Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Born and brought up in New York City and having survived and thrived there, 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."
- Will Eisner from his Preface, December 2004
Hailed by some as the first American graphic novel, A CONTRACT OF GOD is actually four short stories set in the same tenement buildings in the Bronx as A LIFE FORCE and DROPSIE AVENUE. All of these have survival high on the agenda for a population trapped there by poverty, plus individuals' personal fortunes waxing and waning with a complex interdependency.
Of the three books that make up the CONTRACT WITH GOD TRILOGY H/C, this is the most personal, the most autobiographical, and it was only in 2004 that Will Eisner revealed that A Contract With God, the first short story here was "an exercise in personal agony" written and drawn eight angry years after his only daughter Alice died, aged sixteen, from leukaemia. The details have been changed but the essential raw sentiment remains the same, and it's one I have seen in so many parents who have lost their children including my Uncle and Auntie and my best friend Anita's no-longer-Catholic parents: a complete loss of faith in a God who could betray their trust so spectacularly as to deprive them of their child.
Here Frimme Hersch had been told over and over again as a child that he was "favoured by God" and that God would reward him for his many kindnesses. That's not why he was kind; he was kind because he cared, and so when a baby girl was abandoned on Frimme's doorstep he took her in and raised her as his own. This, to him, was all part of his contract with God which Frimme honoured to the letter, to the very full-stop. But as the story opens he is returning alone to 55 Dropsie Avenue after having buried his daughter, and the weight of the water pouring from the heavens on the man's hat, coat and shoulders is immeasurable. That single page, as he struggles to heave himself up the tenement's stone steps, water streaming over the balustrade and obliterating all but a streetlight behind him, is one of Eisner's finest-ever illustrations.
What happens next is typical of Eisner in that it involves property and finance which rarely benefits those who need money or accommodation the most. The fourth story here is also prime Eisner in that love, money, marriage and social standing become the seemingly inseparable issues with infidelity also quite high on the agenda. But it's also a coming of age story involving the tradition amongst Bronx residents back then of going on holiday to farms which they would share with other families, do their own cooking and help out with the chores.
'The Street Singer' is also based on a phenomenon Eisner was familiar with: random individuals wandering the back alleys of the Bronx singing with some accomplishment in the hope of receiving loose change. A single woman becomes entranced by one of these singers and hopes to revive her own career in a partnership but in her vanity she is oblivious to the degree in which the self-fixated drunkard is using her, while for him it's an opportunity well and truly squandered. Domestic abuse is no stranger to Eisner's works and so it is here, but I've a feeling the third story as well as some elements of the fourth will shock those who think of Eisner as but a kindly old gent.
Eisner was full of humanity - bursting with it - but humanity has its atrocious sides which Eisner was all too aware of and never shied from addressing. It involves a tenement's Super - its bully of a live-in, do-little custodian - who more than meets his match in a ten-year-old girl who uses his warped lust against him.