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Every picture tells a story

November 20, 2005|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

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The Contract With God Trilogy

Life on Dropsie Avenue

Will Eisner

W.W. Norton: 498 pp., $35

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The Quitter

Harvey Pekar

Art by Dean Haspiel

DC/Vertigo: unpaged, $19.99

ONE of the most interesting developments in contemporary literature is the emergence of comics as a confessional medium, a mirror for the examined life. It's a shift that has its roots in the underground comics of the 1960s; R. Crumb has been tapping into his obsessions for 40 years now, while Art Spiegelman's 1972 strip "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" explored his mother's suicide, staking out in four densely detailed pages the conceptual territory he would later evoke in "Maus," the graphic memoir about his parents' experiences during the Holocaust. Equally significant are two other points of evolution: the debut of Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" in 1976 and the publication, two years later, of Will Eisner's "A Contract With God."

Eisner, who died in January at age 87, is a seminal figure on the comics landscape; he was someone who saw the possibilities. As early as the 1940s, he was using his Sunday supplement featuring the masked detective "The Spirit" to pioneer narrative strategies that pushed the limits of what comics were supposed to do. Pekar, too, has pushed the limits, but in a different way -- bringing in a rotating cast of illustrators, Crumb included, to do the drawing for him while focusing on the minor moments, the small indignities of daily living, that give his work a literary edge. Both Pekar and Eisner spent years facing indifference, and both were ultimately vindicated, Pekar with the "American Splendor" movie and Eisner as the spiritual godfather of the form. If you're wondering how this plays out, consider that Pekar's new book "The Quitter" (illustrated by Dean Haspiel) and Eisner's "The Contract With God Trilogy" (which reprints "A Contract With God" and two related efforts, "A Life Force" and "Dropsie Avenue," and features the artist's final drawings) have just appeared in hardcover, which never could have happened three decades ago.

By now, anyone remotely familiar with comics knows the mythic subtext of "A Contract With God" -- it is the first graphic novel, the ur-text of a genre, the book that single-handedly allowed comics to grow up. Like most myths, this is true and not true: As Eisner points out in a preface to "The Contract With God Trilogy," he was inspired by "experimental graphic artists Otto Nuckel, Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward, who in the 1930s published serious novels told in art without text." Yet Eisner also had outsized ambitions, as the works in this omnibus attest. These are not, in other words, traditional comics but more elaborate sagas of immigrant life, of the struggle with God and meaning -- stories that attempt to tease out the complex issues of existence, issues that cannot be resolved.

Eisner establishes that intention from his opening image, in which a hunched man slogs toward his tenement through a lacerating rain. This is Frimme Hersh, who as a boy made a contract with God, a deal he feels has been eclipsed by the death of his daughter Rachele. "You violated our contract!" he wails the evening of the funeral. "If God requires that men honor their agreements ... then is not God, also, so obligated??" Such a question recurs throughout the trilogy, especially in the second novel, "A Life Force," which originally came out in 1988. Here, Eisner portrays a Depression-era carpenter named Jacob Shtarkah, marginally employed, locked in a loveless marriage, who finds himself in existential crisis, uncertain about how to go on, or even why.

"Who knows ... who knows," Eisner writes above a full-page drawing of swarming cockroaches, "why all the creatures of earth struggle so to live." It's a plaintive motif, and it resonates across these pages, as Eisner's characters strive not just to survive but to understand -- a desire that, as often as not, eludes them in the end.

Eisner's iconic status makes it hard to approach him critically; how do you take on a legend, after all? Yet to read these three novels back-to-back-to-back is to be reminded not only of his considerable innovations but also of his limitations. His visual style, developed in the 1930s, never progressed beyond a broad-strokes realism, more appropriate for the funny pages than for the nuanced work he would aspire to create. His narrative abilities, too, are uneven, occasionally gimmicky and contrived.

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