In A Contract With God, Will Eisner simultaneously rejects and preserves comic book traditions. Never fully escaping from the confines of the comic book genre, the author offers a distinct manipulation of the comic medium in an effort toward genre innovation. An analysis of a certain two-page spread illuminates Eisner’s strategies to embed temporality and audibility into a visual narrative. By challenging the limits of comic conventions, Eisner’s work deconstructs the binary distinction between text and image and renders space as an active character. In its subversive embrace of the panel and its manipulation of the speech bubble tradition, A Contract With God epitomizes the overlap and fluid relations between the comic and graphic novel genres.
To examine Eisner’s dialogue with comic traditions, we turn to pages 26 and 27 of A Contract With God. At this juncture in the novel, readers inhabit the first story of the collection at a moment of exasperation and mourning. Frimme Hersch cries out to God after the death of his daughter, demanding a response that he never receives. Lightning strikes outside of the open window, and Frimme Hirsch prepares to cast off the rock containing his divine contract. By this point, Eisner’s intentional avoidance of the traditional comic book panel is obvious. Eisner writes in his preface to the 2000 edition,
“Each story was written without regard to space, and each was allowed to develop its format from itself; that is, to evolve from the narration. The normal frames (or panels) associated with sequential (comic book) art are allowed to take on their integrity” (xix).
Rejecting any formal, rigid organization, Eisner resists the comic’s conventional grid of panels. But, as our analysis will reveal, Eisner does, in fact, draw on this tradition through nuanced parallelism in order to embed temporality and dramatic audibility into the narrative.
In this two-page spread, readers see an insistence upon the rectangular shape – the repeated image of the window, the black piece of furniture that Frimme leans on, and the shadow of the windowpane on the wall. This multiplicity of rectangles echoes the conventional comic book grid, despite the fact that most images on the pages are not enclosed in panels. The larger image on page 27 illustrates Eisner’s refusal to succumb to the panel custom; the picture covers more than half of the page, and the lines in the background create curved, indistinct edges. This declaration of independence from the comic is destabilized by the two large, black rectangles (the open window and the furniture), which parallel the structure of the comic panel. Even Frimme Hersh’s body in this image echoes the shape of a panel, as his outstretched arms form a sharp right angle. Additionally, the pristine, blank borders at the four edges and the consistent coupling of two side-by-side images contribute to an overwhelming parallelism to the comic book grid.
Eisner employs this reference to the panel tradition to achieve narrative temporality. The repetition of imagery on page 26 creates a distinctive rhythm. First, we see Frimme yelling out the window on the top left of the page. Then, on the top right, we see a close-up of the window with a lightning bolt. Next, we see Frimme again, from the same perspective, yelling out the window on the bottom left. Finally, we see the window once more, with only slight variation, on the bottom right. This Frimme-window-Frimme-window pattern does not only produce a clear visual structure — it also creates an almost audible rhythm in the reader’s mind, emphasized by the regular pauses in dialogue with every window image. In his article “An Art of Tensions,” Charles Hatfied explains how the paneled repetition of “a single, unvarying image” is often employed to “pace the sequence” of a comic (136). In the case of these pages in A Contract With God, the window serves as the repeated single image to pace the narration. Eisner embraces this strategy to deepen a sense of prolonged time in Frimme Hersch’s mourning, marked by a rhythmic visual pattern. This pacing succeeds in provoking feelings of longing and frustration by producing moments of represented silence. Readers hear Frimme Hersch’s words in our heads, followed by a beat of silence at the window image. Then the rhythm repeats again in the lower row of images. This visual rhythm renders God’s silence audible, in harsh contrast with Frimme’s desperate calls. In this way, Eisner adapts the traditional comic’s panel and grid format to infuse temporality and charged audibility into his visual narrative, heightening the story’s emotional sensation.
This echoing of comic book panels further illustrates the importance of space in A Contract With God. Each story in the novel revolves around a certain tenement building, 55 Dropsie Avenue. In this two-page spread, Eisner’s references to comic book panels are realized through his renderings of space. Readers are reminded of Kim Deitch; Deitch, as described in The Graphic Novel: An Introduction, is an author who produces “imaginary constructions that offer a fictionalized counterpart of the grid: office, hospital, home, or entertainment places (re)structured and (dis)organized by windows, bars, and all kind of spaces within spaces” (169). Similarly, Eisner constructs a grid-like composition on pages 26 and 27 with elements of the physical tenement building – windows, walls, furniture — spaces with a space.
This spatial mode produces a theme consistent throughout the novel, the sense of containment. In these two pages, the window frame acts as a barrier to the outside world and a constant indication of Frimme Hersch’s containment in the building. As he yells to the outside world, Frimme’s dark shadow, one of the scarce details of his surroundings, is cast on the building’s floor before him, suggesting heavy rootedness and stunted mobility. In the bottom left corner of page 27, his body is literally contained in the spread’s most clear-cut, traditional panel. He slouches over, emphasizing the constrained space, and the shadow of the window frame on the wall behind him is a reminder of his physical entrapment. This moment is the peak of his sense of moral and emotional containment, which motivates Frimme Hersch to free himself of his contract with God and search for his own agency outside of the tenement building. Despite such efforts, readers see that 55 Dropsie Avenue persists as a central actor throughout the story. Baetens and Frey explain how the graphic novel often animates place into a persona: “[The] main agency is clearly that of the place: if people do what they do, behave as they do, and talk as they do, it is because of their living in a particular place that makes them into what they are” (168). By creating a fictionalized counterpart of the comic grid with structural elements of the tenement building, Eisner renders space as a character of its own, marked by its power of containment that effectively defines the tenement residents like Frimme.
Frimme Hersch is trapped within the confines of the tenement, both physically and figuratively, and he strives to escape these borders. Eisner imitates this feeling by merging the worlds of text and image. Hatfield writes about a breakdown of the word/image dichotomy in the field of comics, “In brief, the written text can function like images, and images like written text” (133). A Contract With God is emblematic of this phenomenon. Will Eisner embraces the symbolic and pictorial quality of text by stretching the limits of another comic convention, the speech bubble. On many other pages of the novel, Eisner seeks to wholly reject the tradition of the speech bubble, with paragraphs of text, fonts that take on qualities of the environment, and long stretches of images without any text at all. But in most cases, including our two-page spread, the author embeds visual and symbolic meaning into text by experimenting with this established comic tradition. In the heat of Frimme Hersch’s sense of entrapment and the pinnacle of his compulsion for escape, the speech bubble is a reflection of this tension. The text barely fits into the first speech bubble, creating an image of uncomfortable compression. The outlining border of the bubble is smooth and strong, and it blocks the reader’s view of the background. The bubble itself becomes an agent of containment. Short, vertical lines at the bottom of the two bubbles on page 26 emphasize this tension, like the text is pushing up against the bubble to burst it any moment. Finally, in the last speech bubble of the two-page spread, the barrier ruptures. The vertical lines spill out from the bottom. The bubble’s borders are noticeably wavier and weaker, and it seems to disintegrate into the background. The text, just one word, “Enough,” is not crowded, with plenty of empty space surrounding it, like it finally has room to breathe. At this time, Frimme Hersch also decides to burst through his borders by throwing out his contract with God. In his experimentation with the comic tradition of the speech bubble, Eisner embeds figurative, pictorial meaning into the text, breaking down the separation between word and image to augment the story’s dramatic charge.
As our analysis uncovers, Eisner simultaneously rejects, embraces, and manipulates comic book conventions in order to produce temporality, audibility, spatial agency, and pictorial text. All of these elements contribute to a tension between the sense of entrapment and the urge to escape – two consistent emotions felt by the novel’s characters, especially Frimme Hirsch. By exploring Eisner’s strategies to portray such feelings, we may identify the author’s greater relationship with the issue of genre. Similar to Frimme Hersch, Will Eisner strives to throw away his “contract” with the comic book genre. He attempts to discard traditional comic practices, like a grid of image panels and the conventional use of speech bubbles. But, like the tenement building’s constant agency over Frimme, the comic book genre continues to influence Eisner’s work. In this way, Eisner is similarly “trapped.” Failing to wholly reject the conventions of this genre, Eisner simply manipulates and experiments with the comic medium. Eisner claims to innovate an entirely new genre, the first graphic novel, but his creative twists on comic book traditions are just that – a variation on a theme, an author’s distinct style of representing a well-established genre.
By Lucille Marshall. Written for The Jewish Graphic Novel with Professor Barbara Mann at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Baetens, Jan, and Hugo Frey. The Graphic Novel: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print.
Eisner, Will. The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Hatfield, Charles. “An Art of Tensions.” A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. 132-48. Print.