Before there was Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, before there was Art Spiegelman's Maus, there was Will Eisner's A Contract with God, one of the first graphic novels published in America.
W.W. Norton will release a new edition of A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories this month to mark the 100th anniversary of Eisner's birth. The book is a deluxe hardback with newly remastered art and an introduction by comics artist and scholar Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics and other works.
A Contract with God was first published in 1978, and the format was so new that Eisner had trouble finding a publisher and even more trouble getting booksellers to shelve it correctly: A quartet of semi-autobiographical stories about Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, A Contract with God was shelved by one bookseller in the religion section, then relegated to the storage room when it didn’t sell.
Now, Eisner is hailed as one of the pioneers of the medium—the annual comics industry awards bear his name—and the Eisner Foundation keeps his legacy alive through the Will Eisner ALA Grants to Libraries, Will Eisner Week (March 1-7) and other programs. During his centennial year, the foundation has planned a number of exhibits of his work in the U.S. and Europe.
We spoke to Tom Mayer, the editor of the new edition as well as many other Eisner books.
What's new about this centennial edition?
Tom Mayer: Scott McCloud has always been a huge supporter and champion of Will Eisner’s work. When he heard we were doing a Centennial Edition of A Contract with God, he immediately agreed to write an introduction. He delivered a beautiful essay on what the book means to him, personally and professionally. It’s a special testimonial to the kind of love Will has among comics creators, and the impact the book had on the field.
Secondly, when Will Eisner started making comics—and even when he pioneered the graphic novel—the form hadn’t achieved the artistic and critical stature it now enjoys. Sometimes publishers skimped on materials and quality. When we put together the centennial edition we wanted to create a monument to Will’s achievement and his legacy, so with help from the Eisner Estate, we used enormously high quality scans of the original artwork, captured and cleaned with the best equipment. Lastly, we put together a history of the book, which tells of the personal experience that led Will to write the book, and the circuitous path A Contract with God took to publication. It’s ultimately a triumphant story.
What is Will Eisner’s publishing history at Norton?
Mayer: As a house we have always wanted to publish “books that live”. When [Norton executive editor and Liveright publisher] Robert Weil acquired what turned out be Will’s final book, The Plot, and acquired the rights to the Will Eisner Library, he understood that Eisner had become canonical, and that Contract was a foundational work of comics literature. I was lucky enough to be the assistant on those books, and to work with Will before his death to prepare them for publication.
Today, Contract is a classic that lives up to our highest ideals as a publishing house. We’ve since published Will’s drawing textbooks, and we’re preparing a critical edition of Contract for use in universities, which more and more have courses on comics creation and appreciation. Without Will’s contribution, the current graphic novel category would look very different.
By 1978, immigrant life was being sentimentalized in popular media. Was Eisner writing about his own experiences in A Contract with God?
Mayer: Absolutely! Will took in strands from his youth, from cultural memory, from deeply private tragedy. His work has big, operatic emotions, and broad humor, but in many ways he told stories that add nuance and complexity to our understanding of the immigrant experience. I think he was too smart, too clever, to unquestioningly embrace nostalgia about that period.
What relevance do you think Eisner's work holds for today's reader?
Mayer: Eisner’s work is perennial. He explores questions of faith and love, family and loyalty. His characters have big dreams and powerful fears. Some are handsome and assimilated; others are awkward and repressed. Today’s immigrants will tell similar stories, I expect, and will see themselves reflected in Eisner’s work.
What other Eisner works do you publish?
Mayer: We now have 22 Eisner titles in print, including compilations, standalone editions, and textbooks. The books remain constant sellers. I get notices of reprints almost every month. We have sold rights to Eisner’s books in 21 languages. Just for fun, we included a few panels from various languages in the Centennial Edition so readers can see what Will’s work looks like to readers in other countries.