My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here is a landmark 2022 publication: the first Norton Critical Edition of a graphic novel. Even more than Penguin Classics’s foray into early Marvel Comics, which also happened this year, Will Eisner’s inclusion in a book series synonymous with the academic study of classic literature proves that the comics medium continues its march into the canon. As a bevy of culture-warriors will tell us, contemporary academe is as much in the business of canon-smashing as canon-building, and editor Jared Gardner deftly balances these competing priorities to make A Contract with God a model of the critical edition.
Gardner’s comprehensive introduction to this volume, “A Life in Pictures,” introduces readers to Eisner’s biography. Eisner had one of the most storied careers in comics—albeit one bisected by a long absence from the public eye—and is probably the central figure in the American tradition, at least as a shaper and theorist of the medium’s formal development. Later careers as divergent as those of Scott McCloud, Art Spiegelman, and Frank Miller are unimaginable without his example.
Born to immigrant parents in the Bronx in 1917, Eisner studied art and set out during the Depression to support his family as a cartoonist. His first innovation in the art form was a business one: he co-found a studio where artists worked to create pre-packaged material for the then-burgeoning comic-book business. His initial wave of influential productivity came later, in the 1940s, when signed a deal with a newspaper syndicate to create a weekly comic-book supplement to the comic strips. In this format, Eisner created his iconic detective character, The Spirit, though the series is less renowned for his heroic exploits than for Eisner’s use of Spirit short stories to experiment with comics form and to explore the real life of New York City. Already in the years after World War II he was looking toward the formally inventive realist fiction he would enshrine, almost half a century later, as the “graphic novel.” After ending The Spirit in 1952, Eisner turned away from commercial comics and founded a studio that created educational comics for a variety of institutions from the National Board of Fire Underwriters to the National Rifle Association to the U.S. Army. Most memorably, he was contracted by the Baltimore City Medical Society to create a comic illustrating the putative dangers of Harry Truman’s push for universal healthcare: The Sad Case of Waiting Room Willie.
In the 1970s, a growing comics fandom, which remembered his innovative work on The Spirit, embraced Eisner; for his part, he was fascinated by the innovations in form, content, and commerce the Underground Comix movement was exploring with its often violently expressive and independently published autobiographical and slice-of-life stories. He began teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, theorizing the comics medium—or, as he called it, “sequential art”—and working on the stories that would become A Contract with God. He pitched the book as a “graphic novel” to mainstream book publishers, but they proved skeptical of the format, so he published it under his own imprint, Poorhouse Books, with a small press. He later stated that he himself coined the term “graphic novel,” but he probably picked it up from cartoonist Jack Katz—a whole essay in the back of the Norton is devoted to their correspondence—and it had been in use in the comics press since the mid-1960s to describe a number of precursors that make Eisner’s claim to “first” more than questionable.
A Contract with God wasn’t an immediate success. But with the rise of the literary graphic novel over the next two decades—typified by Art Spiegelman’s Maus—it was hailed as an honored precursor, and Eisner’s steady productivity kept him in the forefront of comics’s artistic development. As Gardner writes in his introduction:
Between A Contract with God in 1978 and The Plot in 2005, Eisner published more than twenty books. It would have been a remarkable period of productivity for a young man, but Eisner was in his sixties at its start and was still publishing the year he died, in his late eighties. It remains, in any medium, a remarkable late-career renaissance, one unlikely to be matched in the history of comics.
The Norton Critical Edition does not actually reprint in full Eisner’s 1978 book, A Contract with God. That original book is not formally a novel but a collection of four stories centered on Jewish life in one Depression-era tenement building in the Bronx, 55 Dropsie Avenue. Eisner followed it over the next two decades with three sequels set in the same locale. This edition prints self-contained stories from each of these volumes, adding up to 200 pages of comics. And that is my single complaint about this otherwise admirable book. Surely, the vaunted “first graphic novel”—even if it wasn’t first and isn’t a novel—ought to be printed in its entirety, with or without accompanying material from later volumes. Moreover, Eisner shaped those volumes as integral wholes; excerpting them does a certain injustice to their design.
As both the early reviewers in the comics fan press and the later academic critics point out in articles collected in the back of this book, Eisner’s stories qua stories fall into a recognizable tradition of Jewish-American literature: they treat the immigrant experience from European oppression and poverty through the hardships of the Depression to the later paradoxes of assimilation, blending shtetl fabulism with gritty social realism; critics regularly cite Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth as comparable authors. Despite Eisner’s ambition to put comics on the same plane as literary fiction, however, his work will suffer if compared to these prose artists. He meant to signal literary seriousness with his adoption of the “novel” moniker, but he himself allowed that he was more influenced by theater than literature, especially the Yiddish theater where his immigrant father worked as a scene-painter in the 1920s. The sensational pictorialism and melodrama of vaudeville, as Greg M. Smith points out in an essay collected in the Norton, defines Eisner’s aesthetic in these stories and must be appreciated on those grounds or not at all. He offers nothing like the subtle ironies of a Singer or Malamud, nor the philosophical sophistication of Bellow, nor the psychological acuity of Roth. His often writes bald-faced parables.
For example, “The Revolutionary” dramatizes a student torn between communist agitation and loyalty to his father, who owns a fur shop and is being shaken down by union thugs that Eisner represents as little better than a protection racket. After a visiting Soviet activist tells our young hero that in Russia there are no Jews because, “Under communism all religion is regarded as a social opiate,” and that “the state will provide the guidance for all social thought,” it’s no surprise when he chooses his humble middle-class Jewish family, their apartment redolent with the smell of mother’s cooking, over the revolution. This is the Eisner who propagandized for hire against socialized medicine. But other stories protest the loneliness and disposability of American life, most memorably in “Sanctum,” where a shy man finds that his obituary has been printed by accident and that society hastens to treat him as dead so that his furniture and apartment can be repossessed and his replacement hired at his job. The story “Dropsie Avenue” itself narrates the neighborhood’s whole life-cycle, from when 19th-century Dutch inhabitants claimed they were being driven out by English immigrants through later waves of immigration and nativism, development and decline.
But however we judge Eisner’s politics—he seems like a moderate liberal; in a 1970s interview with publisher cat yronwode collected in this edition, she challenges his often sexually charged representations of women and he jocularly replies, “Well, I was brought up as a male chauvinist”—he is most interesting where he is least the social commenter or chronicler. The standout stories here are metaphysical in nature, tales rather than stories: “Izzy the Cockroach and the Meaning of Life,” for example, with its callback to Kafka. In this tale, a carpenter who built a shul is outraged to learn that the project’s funder—and not its architect—will get his name on the building, no doubt reflecting Eisner’s own anxiety about the intersection of art and commerce. Prostrate with despair in the alley below his apartment, the builder finds himself in a philosophical if one-sided colloquy about the universal impulse to survive with a cockroach his wife has just shaken out of a carpet in the window above.
The semi-autobiographical title story—a “graphic novella,” if you will—is the volume’s main event. It is a parable about a kind and religious man who gives up his faith to become a greedy real-estate developer after his adopted daughter’s sudden death. (Eisner’s own daughter died of leukemia at age 16 in 1970.) It opens slowly: on page after page, the protagonist slouches home from the girl’s funeral in such a soaking rain that the letters of the narrative themselves drip. These iconic images—cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman would famously call this hard rain “Eisenspritz”—exemplify Eisner’s stark chiaroscuro and his lively and personal pen-drawing.
Critics like Gary Groth, founder of The Comics Journal and hanging-judge of comics criticism, whose 1988 dissent on Eisner’s stellar reputation in the field the Norton volume reprints, complain of Eisner’s simplicity and melodrama. They aren’t wrong, but this too strictly mis-applies literary standards and undervalues the integrity and authority of his images. It’s true that Eisner makes no philosophical innovation with his parabolic crossing of the The Book of Job with Silas Marner; the story just re-states the ancient problem of theodicy. But the power is in the statement itself. If A Contract with God can’t compare to the intellectual sophistication of a Saul Bellow, Eisner’s dense line work and dynamic compositions, his use of image as text and text as image, offer a visual correlate to Bellow’s verbal richness. It’s only aesthetically illegitimate if you don’t take the visual seriously enough.
The political subtext of Groth’s critique in particular is worth considering, however. Recalling Eisner’s as a propagandist for various industries and for the U.S. Army, Groth finds Eisner to be a mercenary capable only of a perfunctory and ultimately commercial gesture toward “the literary” but no true literary achievement.
After The Spirit, Eisner founded American Visuals, a commercial art house that went on to secure a contract with the U.S. Army to produce P.S. magazine, a monthly instructional periodical (propaganda organ) for Army personnel. Part of Eisner’s contribution was to design strips that attempted, in Eisner’s words, “to produce ‘attitude conditioning”—a phrase that surely couldn’t have existed before this century. […] Eisner continued to attempt to condition attitudes throughout the Viet Nam war; all such instruction had to cater to the (low) educational level and cultural prejudices of Army management’s perception of the average GI.
And considering Eisner’s theoretical writings on “sequential art” as collected in the Norton, which focus from a craft perspective on commanding and controlling the reader’s attention and, more grandly, on designating comics the avatar of the new post-verbal literacy, we might even paranoiacally extend Groth’s critique: was the graphic novel designed as a new form of mass psychological control by the military-industrial complex, in effect if not intent, in the same way that traditional high culture—Abstract Expressionism, the Iowa Writers Workshop—wittingly and un- fought the Cold War on behalf of the intelligence services? Too paranoid, I’m sure.
The recent academic work on Eisner as collected in the back of the book balance, as I said, the edition’s own canon-making effect with academe’s canonclastic tendencies. One essay by Paul Williams demystifies and debunks Eisner’s invention of the graphic novel either as a form or as a term. Williams suggests that Eisner’s claim to this distinction is unjustly premised on his works’ literary, i.e., realist, subject matter in distinction to genre-fiction rivals to its primacy like Gil Kane’s spy thriller His Name Is…Savage or Jack Katz’s fantasy The First Kingdom. Yet despite this critique’s featuring in the Norton Critical Edition of A Contract with God, it’s still A Contract with God that got awarded the Norton Critical Edition—and not, say, Kane’s violent suspense tale.
Jeremy Dauber, author of 2022’s comprehensive history, American Comics, questions Eisner’s use of stereotype and caricature, part of his “new literacy” program to invite ease of readerly comprehension and effectiveness of readerly immersion. Dauber argues that “Eisner’s utilitarian approach, which attempts to maximize effective communication by appealing to universally recognizable images, can be seen to generate its own problems,” and, moreover, that in some of his portrayals, Eisner “relies on stereotypical images of Jews” including “the typical antisemitic image of the Jewish capitalist.” Here it is not only Eisner’s literary stature that comes under critical scrutiny, but comics form itself, with what Eisner regards as its incorrigible tendency toward the typical and the symbolic. We may close the book wondering if a graphic novel ought to be in the canon at all.
Such is the paradox of criticism. Criticism prolongs the life of the aesthetic object by calling rational attention to it in the very process of undermining the not-wholly-rational aesthetic act that summoned it forth. Every major writer and artist we still care about endured this hazing process. Eisner can be congratulated for having weathered it well enough to sit now on the same shelf—or at least in the same academic book series—as precursors in the art of tale-telling like Hawthorne and Chekhov and Kafka. He and his medium have come an undeniably long way from 55 Dropsie Avenue.