensions and one generation of inhabitants gives way to the next, evoking the mood and spirit of the changing times but, above all, detailing the street itself in constant flux and development. In the opening of the trilogy, Eisner, ever the graphic witness, recalls tenement life. "Within its walls great dramas played out," he writes. "There was no real privacy or anonymity. Everybody knew about everybody. Human dramas, both good and bad, instantly gathered witnesses like ants swarming around a piece of dropped food. From window to window or on the stoop below, the tenants analyzed, evaluated and critiqued each happening, following an obligatory admission that it was really none of their business." With his three Dropsie Avenue novels, Eisner has recreated these feelings and this existence for a new generation who live far removed from tenement life. Eisner is credited with coining the term "graphic novel," but while the term existed before he began to write and illustrate full-length tales, there is no doubt that he popularized the term and the art form. Eisner took comics out of the Sunday funnies section and transformed them into an acceptable medium for telling stories to an adult audience. Such was the novelty of drawing stories for mature audiences that even in 1978 he was unable to find a publisher for A Contract With God. How fitting then that this book, in its reissued form, is the last to come out of the Eisner library, and that the new drawings he added to it were among the last he worked on before his death last year at the age of 87. And look how far graphic novels have come since Eisner began the revolution almost 30 years ago. Without him there may not have been Maus, Art Spiegelman's seminal Holocaust tale, or Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. With his skillful melding of art and words, Eisner's novels depict a world that vanished long ago.