Every picture tells a story
The Contract With God Trilogy
Life on Dropsie Avenue
W.W. Norton: 498 pp., $35
Art by Dean Haspiel
DC/Vertigo: unpaged, $19.99
ONE of the most interesting developments in contemporary literature is the emergence of comics as a confessional medium, a mirror for the examined life. It’s a shift that has its roots in the underground comics of the 1960s; R. Crumb has been tapping into his obsessions for 40 years now, while Art Spiegelman’s 1972 strip “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” explored his mother’s suicide, staking out in four densely detailed pages the conceptual territory he would later evoke in “Maus,” the graphic memoir about his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. Equally significant are two other points of evolution: the debut of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” in 1976 and the publication, two years later, of Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God.”
Eisner, who died in January at age 87, is a seminal figure on the comics landscape; he was someone who saw the possibilities. As early as the 1940s, he was using his Sunday supplement featuring the masked detective “The Spirit” to pioneer narrative strategies that pushed the limits of what comics were supposed to do. Pekar, too, has pushed the limits, but in a different way -- bringing in a rotating cast of illustrators, Crumb included, to do the drawing for him while focusing on the minor moments, the small indignities of daily living, that give his work a literary edge. Both Pekar and Eisner spent years facing indifference, and both were ultimately vindicated, Pekar with the “American Splendor” movie and Eisner as the spiritual godfather of the form. If you’re wondering how this plays out, consider that Pekar’s new book “The Quitter” (illustrated by Dean Haspiel) and Eisner’s “The Contract With God Trilogy” (which reprints “A Contract With God” and two related efforts, “A Life Force” and “Dropsie Avenue,” and features the artist’s final drawings) have just appeared in hardcover, which never could have happened three decades ago.
By now, anyone remotely familiar with comics knows the mythic subtext of “A Contract With God” -- it is the first graphic novel, the ur-text of a genre, the book that single-handedly allowed comics to grow up. Like most myths, this is true and not true: As Eisner points out in a preface to “The Contract With God Trilogy,” he was inspired by “experimental graphic artists Otto Nuckel, Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward, who in the 1930s published serious novels told in art without text.” Yet Eisner also had outsized ambitions, as the works in this omnibus attest. These are not, in other words, traditional comics but more elaborate sagas of immigrant life, of the struggle with God and meaning -- stories that attempt to tease out the complex issues of existence, issues that cannot be resolved.
Eisner establishes that intention from his opening image, in which a hunched man slogs toward his tenement through a lacerating rain. This is Frimme Hersh, who as a boy made a contract with God, a deal he feels has been eclipsed by the death of his daughter Rachele. “You violated our contract!” he wails the evening of the funeral. “If God requires that men honor their agreements ... then is not God, also, so obligated??” Such a question recurs throughout the trilogy, especially in the second novel, “A Life Force,” which originally came out in 1988. Here, Eisner portrays a Depression-era carpenter named Jacob Shtarkah, marginally employed, locked in a loveless marriage, who finds himself in existential crisis, uncertain about how to go on, or even why.
“Who knows ... who knows,” Eisner writes above a full-page drawing of swarming cockroaches, “why all the creatures of earth struggle so to live.” It’s a plaintive motif, and it resonates across these pages, as Eisner’s characters strive not just to survive but to understand -- a desire that, as often as not, eludes them in the end.
Eisner’s iconic status makes it hard to approach him critically; how do you take on a legend, after all? Yet to read these three novels back-to-back-to-back is to be reminded not only of his considerable innovations but also of his limitations. His visual style, developed in the 1930s, never progressed beyond a broad-strokes realism, more appropriate for the funny pages than for the nuanced work he would aspire to create. His narrative abilities, too, are uneven, occasionally gimmicky and contrived.
In “The Street Singer” -- a chapter from “A Contract With God” -- an itinerant balladeer meets a tenement dweller who promises to make him famous, yet after a night of drinking, he cannot remember where she lives. Why someone that connected would live in such a building is an open question, one that undercuts the credibility of the tale. Similar problems mar “A Life Force,” which veers into stereotype with Moustache Pete, the local Mafioso; and “Dropsie Avenue,” which, in tracing the history of Eisner’s old Bronx neighborhood from Dutch farmland to wealthy exurb to working-class shtetl to inner-city slum, moves so quickly that we never get to settle in.
Still, there remains something momentous about “The Contract With God Trilogy,” a magisterial quality, as if we’re witnessing the birth of a movement, a kind of aesthetic big bang. Partly, this has to do with the book as artifact: oversized, weighty, with images in warm sepia rather than black-and-white. Even more, it gets back to Eisner and what he meant to do. Sure, his work is messy, imperfect, deeply flawed in places, but it is also full of potential, suggesting a direction, a place to begin. Perhaps the best way to think of him, then, is as a transitional presence, a bridge between the early days of comics and the new, expanding universe of the form.
As for where this expanding universe might go, Pekar’s “The Quitter” offers one possible answer, a vision of the comic as elaborate memory palace, a kind of pop-culture reliquary. Cast as a single extended narrative, the book recounts its author’s childhood and adolescence, a period in which he developed certain lifelong obsessions, from his collector mentality to a sense of himself as “deeply depressed and pessimistic.... I felt there was a force working against me.” Such issues, of course, have always been a theme of Pekar’s comics, which, marked as they are by an intense air of resignation, function almost as existential fables, koan-like in their subtlety. With “The Quitter,” however, Pekar adopts a slightly different focus, eschewing the immediacy of “American Splendor” for a more introspective voice.
It’s not a matter of scope exactly, although a book like this does have different requirements than those of the shorter pieces Pekar generally creates. But unlike his 1994 full-length effort “Our Cancer Year” (co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner, and illustrated by Frank Stack), which details his fight with lymphoma, “The Quitter” is narrated almost entirely in hindsight. That’s a key distinction, a stylistic shift away from the present, an attempt to integrate more background, more context. While this takes a little getting used to, it works, finally, because Pekar’s early experiences are both particular and universal, the kind to which all of us can relate. Everyone has had to navigate a separation from his or her parents, to realize that, as Pekar says of his mother, “my ways seem alien to her, just like hers seem alien to me.” And everyone must wrestle with the disappointments of adulthood, the unbearable bleakness of being. Regret is everywhere, Pekar suggests, and no less painful for its futility. “Oh well,” he observes. “In the long run, we’re all dead anyway.”
“The Quitter” is what we might call an Eisnerian effort, an attempt to use comics for reflection, as a way to re-create a world that’s past. In the end, this seems only fitting, for Pekar is, I think, Eisner’s most direct creative descendant -- Jewish, working-class, urban, a writer who braids his identity into the very fabric of his work. There’s something else they share: the belief that comics, as a medium, are elastic enough to encompass all our stories, even (or especially) the most personal ones. Or, as Pekar puts it at the end of “The Quitter”: “So I thought, why couldn’t I write about everyday quotidian subjects in comics? Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs? ... There was nothing intrinsically limited about comics, only the way they were being used.” *