In a 2013 interview, former DC president, author, and comics historian Paul Levitz posed the question “why was Contract with God important? It was an early graphic novel, but not the first – there are a number of ancestors. Will didn’t even coin the term ‘graphic novel.’ So what made this graphic novel so important to so many people in such a way?” (Rogers).
Countless critiques across a variety of mediums have provided enthralling, satisfying answers. I agree with most. Others, as comics academic Timothy Callahan points out, dabble in revisionist history, providing an untrue account of Eisner’s work as the first graphic novel or as a “gauntlet thrown down to the industry” (Callahan). But in accumulation, anyone interested in the significance of Eisner need not look far.
I too have a reply for Levitz. There’s a lot to be gained, surely, from Eisner’s composition, his timeless time capsules, his minority experience. Nobody should ever argue against that. But A Contract with God provides another useful tool for the aspiring successful artist (I’m defining ‘artist’ loosely here) as a model on how to do sex right.
Professor Thomas C. Foster in his brilliantly simple How To Read Literature Like a Professor devotes two chapters on how to approach sex in great works of literature (albeit his findings can be applied to other mediums). The first chapter is titled “It’s All About Sex…” and the other “…Except Sex.” I might add “unless it’s fan fiction” but that’s a different article. Foster discusses Freud’s discovery that “sex doesn’t have to look like sex: other objects and activities can stand in for sexual organs and sex acts, which is good, since those organs and acts can only be arranged in so many ways.” In the following chapter, Foster rationalizes that the inverse is true. Sex itself is very dull to write about; there can only be so many sensations, metaphors, and fluids. When authors write about sex, they’re really referring to something else. Some of these secret symbols include “pleasure, sacrifice, submission, rebellion, resignation, supplication, domination, enlightenment, the whole works” (Foster).
So when I say Eisner does sex right, I don’t mean that he portrays it in a healthy or beneficial manner. Sexual coercion and assault is profoundly evil. Nor am I exposing a carnal sweet tooth. Eisner’s A Contract with God is an excellent model for disguising conflict behind carefully-crafted sexual encounters. For anyone interested in inserting intercourse into their discourse, I’d highly recommend a meticulous reading of the work.
Embarrassingly, my first exposure to Will Eisner was also my first exposure to erotica. I grew up in an isolated community with, let’s say, a “virulent Protestant emphasis.” My earliest books were heavily censored, mostly evangelical. I had limited access to television or internet.
My dad had been a teenager during the Marvel Renaissance of the ‘60s. Today he still fondly remembers “that time the Hulk fought the Thing!” (Fantastic Four #25, 1964) or “the issue Spider-Man was squished beneath a pile of rubble” (Amazing Spider Man #33, 1966). His personal interest didn’t continue past the early ‘70s. Nevertheless, when I was eight or nine, in an attempt to develop both my interest in comics and religion, Dad bought the “most Protestant-sounding graphic novel” he could find. That novel was the assembled The Contract with God Trilogy.
Dad must have figured that when somebody referred to “God”, they meant the Christian one. In any case, the cover is innocuous enough. There’s Will Eisner’s name drawn in an inviting Disneyesque doodle. An alley-side man raises his hands enthusiastically, perhaps in exultation. A dejected little Jew sits nearby, refusing to acknowledge a sign that reads ‘a Contract with God.’ Familiar with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dad would have had no problem interpreting this as Christian allegory of similar ilk.
In hindsight, I could probably blame my lifetime of frustration, disillusionment, and confusing sexual encounters on owning this book at the age of nine. Eisner’s is an ugly, organic world that’s glamorous in its grotesquery, seductive in its sickness. It’s a book raised in the ghetto, that reveled in its ghettoization in its youth, that retires to the gallery kicking and screaming. As a child, I was interested in the exposed bits and pieces that were, for me, a sexual awakening. Now, in my rereading, I realize how frustrated the narratives actually are. The trilogy is most potent at its impotent.
I have problems with A Contract with God. As a mob of observant scholars have noted, the “novel” is actually an anthology of short stories. I’m not so concerned about that as I am with the plotting, which is clunky, and the gesticulations, which are aggrandized. Morals explode across the page in bold outbursts. As Callahan writes, Eisner expresses his emotions “with capital letters as tall as the sky and [with] plenty of exclamation points for everyone in the world to hear. He doesn’t express lust, he expresses LUST!!! and, well, you get the idea” (Callahan). Nonetheless, the sexual content of A Contract with God remains, even by today’s standards, some of the best use of erotica in sequential art.
When I first read the titular vignette “Contract with God”, I completely missed the personal connection of Frimme Hersh and the premature death of his daughter Rachele to Will Eisner and the death of his own sixteen-year-old daughter Alice from leukemia. The protagonist, who forsakes his religious vows to live a life of capitalism and secular selfishness, is in some spiritual sense a self-reflection of Will Eisner himself. In that regard, the untimely death of Frimme can be read as grisly self-mockery. By denying his redemption, Eisner fabricates a cruel satire of the assumptions of both the Judaistic and, incidentally, my preadolescent worldview.
Sexuality is severely restrained in the first story. The only trace occurs between Frimme Hersh and his much younger shikseh from Pennyslvania. Shikseh, to save you the trouble, is a derogatory Yiddish word for a ‘non-Jewish woman.’
Frimme and the shikseh’s few pages together illuminate the apex of the ex-rabbi’s mercantilism, now completed by the “acquisition” of a beautiful mistress. They’re unmarried, suitable for a man who despises sacred contracts. Yet Eisner avoids any hint of premarital intercourse between the two “lovers”. Their relationship, despite the woman’s vitality and cosmetic beauty, is empty and somewhat boring. Like the alcohol she offers, the shikseh is a distraction from the “black hole” in Frimme’s heart.
Eisner’s “The Street Singer”, a Great Depression piece about an acapella phenomena in New York City, culminates in liberating sexual congress before a sobering return to harsh-bitten reality. In-story, a street minstrel is summoned to the apartment of a once-famous opera singer called Marta Maria. The ex-diva seduces the minstrel with promises of celebrity as long as he performs as her private lover.
His willingness to do so becomes a rebuttal to sexual male idealism, portraying how desperate poverty can triumph over masculinity and free will. Early in the story, the minstrel is a stranger to both the narrator and reader. The story takes its time for him to become a human being, not even announcing his name until the second act. Overall, he speaks scarcely and only when necessary, and yet it’s his voice that is his most defining feature.
Upon entering the ex-diva’s apartment, the minstrel reaches instantly toward a fruit bowl. The fruit turns out to be wax – an early false promise and a hint at Marta Maria’s true nature. As the reader has already seen, Marta Maria herself is somewhat fraudulent. Her first appearance is as an overweight, frumpy woman. Yet when her potential suitor approaches the stair, she applies herself a cosmetic veneer of sexuality. Overweight becomes voluptuous.
Soon afterwards, Marta feeds and beds him without his barely speaking a word. Food, sex, and the aspiration for celebrity all become her offering plate, which he consumes from hungrily.
This spectacle best exemplifies Denny O’Neil’s observation that Eisner uses the “pleasures of the body as a palliative for misery… enjoyed, incidentally, by individuals not particularly beautiful” (O’Neil). Eisner himself elaborates on the sexual encounter as essential to developing the minstrel’s status as a trapped animal:
“At one point in early roughs I had eliminated the scene in which he has sex with the old singer, largely because, well, I guess I was almost embarrassed by doing it. It was an intimate thing. But it was the only way I could show this man’s relative impotence. Really, that sex act had to show her strength. She was using sex as a kind of power. So I redrew those panels three or four times. I enlarged ‘em and I reduced ‘em, then I had just one scene, then I had two, and it didn’t seem honest, so finally I decided I was just gonna let it hang out and do it” (Inge).
The reader comes to understand the minstrel’s anguish in his relationships to later characters, such as a condescending owner of a speak-easy and the minstrel’s pregnant wife.
Likewise, the minstrel reveals his inclination for alcoholism and domestic violence. But even his ability to pursue these vices is denied. A bartender tosses the minstrel out onto the street. Later, his nagging wife negates his ability to beat her – breaking the only bottle of alcohol over his head before she goes to sleep. In a tragic finale, the minstrel discovers he cannot find the diva’s tenement. Like Theseus having lost his exit and, therefore, freedom, the minstrel returns to the streets in a cyclic scene reminiscent of the first.
“The Super” was a chilling fiction when I read it in my childhood. It remains so today. There’s something unnerving about a man you naturally hate being undeservedly destroyed. The Superintendent is not meant to be liked; he’s a heavyset bigot, an anti-Semitic German, a bully, a glutton of erotic and perhaps pedophiliac desires. Yet Eisner offers sympathy to this fearsome figure, showing how helpless he truly is even to the lowest impulses of a callous Jewish-American girl.
Eisner prepares his tragedy with this uncomfortable interaction between the Super and Rosie, the ten year-old niece of Mrs. Farfell. For all of the unnecessary exclamation marks that pollute A Contract with God, Eisner makes them up right here. Four panels treat the reader to the Super’s lingering appraisal of a nearly-nude child, which has agonizing pedophiliac implications. Especially potent is the last panel, in which the nude girl is absent and yet we continue to see the Super’s disquiet. Adjoined is the niece’s “naughty” returning gaze, which feels little shame for her appearance and which follows the Super’s exit. She seems aware of the implications of his “male gaze” but isn’t deterred by it.
To the experienced reader, this might seem the foreshadowing of a dirty fling a la mid-century underground comix. Robert Crumb surely wouldn’t let a set-up this great go to waste.
After the interaction, the Super retires to his room for a tumultuous masturbatory sequence. The room itself is saturated in nude women, answering any questions the reader might have had about the Super’s motives. This also marks a transition for the Super from rambling bully to desperate mute.
The fantasies are interrupted by the intrusion of Rosie – again, a story beat right out of a Tijuana bible. As an idealized “virgin” archetype, the girl allows the Super to peek at her panties for coin.
Like the “Street Singer”, Eisner investigates the power structures of masculinity, specifically in how it’s renounced. The niece is not exploited sexually as might be expected. Instead, in a rapid sequence, Rosie poisons the Super’s dog, steals his money, frames him for attempted rape, and arranges for his arrest. In a final grasp for power, the Super’s last act of freedom before complete domination is to kill himself. In fact, it’s the only act of free will left. He’s been denied everything else.
The story ends on a profoundly immoral scene. Rosie counts bills out of the Super’s money box on the front steps of 55 Dropsie Avenue. This, it seems, was her only reason for toying with the Super.
From a glance, “Cookalein” is a pastoral orgy, a visual ancestor to the sex-crazed summer vacation movie. Even odder is its role as the final installment of A Contract’s predominantly urban setting. Of course Eisner has significant plans for this short story. In fact, “Cookalein” contains climatic elements that interweave all of the graphic novel’s themes and then takes them a step further. Whether Eisner does so effectively is another article.
And perhaps there is some justice in transferring the “climax” to the Catskill Mountains, a country destination spot some 100 miles north of New York City. A recurring trope in Shakespeare is to move characters from their respective civilization to “the forest”, where inhibitions are eliminated and primal emotional forms manifest. From a literary standpoint, it’s fitting to push repressed New Yorkers into the Northern woodlands. The Catskill Mountains, after all, would be the location of the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969.
In the Eisner tradition, “Cookalein” contains manipulative women of “nasty, calculating deeds” and desperate attempts to accumulate “status or male attention” (Jones). One of these “caricatures” is Maralyn Minks, a name straight out of an eight-pager. Maralyn briefly baits a young man eponymously named Willie (both Will Eisner’s childhood nickname and a babyish euphemism for penis). That Willie stands for Eisner is well-established; the author himself admitted that he “did go to the country, to a cookalein.” He added that it took “a lot of determination, a kind of courage, to write that story” (Inge).
Willie’s seduction by an older woman follows a traditional arc for pornography, therefore making it more acceptable and maybe even titillating to the reader. That is, to a certain point. In-story, Maralyn and Willie meet on the dance floor, where Maralyn discretely finds out that Willie will be sleeping in the barn. That night she arrives prepared; blanket in one hand, dress in the other. Why exactly she wants to sleep with a much younger man is never questioned, although we can theorize from the previous stories this has to do with gendered power struggle. In any case, Maralyn coaxes the reader right along with Willie. But then her husband arrives, and everything goes out the window.
In a retraction of power, Maralyn becomes the submissive puppet of Irving. She collapses beneath his righteous fury, even allowing him to hit her without complaint. She prepares an argument for his superiority, and then appeases him sexually with added shouts of his name for emphasis.
It’s all a very traumatizing turn for Willie, reduced from his virulent sexuality to a shivering infantile mess. He watches fearfully, suckling on a blanket, as Maralyn and her violent husband make love in front of him. Eisner smartly focuses on the lonesome Willie over physical entanglement. What’s important here isn’t the erotic juncture, but Willie’s loss of innocence. There is no consolation here. There isn’t a maternal figure, as Maralyn pretended a minute ago, or “greater deity” to help Willie understand his experience.
Willie is reduced to silence as his disadvantaged predecessors before him. His last moment in the graphic novel, in fact the last moment of the graphic novel itself, shows a pensive Willie reflecting, perhaps even rejecting, this terrible new world.
But Maralyn Minks isn’t the only manipulative woman in “Cookalein”. Nor is she the only one shattered by coercion. Goldie, a penniless secretary masquerading as high-class, makes her intentions clear from the start. “I’m gonna find myself a rich manufacturer!” she announces to a co-worker.
In a dramatic irony – most likely inspired by O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” – Goldie and a “rich suitor” reveal to each other that they’re both destitute gold-diggers. Goldie attempts to repair the situation with humor. Benny has other plans:
I do not condone rape. Nor, I hope, does Eisner. Instead, I think Eisner is disguising exclamation marks into visual form. The “rape of Goldie” is more than a reaction to Goldie’s low-class revelation. It’s calculated to open the eyes of readers who’ve been agreeing to Eisner’s misogynistic interpretation of feminine sexual politics. Up until this point, Eisner’s female archetype would use artificial signifiers of wealth and fertility to coerce and beguile male victims. A little girl uses her burgeoning sexuality to overpower a grown adult. A grown woman seduces a young boy for personal pleasure then discards him to inveigle a cuckolded husband. And here, a peasant in her “best dress” is caught in a heartless get-rich scheme.
Benny’s reaction is doubly the most repulsive response to Goldie’s disclosure and the most logical next step for anyone agreeing to Eisner’s discrimination. As the final sex act, Benny’s deed becomes a symbolic climax to A Contract with God. The hero-male finally triumphs over the villain-female. Benny doesn’t just take advantage of Goldie; he symbolically enacts mankind’s retribution against feminine exploiters. Male chauvinism, once suppressed by destitution and despair, makes a violent return.
But Eisner combines this “logical” step with the most repulsive action imaginable and, therefore, reveals its own hypocrisy. Chauvinism, Eisner appears to be saying, is a patriarchal trick. I can almost imagine him now, pounding a fist into the broken brick wall of 55 Dropsie Avenue. “Your world, Benny!!!!” Eisner shouts in my imagination, “It’s just as bad as the other thing!” In-story, a dorky conduit for Eisner criticizes the mentality. “You are sick, Benny… I mean, sexually… You need medical help… Do you understand?” shouts Herbert at a profusely guilt-ridden Benny.
If my dad had examined the “great Protestant comic” he’d purchased for his son, he’d probably have discarded it for pornography or the manifesto of a chronic masturbator. Instead, he handed me a modern mythology. The Epic of Gilgamesh explored the civilizing power of sexuality for the Ancient Sumerian. Today, we have Eisner’s A Contract with God, where sex is not sex, but a battlefield in which ethnic and gender wars are fought, sometimes underhandedly.
Barber, H. E. How Bad is Rape? Ipswich, Massachusetts: EBSCO Publishing, 2002. Print.
Callahan, Timothy. “The Anatomy of Expression: Will Eisner and ‘A Contract With God.’” Comics Alliance, 3 April 2013. Web. 1 March 2014.
Crowther, Ha. “The Other Appetite: The Literature of Lust.” Gather at the River. Louisiana: LSU Press, 2005. Print.
Donaldson, Mike. “What is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Faculty of Arts – Papers, 1993.
Duncan, Randy, & Matthew J. Smith, ed. Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013. Print.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. Print.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Will Eisner: Conversations. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. Print.
O’Neil, Denny. “Introduction.” The Contract with God Trilogy. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. Print.
Jones, Carrie. “The Contract with God Trilogy By Will Eisner.” Book Slut, August 2006. Web. 1 March 2014.
Rogers, Vaneta. “Paul Levitz Examines Will Eisner’s LIfe & Work for New Book.” Newsarama, 27 August 2013. Web. 1 March 2014.