A Contract with God
By Will Eisner
I started the London Graphic Novel Network Book Club on Thursday the 8th of May 2014 with the words “Wake up, sir. We’re here” and now here we are – seven years later (!!!) – with our 100th book.
(That’s a little bit wow to me).
So you know – I thought we should do something a little bit special to mark the occasion. (I also brought some cake to share with everyone but ah damn it we’re all still in lockdown so I guess I should just eat it myself – nom! nom! nom!). Choose a big important book with an impressive pedigree. Only trouble is of course is that we’ve pretty much already done most of the big important comic books out there and nothing really seemed right until I remembered – A Contract with God. The very first “Graphic Novel.”
Ah. Ok. That’ll do it.
It’s probably worth pointing out that the term “Graphic Novel” wasn’t invented by Eisner – apparently it was actually first coined by a guy called Richard Kyle all the way back in the 1964 but A Contract with God was the first time that the term was actually used on the cover of a book. And yeah the cynic in me (which makes up around 99% of my body) kinda leans towards the idea that “graphic novel” is really nothing more than a marketing term for people who feel like it’s beneath them to read anything so unrefined and childish as a “comic book” (ah – those are for kids right?). But in terms of respectability and the growth of the medium it’s pretty undeniable that it was a good step forward for there to be a book that can hold its head up high and be like “this is actual art and should be treated as such.”
(Although – whoops – there is another part of them that feels like actually maybe this is the point that the medium (in its western version anyway) actually started it’s slow decent into stagnation. You know – the whole thing about mediums only really being good and exciting and rich and worthwhile when they’re dismissed and overlooked by the mainstream and any notion of respectability and then slowly dying an awful death when “serious people” get their hands on them and everything turns into well – Guardian Reader Approved comics: black and white autobiographies of middle class people going to therapy or whatever).
Of course Will Eisner is one of the Comic Book Greats and helped to kickstart and push the medium out of the swallow waters and on to the land – giving it its first few lungfuls of air and carefully helping it to grow legs to crawl around on. (It was a long time ago but I still remember reading a collected edition of his Spirit strips and actually being impressed by the way they were put together and the cool things they did). And picking up A Contract with God to reread it for this I was expecting to be able to say cool things about it…
But (uh oh) I’ve got to admit that actually reading kinda left me feeling underwhelmed. I mean so far I’ve only read the title strip but I finished it with a shrug. Like maybe as an agonistic type I’m not really in the right audience to appreciate it. Or maybe in his bid for respectability Eisner kinda tampered down all his cool ideas and made something too serious and thus too boring? But me I’ve always loved comics more when they’re showing off and indulging themselves and doing things that they shouldn’t… But yeah A Contract with God could very easily be refashioned into a New Yorker type novel or a black and white Oscar-bait movie and well – what’s the point in that?
Maybe this all just goes to show that graphic novels are’t really the best idea in the world?
(Next time I think I’ll choose something that’s a bit more dirty and a lot less reputable).
Happy birthday LGNN, and well done Joel for keeping it going through 7 years and 100 books. Nice one. I very much enjoy being a part of these discussions, and appreciate your efforts running the show.
Ok, onto this month’s eclectic pick…
Disclaimer: I haven’t read A Contract with God, or any of the other books in the series.
I read Eddie Campbell’s “How to be an Artist” book – a very readable gossipy account of the rise and fall of the term “graphic novel” – this weekend. He said that this book was the first of three, and that it was very much ok-ish, but by the third book, Eisner has really hit his stride. (Campbell also has some interesting stuff to say about Big Numbers, by the way…)
I’m aware of this book as “the first graphic novel”. I’ve had an interesting relationship with that term. I was well into the whole comics as serious art stuff in the 80s and 90s, and when I got back into creating my own comics about ten years ago, I spent a miserable few years imagining that the short strips I was putting out were practices for a Graphic Novel, and even got as far as doing twenty odd page sections of a couple before abandoning them. Until one day I decided that I was going to model my comics on music albums rather than novels, and give myself permission to out out books of collected stories in different styles, and unrelated in subject matter. I’ve felt a lot happier about making “serious art” since.
I’m intrigued to read, from a quick Google, that the first graphic novel was actually a collection of four stories, only loosely connected by theme and style. 🙂
I love Eisner’s drawing style, from what I’ve seen of it, and his playfulness in The Spirit. (I remember one large full-page panel with buildings spelling out the title of the story, while the spirit chased some baddies over the top of it.) His linework is lovely.
When we started A Contract with God I thought I’d treat myself to my own personal copy of a very cool and fantastic book I stumbled upon once in the Barbican Library…
You know when you find a book and you just can’t stop yourself reading it all the way through like it’s a delicious cake and you just keep stuffing more and more of it into your mouth and then you before you know it you get to the end and you’re like damn what happened?
Eisner / Miller is basically 347 pages of Will Eisner and Frank Miller hanging out and talking about comics and (this may shock you) it’s very much my cup of tea. Even tho there’s quite a lot of stuff that (as a non-comic making person) just goes completely over my head. For example:
EISNER: To me, inking is sexy.
MILLER: Inking is very sexy!
EISNER: It’s like downhill skiing.
MILLER: Especially brush.
(I have no idea what they’re talking about here. I’ve never inked anything. And I’ve never even been skiing. But it sure is interesting).
I’m only a few chapters in but they mention A Contract with God. Miller makes the good point that the reason it was seen as such an important moment in comics history and for all the comic makers etc is that it was the first time that someone had made a comic that seemed permanent. It’s an obvious but easily overlooked point but (in terms of the western world at least) comics up until that point were all disposable and transient – little better than newspapers. And so for Eisner to produce a comic book that was actually in book form for the first time must have been like a line being drawn in the sand. Taking a medium that up until then felt like it was almost as insubstantial as the wind and tying it down properly into book form. I mean of course now we’re spoilt for choice and any 6 issue run of a crappy superhero comic can be gifted a book of it’s very own – but Esiner was really the first one to show that a “graphic novel” could be something that could be done and (ha maybe even more importantly?) that people would buy.
At the risk of saying something a little mischievous (and I guess this ties more into the LGNN Book Club than A Contract with God) but the thought couldn’t help cross my mind reading Eisner/Miller if it would be possible to make a book like this nowadays? I’m not too sure who a modern equivalent of Eisner and/or Miller would even be (??) but more than that they both have a similar sort of mindset that I must admit that I feel like I share – approaching comic books almost as a form of engineering: these are things that work and these things that don’t. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (ha!) it seems that mostly nowadays most creators are more concerned about “telling their story” and positive representation etc which you know is differently one approach and one that lots of people find important but i find it more interesting to hear about Will Eisner watching cheap-produced theatre as a kid and realising that he could draw in a single detail in a room and realising that the audience would fill out the rest in their head…
Point being that you know – there’s more than one way to think about what’s important in a story.
Also – ha – to bring it back to A Contract with God again. In the Frank Miller intro to the Eisner/Miller book he says “Jews created comic books, as best I can tell. Two Jews created Superman. Another created Batman. And a certain Jacob Kurtzberg, who renamed himself Jack Kirby… well, don’t get me started.” Which is a thought that had never really struck me before. But then does that mean that anyone who’s not Jewish who does comic books is guilty of cultural appropriation? (Although truthfully I think that all good culture is about appropriation – that’s what keeps it alive).
Just before this conversation ended I wanted to share this little bit from the Eisner / Miller book that I really loved and sums up a lot of my thoughts:
EISNER: There was a sense of dealing in drugs, I suppose – that comics were illegitimate merchandise.
MILLER: It’s interesting that there have been a few times that there’s been an overall movement in comics, and it’s always coincided with them getting in a little bit of trouble. Look at the fifties, and then look at the sixties when the undergrounds came out. They were the cause of much consternation because they were vuglar, they were obscene, they were sold in head shops. In both cases, they were creative triumphs precisely because they were outrageous and daring, which is what I think comics are made to be. I think there’s something outlaw about the medium that’s gotta be who we are, and the worst thing we’ve ever done is sanitize ourselves.
I mean obviously it’s worth pointing out here that this book was published in 2005 and then in 2011 Frank Miller made what is possibly one of the worst comic books ever (I wouldn’t recommend it). But well I guess you could say that it’s outrageous and daring. So I don’t know – I guess that goes to show that that’s not all comic books should be. They need to be like – actually good too LOL
But then it’s also interesting to see how the situation has changed. It used to be the case that comics were censored (in various ways) for being too much for the public to handle and now in a sense there’s been a complete flip so that it’s the public that are at fault for being too much for the comics to handle.
And you know personally my politics skew pretty left (ask me about my feminist agenda) but a choice between Holy Terror on the one side and getting mad about people getting mad on the other – doesn’t seem like any kind of good choice at all. And well yeah – I wish that there were more (any?) modern comic books out there that were getting into trouble for doing something that was a bit more outrageous and daring and – dare I say it – outlaw? Because (most of the time) that’s where the good stuff comes from.
But then again – I don’t know. Maybe that’s just not possible anymore?
Congrats to LGNN – despite my spotty record on it, I so love this group. The best place for the maddest, boldest and exciting thoughts on stories. It’s been a treat to read, write and discover. To the next 100. Some of which we may even like.
I get it when people aren’t too keen on this book. I get it if they feel that perhaps it’s a little pious, it’s a little old school – so much of what it did has been traced over and built on – to the point that you’d rather read what it influences than the thing that started it. It’s not a trouble limited to this book but Eisner’s legacy as a whole, even The Spirit is framed less for it’s stories and more for people wanting to mention it’s visually playful title sequences.
That said, A Contract With God is still a powerful and beautifully told read. At a visual level, it feels like an intersection of Snow White era Walt Disney and Robert Crumb. The moral quagmire it explores remains one that is thoughtful and provocative. It feels like The Bicycle Thieves of comic books, a work that doggedly (Eisner had to go to a lot of effort to get this sold in book shops and not with the superhero floppies of it’s day) strode past all the fun pulp and made the first major Western argument that comics can tell challenging, thoughtful and human stories. The unvarnished rage of it’s Rabbi against god is the spark that leads to the autobiographical stuff you get today. There isn’t a single “slice of life” comic artist that doesn’t owe Eisner a debt thanks to this book.
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