A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories
A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories is a graphic novel by Will Eisner that takes the form of several stories on a theme. Published by Baronet Books (ISBN 0-89437-035-9) in October 1978 in simultaneous hardcover and trade paperback editions — the former limited to a signed-and-numbered print-run of 1,500 — it is often erroneously called the first graphic novel, or the first work to describe itself as such. It is nonetheless an early landmark of the form, and critically lauded in its own right.
Now published by DC Comics, the book was reissued in 2001 (ISBN 1-56389-674-5). It runs 196 pages.
The work consists of four short stories — "A Contract With God", "The Super", "The Street Singer", and "Cookalein" — all set in a Bronx tenement in the 1930s, with the last story ("Cookalein") also taking place at a summer getaway for Jews. The stories are semi-autobiographical, with Eisner drawing heavily on his own childhood experiences as well as those of his contemporaries. Utilizing his talents for expressive lettering and cartoonish figures, he links the narratives by the common setting and the common theme of immigrant and first-generation experiences, across cultures.
While A Contract with God is not the first graphic novel, nor is it the first to use the term, it is regarded by some comic book industry professionals and literary critics as the standard bearer. It created in its wake a deeper understanding of the medium's worth and wide storytelling potential. It also served as an inspiration to younger creators, who in turn further developed the format. This has led to the acceptance of the graphic novel as a viable literary and commercial format for artistic expression. Eisner's initial attempt at a contained work of sequential art, while not inventing the form — and possibly by dint of being the right book at the right time, with another groundbreaking work, Sabre coincidentally published the same month — helped to popularize it and bring critical attention to a ghettoized medium.
In the introduction, Eisner cited as inspiration the 1930s books of Lynd Ward, who produced complete novels in woodcuts. "One of these books, Frankenstein, fell into my hands in 1938," two years before Eisner's acclaimed newspaper-supplement comic book The Spirit debuted, "and it had an influence on my thinking thereafter. I consider my efforts in this area attempts at expansion or extension of Ward's original premise."
The book's genesis was twofold. The first inspiration, Eisner said, came after he'd attended his first comic-book convention in the mid-1970s, and met that generation's fans and creators. "I reasoned that the 13-year-old kids that I'd been writing to back in the 1940s were no longer 13-year-old kids, they were now 30, 40 years old. They would want something more than two heroes, two supermen, crashing against each other. I began working on a book that dealt with a subject that I felt had never been tried by comics before, and that was man's relationship with God."
In his introduction to the book's 2001 reissue, Eisner further revealed that the tragic inspiration for that choice of subject, as well as the inciting incident in the book's title story, grew out of the 1970 death of his leukemia-stricken teenaged daughter, Alice. Until then, only Eisner's closest friends had even been aware that he'd had a daughter.