by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "C" Page 4

A Contract with God 1978 (GN) 180 pages

cover by Eisner

Written & Illustrated by Will Eisner.
black and white

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by various publishers over the years (I think)

Comic books have been around since the early part of the 20th Century -- magazines telling stories in sequential pictures and words. First, as reprints of newspaper strips, then with original material. The origin of the "graphic novel" is a bit harder to pin down, with various creators claiming parenthood of that sub-medium of comics -- true provenance hard to ascertain, in part because people can argue over what, exactly, constitutes a "graphic novel".

So though not really the first, as some might claim (Arnold Drake's "It Rhymes with Lust" was published decades earlier!), nonetheless one of the most influential -- or at least, most frequently cited -- is Will Eisner's A Contract with God. Eisner was already a respected and influential figure in comics, both for his studio work (in days when comics were often turned out by artistic collectives) as well as for his signature creation, the crimefighter, The Spirit -- a rather bland, non-descript concept that nonetheless became a touchstone in comics for Eisner's gradually evolving execution, playing around with visuals and narratives so that some of the tricks and experiments Eisner employed in his mix of tongue-in-cheek and film noire remain cutting edge decades later.

But Eisner clearly began to lose interest in the action-hero formula that was comics bread and butter (as evidenced by the experimentation with the Spirit which saw it move more in a human drama direction, with the Spirit himself frequently a peripheral figure). In fact, despite the Spirit remaining Eisner's signature creation till the day he died...I don't think he'd actually written or drawn a full Spirit story since the 1950s! Anyway, as mentioned, by the 1970s Eisner was clearly looking for some new challenge, something to restart his creative fires.

And a Contract with God was it. Still playing within the inner city, seedy, film noire milieu of the Spirit, but now the focus was fully on human drama -- kitchen sink realism -- as Eisner crafted an anthology of tales supposedly inspired by memories of his youth, all revolving around a New York slum, the fictional Dropsie Ave. And instead of being published in a comicbook periodical, the stories were collected in book form. Of course, one of the reasons one can question whether A Contract with God warrants the "graphic novel" label -- although most would say it does, clearly -- is the fact that it isn't, in fact, a novel, but a collection of four short stories.

The result is interesting, somewhat effective...but also a bit disappointing for something that is cited as such a seminal work.

Eisner throws himself into his milieu with passion and authenticity -- and a mature readers bent -- effectively conjuring up this Depression-era Jewish ghetto. His art style, like in the Spirit, applies a decidedly cartoony, caricaturist style to what is, essentially serious, dramatic material, for generally good effect. And his evocation of the streets and shabby tenements of Dropsie Ave. are full of mood and atmosphere -- particularly in black and white.

But the stories themselves are rather thin and even simplistic. In a sense, that's not untrue of a lot of "literary" stories, where "slice of life" can go hand-in-hand with "shaggy dog" stories, and where crafting stories that are too cleverly, or complicatedly plotted, can be seen as too crassly Hollywood. But it's also a reflectuon of the very slightness of the tales. Though a couple of the stories are as long as 60 pages -- Eisner indulges in lots of big panels, sometimes only one or two per page, so that actual story content is considerably less than the page count would suggest.

The title story itself, A Contract with God, though not uninteresting, is ultimately a rather simple -- and obvious -- parable about a pious man whose brush with tragedy causes him to lose faith in god. Even its telling is a bit reduced to its essence as Eisner relies a lot on captions -- describing the events almost more like a picture book than a comic where the narrative is played out in sequential panels.

The story that seems the most complex, the one that most feels like a "graphic novel" is Cookalein, as Eisner expands his focus from just a few core characters (as was the case in the other stories) to a much broader cast as summer hits Dropsie Avenue and we cut between various characters as they prepare to leave the city for a vacation in the country. We follow the various characters, become privy to the secrets and subterfuge, and watch as their various stories end up intertwining. But it too feels a bit anti-climactic when we reach the end, as if, given all the build up, more could've been done with it. As well, it too is a bit obvious in its twists and turns. Heck, when a character proclaims his love for another character who he'd barely exchanged a few words with, there's definitely a feeling we're getting the condensed version of a tale.

There is nothing that unique about the ideas or milieu of A Contract with God that hasn't already been explored by a zillion authors and filmmakers -- which is, of course, part of the appeal. The whole idiom of Jewish working class New York life has been so chronicled, there's an engaging familiarity to it. What made A Contract with God unusual was to tackle that world in a comic book format, and with a mature readers sensibility of nudity and adult subject matter.

Though a problem with the book is that, ultimately, it remains somewhat...depressing, as Eisner peoples his stories of hopeless desperate lives with deliberately flawed anti-heroes, cheaters, and reprobates. It's hard to entirely care about a lot of the characters. In The Supper -- a kind of uncomfortable tale where Eisner seems to see no distinction between adult lust and paedophilia (as a character who plasters his wall with nude pictures of adult women, is none the less teased on by a ten year old girl!) And as an example of my point about unsavoury characters, in a story focusing on the two...the girl actually seems even more loathsome than the adult!

But ultimately, A Contract with God is an eminently readable collection, full of Eisner's striking, idiosyncratic visuals and a seeming conviction on the part of the story teller. If the stories seems a bit simple, almost vignettes at time, that's not much different than a lot of literary stories -- albeit, literary anthologies would probably offer a dozen or so tales to Eisner's four.

Cover price: ___

Criminal Macabre: A Cal MacDonald Mystery 2004 (SC TPB) 148 pages

Letters: Pat Brosseau.

Reprinting: Criminal Macabre #1-5, plus the short "Letter from B.S." from Drawing on Your Nightmares

Suggested for Mature Readers (coarse language, violence)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Additional notes: intro by Rob Zombie; afterward by Niles

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Reviewed: 2004

Cal McDonald is a dissipated, booze-swilling, pill popping, hard-boiled, hard luck private eye who gets through the day with a lot of deadpan wisecracks. That's due, in part, to the fact that he has to deal psychologically with knowing vampires, werewolves, and assorted other creatures of the night are real. The character first saw life in a novel, Savage Membrane, by creator Steve Niles, but seems to be making his home these days in the four colour medium of comic books.

Figuring out how to describe Criminal Macabre, Cal's first comic book adventure, is a bit problematic. Dark Horse Comics seems to be promoting it as a mature readers horror book -- which it is. But there's horror, and then there's horror. The back cover includes quotes about "nightmarish scenarios" and the creators being "kings of fright", while an introduction by Rob Zombie -- heavy metal rocker, would be filmmaker ("House of 1000 Corpses") and horror fanboy -- gushes about the series' attitude, and how Cal makes Wolverine look like one of the PowerPuff Girls.

All that hyperbole seems to be missing a crucial point: Criminal Macabre is a joke.

Well, maybe "joke" is too hard a word. The plot makes a (vague) kind of sense, and there are moments of genuine character introspection, but this is more likely to find appreciators among Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans than, say, Stephen King-ophiles. Actually TV shows like "Buffy" and its spin-off "Angel" are more likely to induce chills because they take themselves more seriously than Steve Niles takes his "dank, seedy underworld".

And the best part is, it generally works.

Cal faces his undead adversaries with insouciance -- probably equal parts result of a tough guy attitude...and chronic intoxication. Occasionally he's given to uttering a few "Yikes!" and "Plan B -- run!" when things get out of hand.

Cal's supernatural world stems from the sub-genre of revisionist horror stories which down play the "super" of the supernatural. He informs us that wooden stakes and silver bullets are just a lot of superstitious hooey, and most monsters can be brought down with nothing more exotic than a shotgun. One can picture a gun totting, vampire hunting James Woods playing Cal in a movie -- oh, wait, that wasn't very fun the first time around, was it? But this mundaning of the macabre is redeemed by the wit of Niles' script, and by the quirky pantheon of undead that inhabits Los Angeles' underworld. Cal's best friend and unflappable sidekick is a ghoul -- His Ghoul Friday, you might say. The ghouls live in the sewers, but do no harm, hence why Cal is on amiable terms with them (though it's another demonstration of Niles' flouting of tradition that these ghouls don't eat...yet the defining trait of a ghoul in myth is what comprises its diet). And if the idea of a tough guy blasting away at monsters with a shotgun seems a tad prosaic, fortunately the story is a revision of its own revision as the been-there-done-that Cal starts encountering monsters who aren't behaving at all the way he's used to -- mixed packs of vampires and werewolves, breaking into research labs when normally they only hunt for food. Something strange is afoot. Things become even more troublesome when Cal starts encountering monsters, contrary to his experience, who really are vulnerable only to stakes and silver, rendering his pistol about as effective as a popgun.

The story is a mix of wit, horror, mystery, and occasional bouts of action. The story is paced out well, never losing a sense that we're always moving forward, even as, admittedly, the twists and turns aren't all that twisty or turny. And there's a certain laissez-faire attitude to the plotting occasionally, particularly toward the climax. And the plausibility is shaky, such as a lab storing a strain of bubonic plague that dates back to an incident in the 14th Century -- how a lab could have a centuries old strain, or even connect it to a specific event, is never explained. But it remains genuinely funny throughout -- funny in a "Buffy" sort of way, with ironic quips, black humour and the occasional bit of slapstick, all stemming from Cal's nonchalance in the face of the bizarre. Of course this is "Buffy"...if Buffy was a pill popping cynic with a penchant for four letters words. And the cocky attitude means that the suspense is dulled somewhat -- even moving into the climax, Cal doesn't seem particularly worried about the outcome.

The darkly painted art by Ben Templesmith is definitely idiosyncratic, a little as if Dave McKean were cross bred with Sergio Aragones and painting for Mad Magazine. It's deliberately cartoony, the result being both more horrific than a more conventional style (because of its ugly, underground comix feel) and less horrific (because it's so cartoony even the bloody, gory scenes aren't really that gory -- more is implied than shown). But Templesmith seems to draw his panels with all the care he might give to a doodle he'd do for a fan at a convention -- and probably devoting as much time to it. On one hand, it can give the art an immediacy, and this dark world its own unique, off kilter flavour that a realist style might lack. On the other hand, there are crudely rendered action sequences where one has to infer what's happening, not from the visuals, but simply from asking yourself what's the most likely way this scene was intended to play out. Even then, there are some scenes which left me scratching my head. I thought one could distinguish humans from vamps and ghouls by the jagged teeth given to the latter...except Templesmith often draws humans with equally bizarre orthodontic work.

Apparently Niles had been toying with the character for years, writing stories that gathered dust in a desk drawer long before the character ever saw publication. Given that background, one could quibble and say there isn't a lot of development to the character or his world -- it's not even clear how he makes a living (who are his clients?). But this collection benefits from the inclusion of an eight page short, "Letter from B.S." (the "B.S." is short for mobster Bugsy Siegel). Given the fairly straight forward monster bashing of the main story, one can be forgiven for thinking that it was a lot of fun...but that it doesn't promise any variety. But "Letter from B.S." has Cal aiding a ghost with nary a shotgun in sight, suggesting there's versatility to the character's future adventures after all. And underneath the crudeness, and the pills, and the veneer of nihilism, Cal is actually a little reminiscent of the more mainstream comic book monster hunter, Hellboy -- he's basically an O.K. guy, fighting the good fight because he's genuinely trying to do good.

Original cover price: $14.95 USA

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