It just doesn’t seem like comics, does it? By the fifth page of ‘A Contract with God’, the artist seems woefully misguided by today’s standards. Bricks on the upper part of the wall seem to hang in the air, not at all cemented down. The light in the background is unclear, lost behind a sheet of rain. The steps that lead down from the sidewalk are visually unclear. Protagonist Frimme Hersh is in no way afforded use of the masking effect; the linework of his character is not simpler so as to promote emotional investment by the reader. And the cardinal sin - there has been no comics so far, just a series of five page-long posters.
But visionary cartoonist Will Eisner definitely knew what he was doing with very first Graphic Novel. It is so very hard not to involve oneself emotionally with the falling rain. It is a rain that just inundates the world. And it is the rain that is the most powerful visual metaphor for the utter despair of the lead character. For Frimme Hersh this is not anger, it is impotence. Hersh is almost a secondary consideration after his own anguish. He is completely unable to act in any way to the death of his daughter. And Eisner allows Hersh’s anguish to be seen in the world itself. Against expectation it is Eisner’s self-imposed limitation against using framed paneling and the masking effect that produces maximum emotional investment by the reader. This is a world literally awash with anguish and sorrow.
But in a wholly other sense, Eisner makes a statement about comics as a medium, and comics’ power to convey intense emotional experiences. Comics is a medium for great literature, Eisner seems to say, Do not simply mistake these for the picture-books of your youth.
In 1978 Eisner was the first to conceive of the Graphic Novel format. With its publication he made an argument about comics’ capacity to act as literature. But Eisner was also writing against a second generation of European comics the so-called Bandes Desinee like the Tintin and the Asterix series. These comics were prepared graphically, with empty speech balloons meant for the proper translation. In a certain sense, these comics were a reminder of the factory-style production that prevented institutional acceptance of comics as a medium. What impoverishment of the comics medium could there have been, if such comics remained the standard alternative to street-driven superhero stories of the 1970s?
It just doesn’t seem like comics. Not by today’s standards. In a sense, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is not comics at all, it is a manifesto. It is a powerful piece of history and a powerful statement about the comics medium. The thoroughgoing craftsmanship of Will Eisner while pioneering the Graphic Novel form is one of the reasons that today we do have standards to judge comics by.