(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
A Contract With God
By Will Eisner
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
Ah, Will Eisner. Undoubtedly the father of the modern graphic novel, his influence has been huge and sweeping. I mean, that's what they tell me; I'm sure that 90 percent of the people reading this review know a hell of a lot more about Will Eisner than I do. But I do know that 1978's A Contract With God is an incredibly important work in a way that many pieces of art struggle with - it has remained fresh and relevant for all these decades, and even I, as chick and a lit buff and a graphic novel neophyte, could relate to it, and be made devastated and furious by it, and appreciate it wholly.
A few months ago, my book club read Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I didn't like it, hardly at all. The book just didn't jive at all with the image I'd been handed about its game-changing-ness. I mean, it's supposed to be this pinnacle and groundbreaker of its form, and I kind of understand how that might have been true when it was first published. But now? In 2010, for me to come to Dark Knight with no knowledge of comic-book history and tropes, living in a CGI world, an indie-fabulous world, a YouTube world, a world where everything Miller ever did has been exponentially permutated and shifted and reconsidered from every possible angle...well, his efforts just weren't that impressive.
But in the case of A Contract With God, I felt just the opposite. Despite - because of? - how uncomfortable and upset this book made me, it was an absolutely riveting read. It didn't feel remotely out of date. It didn't even feel old. I mean, the stories take place in the twenties and thirties, of course, but it could have been written last year. There was nothing stilted in the language, nothing clunky in the design, nothing old-fashioned in the pictures. Maybe this is because Eisner really did set the standard, and everyone in the last forty years has just been working off of his template? If so: man. A genius, indeed.
I'm going to go ahead and admit that I was not intending to be very moved by this book. I guess I was kind of expecting saccharine, Disney-type feel-good stories, or superhero-inspired tales of beautiful people doing wonderful things. Surely everyone in the world knows how totally wrong I was. There's a shocking amount of meanness and ugliness in these stories - cruelty and misanthropy and anti-Semitism and adultery and spousal abuse and rape - and very little of it is remotely punished, which I found totally unnerving. So even though I was expecting to be disappointed by this being a sappy morality tale, I have to admit that a part of me really does want to see the good guys rewarded and the bad guys get what's comin' to 'em.
Let me give an example. In a subplot in the story "Cookalein," we have a little case of mistaken identity. Benny and Goldie, who have both gone to a summer resort explicitly to bag a wealthy mate, each think the other is loaded. After courting for a few days, they steal away into the woods in the middle of the night to cement their union, but then - surprise! - they find out they're both poor. After she cries, "Benny, if you love me, nothing else matters!," he drops his pants and growls, "It's a whole new ballgame now, baby," then lunges at her, ripping her clothes and taking her by force. So what happens next? She winds up with a doctor (whom she had previously scorned because she thought he was poor), and Benny seduces an heiress. Neither is punished. Everybody wins.
And that wasn't even the most upsetting example! But I don't want to get bogged down in summary; the real point is that these stories are extremely lifelike, and real life doesn't come with just desserts, or punishments that fit crimes. Real life is messy, and cruel, and mean, and ugly. And, for me, even worse than when things are ugly is when they're just totally unfair. While it would have annoyed me if these were bland stories about good people being happy and bad people shaking their fists, I was far more upset by the moral ambiguity, the idea that - even in fiction, even in art, where the creator has the power of choice - some people are just awful, and sometimes they get ahead anyway. Eisner has left everything unvarnished, unglossed, and unmended. I get that, and I have great respect for his evocative realism. But I'd be lying if I said I liked it.