A Contract with God: The Birth of the Graphic Novel

A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is a graphic novel by American cartoonist Will Eisner published in 1978. The book's short story cycle revolves around poor Jewish characters who live in a tenement in New York City.

A Contract with God by Will Eisner
A Contract with God by Will Eisner

“A Contract with God” is a groundbreaking work of comic art that pioneered the graphic novel format, forever changing the landscape of the medium. Created by the visionary artist and writer Will Eisner in 1978, this collection of interconnected stories presents a powerful and deeply moving exploration of the human experience. As the first graphic novel, “A Contract with God” not only expanded the possibilities of storytelling but also left a lasting legacy that continues to influence comic creators and enthusiasts to this day. Eisner produced two sequels set in the same tenement: A Life Force in 1988, and Dropsie Avenue in 1995.

The Genesis of the Graphic Novel

In the late 1970s, the comic book industry was primarily focused on superhero stories, and graphic novels, as we know them today, were virtually non-existent. It was in this environment that Will Eisner, already a respected figure in the world of comics, decided to experiment with a new format.

“A Contract with God” marked a significant departure from the conventional superhero fare. The book is a collection of four interconnected stories, each exploring the lives of residents in a tenement building in the Bronx during the Great Depression. These stories are deeply rooted in the experiences of everyday people, tackling themes of love, loss, faith, and despair.

Eisner’s pioneering decision to present these narratives in a single book was groundbreaking. It revealed the potential for comics to be a medium for complex, mature, and emotionally resonant storytelling. The term “graphic novel” had not yet been widely adopted, but “A Contract with God” laid the foundation for what would become a thriving and diverse medium. The book is credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel.

The Stories Within

Each of the four stories in “A Contract with God” stands alone but is interconnected through their shared setting and themes. They are a vivid portrayal of the human condition, rendered with a level of depth and emotion rarely seen in comics up to that point.

“A Contract with God” tells the story of Frimme Hersh, a devout Jew who loses faith in God after a personal tragedy. This tale explores the theme of spirituality and the questioning of one’s beliefs in the face of adversity.

“The Street Singer” delves into the world of love and loneliness through the eyes of a down-and-out singer. It examines the sacrifices people make for love and the search for connection.

“The Super” provides a glimpse into the life of the tenement’s superintendent, a man with a heart of gold and a complicated past. This story emphasizes the significance of understanding the complexities of seemingly ordinary individuals.

“Cookalein” is a heartbreaking tale of an immigrant family’s struggle and the dreams of a better life. It highlights the pursuit of the American Dream and the harsh realities that often come with it.

Eisner’s masterful storytelling and evocative artwork bring these characters and their struggles to life, inviting readers to empathize with their joys and sorrows.

The Enduring Legacy

The publication of “A Contract with God” was a watershed moment in the history of comics. It heralded the rise of the graphic novel as a respected and mature storytelling medium, paving the way for countless other creators to experiment with long-form narratives. Will Eisner’s work opened the door for more substantial and emotionally resonant stories in the medium.

Eisner continued to produce graphic novels and inspire generations of comic creators with his innovative approach to storytelling until his passing in 2005. His legacy is evident in the vast and diverse world of graphic novels today, where authors and artists are pushing the boundaries of the medium, telling stories that touch on a wide range of topics, and addressing complex and mature themes.

“A Contract with God” remains a testament to Will Eisner’s visionary talent and his contribution to the world of comics. This pioneering work transformed the medium and introduced the concept of the graphic novel, leading to a flourishing and diverse literary form that continues to captivate and engage readers of all backgrounds. Eisner’s legacy lives on in the rich tapestry of graphic novels, making “A Contract with God” a seminal and timeless work in the world of storytelling through visuals and words.

An individual who has a strong interest in comic books and the culture surrounding them. Comic books are a form of printed or digital media that combines text and artworks that tell beautiful and interesting stories, often featuring characters with superhuman abilities and adventures. A comic fan, passionate about the medium and collect, read, discuss, and even create comic books.