Will Eisner, like Walt Disney or Orson Welles, is a household name in his field of expertise. He pioneered his work with such love and dedication that few have contested his reputation as the man who invented the modern graphic novel. A Contract with God, first published in 1978, is 40 years late of Shuster and Siegel’s Superman, and a far cry from the first “superhero” exploits that typified the Golden and Silver Age of comics. Yet, despite being a late comer, Eisner’s gift to the art comics community (also having been around for at least 30 years) was a bold, visceral employment of sequential art. Every stroke of every page is passionately scrawled, tremulous as it is transparent.
The work, A Contract with God encompasses multiple themes, ranging from Antisemitism to Classism to Nativism and many more. Set in the slum towns of the Bronx, Eisner’s meditations and semi-autobiographical experiences emerge. In 2004, Will Eisner’s forward to The Contract with God Trilogy, published by W.W. Norton, gives candid exposition to the intentions he had behind his most famous collection. These were not just the mad fantasies of imaginary figurines, but informed narratives wrested from his own failings, victories, and reflections. A Contract with God is influenced by the death of his only daughter, who passed away from leukemia in 1970. It is encapsulated in his words, “my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it.” Like the ending dialogue of Animal Man #26, there was no belaboring or salvation for Alice (Eisner’s daughter), just a quick, sudden death. The immediacy of the death sequence is a single panel, with no flair or “idiot in tights” to save the day. The candid progression and examination of Frimme Hersh’s life is not meant to be a morality play, though that appears to be the case upon the story’s conclusion. Eisner himself went on to teach in his later years the profound significance of sequential art, becoming one of the few early proponents for the art form’s legitimacy and need for formal study. In the introduction to his seminal trilogy, he speaks of the cultural and social implications of his work, thus allowing A Contract with God to become something more than art, but a commentary on the human condition, our collective yearning to be loved and to understand who we are in the context of others. We are all living on Dropsie Avenue.
The importance of A Contract with God is that the narrative deals with morality and man’s relationship with god. This is self-evident in the title, but it can’t be too overstated, especially in the context of Eisner’s focus on the Hebrew people and their wanderings. The origin of the contract lies in Frimme’s life as a child in Russia, during the height of the pogroms that swept the nation after the assassination of Tzar Alexander II. Despite the hardship of losing his family to the systemic violence of his youth, rather than becoming bitter at the destruction around him, he helped those in need. His moral capacity for good was so evident that the members of his dying community scrounged up enough money to have him smuggled out of the country so that he could have a better life in America. His story is no different from the millions of immigrants that sought asylum at the turn of the 20th century. Frimme’s corruption supposedly begins after the death of his daughter. This is not the case however, as his damnation clearly occurs much earlier as a child, when he begins to understand his morality in the context of quantifiable acts of righteousness.
Frimme as a child did good out of a sense of selflessness. It was not until he became self-aware as a young adult that he began to construe his actions as leverage in the eyes of God. Eisner’s statement on morality via Frimme’s actions should be interpreted as signifying the inability for man to be just in the eyes of God. This is clear from the title itself: the contract. As a work of Jewish literature, especially one that operates from a worldview which predates penal conceptions of Greco-Roman legal systems, what is known as “law” in the Hebrew scriptures does not mean the same as it does in Western culture. The “Law,” what follows in the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) or Torah, emphasizes the significance of law as instruction, or a blueprint of society as dictated by the divine. This is why the language of God’s agreement with man on Mount Sinai is coined as “covenant” rather than “contract.” Contracts are bound by prescriptive acts and summary punishments in tow, should the contract be breached, whereas a covenant is typified as an agreement of mutual faith. While there is contractual language that composes the bulk of Torah, the emphasis of YHWH’s deeds in Hebrew tradition focuses of how YHWH fulfills his end of the bargain, despite the lack of faith witnessed on behalf of the people bound to him. Frimme’s approach to this is radically different. When his god takes away his daughter, Frimme’s outrage is apparent. His remorse and feelings of betrayal, fed by his grief, derive from his indignation that after leading a good and just life, his god would cut down his daughter with sickness. His feelings are fundamentally selfish. They reveal that his entire life prior was lived out of obligation and duty. “Do good for others, and god will do good to you.” This becomes all the more poignant when he spits on the tablet of stone that he carved in his youth, which houses the contract. Samson, one of the judges appointed to rule the Hebrews after the event of the Exodus, wore his hair long as an act of fealty to god. Famously, the moment he cut his hair, he severed YHWH’s divine power that gave him his incredible strength. The hair represents cultic faithfulness to his god. Likewise, when Frimme cuts his hair and enters the secular business, he too has sacrificed his faithfulness to God for his own self-interest.
The second half of the tale chronicles Frimme’s rise to prominence in the community, still aided by providence, despite his enduring scorn for his maker. Once Frimme finally encounters his pettiness and shallow practices he has a moment of clarity that brings him back to the fold of his god, only this time his dealings are calculated and shrewd, no longer innocent by intention. Frimme even bribes the Rebbe leaders of his local synagogue to compose the contract. It is with great irony then that he suffers a traumatic heart attack, as the thunder shakes the tenements and the fury of lightning blankets the sky. Like Job in the Hebrew scriptures, god answers back, and the response is harrowing and humbling.
The theological dialect that concludes the tale is compounded by several strings. Frimme’s life parallels the life of Job, who lost not only his children but everything else. The only difference here is that Job answered God, saying that he ultimately could not declare his lord unjust for taking his family, but only declares his sorrow and loss. Frimme, on the other hand, attempts to bribe YHWH with good deeds until the moment of his life when his daughter dies, and then ultimately leaves him. An epilogue that follows the conclusion of Frimme’s life illustrates that man’s nature is to barter with the divine, as another enterprising youth finds Frimme’s old tablet and swears an agreement by it. A final frame, one added to the comic by Eisner himself before his death in 2005 shows the youth entering a dark and furiously penned doorway, enshrined with a single light above him. The metaphor is clear: man walks a narrow road, one shrouded by darkness, lead only by whatever light lies before him. The source of the light, however, is what shrouds the narrative in ambiguity.