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It was a very different world
on October 19, 2003
Most of us think of Will Eisner as the creator of a terrific comic of the 1940s called The Spirit -- which he is. But we forget that in this book, first published in 1978, he also practically invented the modern "graphic novel." No superheroes here, just ordinary Jewish immigrant families in a tenement building in the Bronx. There actually are four stories here. "A Contract with God" is the story of Frimme Hersh, who made a deal with the Almighty when he was a boy in Poland, that he would do his best in life and God should look out for him in return. He comes to America, becomes quietly successful, is respected by his neighbors and his synagogue, and things are going okay. Then his adored adopted daughter dies suddenly. God has broken the contract, and Frimme is no longer bound by it, either. It's a very satisfying, Sholom Aleichem sort of story. "The Street Singer" tells of an out-of-work bookkeeper during the Depression who finds he can earn a few thrown pennies singing in the allies of tenement buildings. An ex-diva decides to promote him (for her own purposes), but the money she gives him goes for booze instead. This one is interesting -- there really were street singers in New York -- but I found it much less readable. "The Super," about an authoritarian German building superintendent, is a cautionary tale, sort of, about not messing with Lolitas when they come a-calling, and it's rather a lightweight piece. "Cookalein," however, is a superior work, about the escape of young city-dwellers to the Adirondacks in the summer, searching for social and financial advancement through marriage. There's some delicious irony here. Eisner is generally a very good storyteller of this milieu, and he does it all in black-and-white pen work. He's a master of characterization through facial expression and other detail, and there's a reason this volume has been reprinted so many times in the past quarter century.