Eisner, Will. A Contract with G-d and Other Tenement Stories. White Plains, NY: Poorhouse Press, 1978. 191pp. $4.95. Hardback. ISBN 0-89437-035-9.
Will Eisner presents a fascinating look into the tenement life of the Bronx in the mid-1930s in the first ever self-described “graphic novel.” In many ways, this work is the progenitor of the medium in Western literature. Specifically, he writes in the introduction that “the medium, the arrangement of words and pictures in a sequence was an art form in itself.” Though Eisner credits Lynn Ward’s Frankenstein from the 1930s for giving him the idea, the earlier work was inconsistent and incomplete. It took another 40 years for the medium to mature both as a literary form in itself and in the American public consciousness for such a project to be viable. Effectively, he had to wait for the first generation of young comic book readers and artists to grow into comic-loving adults with Eisner doing all he could to encourage them all along the way.
This collection is based in several respects on the author’s own experiences living in the area described and can be considered historical fiction. The neighborhoods are real, bringing to life the tenements built after World War I and how they evolved with the culture that grew up within them during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The people remind the reader of personal encounters one could have to this very day. Some, though far from all, of the stories’ elements are predicated on knowledge of New York City Jewish culture. This is particularly true of the first story overall and certain aspects of the language choices throughout the collection. Regardless of the reader’s background, these stories are not for the faint of heart. They are in many ways soul-wrenching and inspiring in ways that will tug at every reader’s heartstrings.
All the stories have the common thread of being set in and around a tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue. Each deals with the horrors of life in such crowded conditions, ranging from the immigrant experience to the ethnic and social conflicts of the city, and from social atomization to the horrors of poverty and all its attendant evils in the Great Depression. Eisner doesn’t shy away from the gritty realities of addiction and sexuality. Above all, human frailty and breach of trust, and the consequences thereof, permeate the tales. The stories are a bleak depiction of a bleak life. Even the few moments of joy serve only to heighten the tragedy.
This book is genuinely a difficult read, both intellectually and emotionally. They are stories that needed to be told and indeed their visceral nature makes them that much more compelling, but one should not approach this piece lightly. This work is a must read for completist auteurs or those interested in 1930s living but can safely be avoided by others.
– Prof. J. Holder Bennett, Collin College