Confession time: until this month I’d never read a Will Eisner comic.
I know he’s incredibly influential in the medium. I understand that the Eisner Awards are a huge deal, and they wouldn’t be named after him if he wasn’t the same. Reading The Spirit has been on my list of things to read for a while but so is a lot of other stuff and I haven’t got around to it (I know). I was introduced to his work through A Contract with God instead.
Apparently it’s commonly said that this was the first comic to call itself a graphic novel; it was published in 1978. From Eisner’s keynote address at the 2002 Will Eisner Symposium:
“That began what is known as the graphic novel today. Those of you who’ve heard me speak before know this now famous story about how it was called a “graphic novel.” I completed the book, A Contract With God, and I called the president of Bantam Books in New York, who I knew had seen my work with The Spirit. Now, this was a very busy guy who didn’t have much time to speak to you.
So I called him and said, “There’s something I want to show you, something I think is very interesting.”
He said, “Yeah, well, what is it?”
A little man in my head popped up and said, “For Christ’s sake stupid, don’t tell him it’s a comic. He’ll hang up on you.” So, I said, “It’s a graphic novel.”
He said, “Wow! That sounds interesting. Come on up.”
Whether that particular statement is true or not (someone else thought of it first), I bet that the graphic novel was among the first to tell stories that were personal and about real life instead of superheroes. It was a move by Eisner to try to showcase sequential art as a serious medium, as “viable literature.” Even now there’s a stigma that comes with the word comics – usually from close-minded people who write it off as nothing more than longer versions of the strips in newspapers – and the negative attitude was more pronounced back then. It’s like critics didn’t count them, and the people penning the stories weren’t real writers.
Eisner also realized the people who started with comics in the 30s were growing up. They wanted more than another epic superheroic battle, and he realized they’d probably check out a different sort of story. It was a gamble, and it paid off.
Though most of the stories in A Contract with God didn’t fit my personal tastes, I can step away from that and see the grand thing he accomplished. As I started flipping through the pages I realized this was the predecessor to the type of comics I like the most: narrative stories. I include a lot more superhero comics in my diet now, but in the beginning it was primarily stories about people and life. Some were drawn and lettered like a regular comic, some had more words and less art, but many followed the overall style of Eisner’s book.
It was fascinating for me to see the roots of this style of visual storytelling. We’re accustomed to graphic novels and stories like this now (Archaia Entertainment publishes several comics along this line), but in the late 70s? If there were an internet then, I’d love to have seen the initial reactions. A Contract with God received enough of a positive response to warrant publishing two sequels, but the first of those wasn’t out until 1988. Whatever readers and peers thought, I’m glad Eisner was willing to take the risk and do something different.