Friday, 11 May 2012

A Tribute To Will Eisner

A Contract With God by Will Eisner (1978) 
reinterpreted by Dave Sim & Gerhard (1996)
(from 'My Dinner With Will & Other Stories' in Following Cerebus #4, May 2005)
...He had invented the term graphic novel at the age of 60 and was then faced with the problem of the limited number of years that he had left to be productive and how he was going to use that time. He freely confessed that one of his big problems was that everything about the human condition interested him, and he could see for himself exactly how narrow the parameters of most graphic novels were. The vast majority were just serialised superhero stories collected under one cover. The fact that that left all other literary themes and subjects wide open for treatment - with the clock ticking - would be the driving force behind the last twenty seven years of his life. Every story that he tackled was new and untrammelled territory. It was no surprise that the subject he returned to, time and time again, was his own background in 1920s and 1930s New York City while still making occasional forays into the vast reaches of untapped literary territory such as Sundiata, A Legend of Africa. It was the New York eras he had lived through that were being lost with each passing year, and he felt an obvious and compelling need - as a member of those era's dwindling custodial constituency - to document and preserve his recollections of it. The sense of urgency, it seems to me, was what made his choices for him and the sense of urgency compounded itself as his eighties (his eighties!) were disappearing behind him.

...I complimented him again on A Contract With God, the title sequence from the book of the same name. I do think it is in the pantheon of great comic book stories. Its only nearest competitor, in my mind, is Barry Windsor Smith's The Beguiling... He had only been vaguely interested... so this time I tried to explain a little more thoroughly.

"The story can be read a lot of different ways..." I began, my thesis being that it would not be difficult to see the titular Contract with God, having been abused by Frimme Hersh and so ending up in the hands of the young Jew who finds it where Hersh had discarded it in the allyway as a metaphor for Christianity supplanting rather than supplementing Judaism - which would certainly be a more controversial interpretation than has attached itself to the story over the last twenty-five years.

"Your telling me," Eisner interjected, his eyebrows shooting up. "The first two letters I got on A Contract With God came in the same day. One of them raving about the book as a positive portrayal of Jews in comic books and the other one denouncing it as anti-Semitic." He chewed, thoughtfully, and then swallowed. "I should've saved those two letters."

..."If God requires that men honor their agreements, is not God also so obligated?" That chilling moment in A Contract With God where Frimme Hersh is "chewing the scenery" in his monologue directed at God - railing at God and accusing God of malfeasance! - while a thunderstorm rages overhead. It was my first choice of a tribute to Eisner for a Chicago Comicon program booklet (everyone else, of course, had done The Spirit).

Read the complete article in Following Cerebus #4.

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