A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories By Will Eisner, introduction by Scott McCloud, Norton, 180 pages, $25.95
It is generally thought that the great comics master Will Eisner invented the graphic novel in 1978 with this book. Here, from the introduction by Scott McCloud, is his description of the current condition of his original copy of the "modest" paperback: It "has been cracked open, laid-flat, studied and scoured so many times that its once sturdy binding has been surrendered in half-a-dozen places. It's more a 'stack' than a 'book' after all these years."
Years before, McCloud says, Will Eisner had created "The Spirit," "a proto-comic book published as a newspaper insert in the early '40's, concurrent with the beginning of the American comic book industry and the first appearances of Superman, Batman and their ilk ... (Eisner's stories) use a dazzling array of inventive, graphically sophisticated, visual storytelling techniques unlike anything else in America at the time."
In the intervening era between "The Spirit" in the '40's and "The Contract With God," says McCloud, "Eisner never lost faith in comics as a literary or artistic form."
This is Eisner's seminal book reborn for his Centennial, a series of four interconnected stories "drawn from memory, which took place in a single tenement in the Bronx." In the title story, "we are told early on that God will either punish us or reward us, depending on our behavior in accordance with a compact." The book was, according to Eisner, "an exercise in personal agony. My only daughter Alice had died of leukemia eight years before the publication of this book. My grief was still raw. My heart still bled ... I exorcised my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year old child of her life and the very flowering of it."
Here, from the man who helped train Bob Kane and Jules Feiffer, was something completely original at the time--a set of tales that anticipated Art Spiegelman, set in a tenement at "55 Dropsie Avenue." It was a work whose closest relatives were Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer rather than Spiderman. For all his influence and the ancestors in his bloodlines, the book remains an artistic world unique unto itself.