Summer Reading: A Contract With God

I’d heard so much about the great Will Eisner. When a copy of A Contract With God turned up in a friend’s bookshelf, I asked him what he thought of it. My friend and I were fellow musicians, in between major projects. “You haven’t read it?” I affirmed that I hadn’t, and he insisted I borrow it and read it. Little did I know I’d be reading one of the best graphic novels of all time.

The story is simple, the tale of a building on the fictional Dropsie Avenue in New York. Its tenants are (mostly) Jewish immigrants. The book is divided up into four stories, so I don’t know if it’s really a “graphic novel” per se. But it’s certainly the progenitor of the form.

The book is printed in a black-and-white, but the ink is almost dark brown, as if it had been in the sun too long. Dialogue is inseparable from Eisner’s sepia drawings. The book feels old, and the copy I borrowed was well-read. When a pious Jew, mourning his wife, forsakes God, it is in the midst of a wonderful stew of language and linework. And never has a resort in the Catskills looked so erotic (and yet disturbing, somehow).

The greater theme is that of the Jewish-American-immigrant experience. Escaping poverty, persecution, and war, there was an implied contract with this new land of hope. Perhaps it has been kept, perhaps not. There are laws and rights and wrongs, precedents and recourses in America that didn’t exist in central Europe. But the cost of this has been village life, life as a Jewish people. The Jewish community of today is both more sophisticated and more superficial than that of old.

While all these themes are hinted at, and the author certainly has strong opinions, A Contract With God never becomes a polemic and never places message above story. And the characters…! The super who takes advantage of his tenants, the musician who cons a rich lady, the Jewish teen who looks obsessively for a rich “catch”.

These are the themes of Mr. Eisner’s work.

(Will Eisner continued these themes in two later volumes, which I’ll cover in a later review.)

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band, as well as a folk band.


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