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Comic Book / A Contract with God

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A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978) is the first Graphic Novel written by Will Eisner, who also wrote The Spirit in the 1940s. Although it popularized the concept and term "graphic novel", it is not so much a novel as a collection of short stories, each with a different cast of characters but each dealing with the inhabitants of a tenement in Dropsie Avenue.

The stories are "A Contract with God", "The Street Singer", "The Super" and "Cookalein".


A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories provides examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Villain: Scugg's death became tragic from both the accusation of being a child molester despite being seduced by Rosie and losing his dog from her involvement.
  • The Alcoholic: The titular character from The Street Singer is one.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Sam and Fannie in Cookalein. She's verbally abusive, with literally never a kind word for him, and he's cheating on her. When she finds out, she's not at all surprised. She just adds it to her endless list of grievances and refuses to contemplate a divorce.
  • Bargain with Heaven: Zig-Zagged. In his youth, during the persecution of Jews in Tsarist Russia, the main character of the titular story, Frimme Hersh, writes down a contract with God on a stone tablet. In his later life in America, he respects the terms of the contract scrupulously and he lives a happy life. However, when he rescinds it, he is even more successful by mundane standards, but he is unhappy. He finally tries to recant.
  • Blasphemous Boast: However good Frimme Hersh's intentions as a child were, trying to enter the Almighty into a contract to be rewarded in exchange for his dutiful and pious service, acting as though the two were equals, was this. After years of dissatisfaction in a hollow, greedy secular life, he tries to have a new iron-clad contract drafted by the elders, who are extremely uncomfortable but reason that it simply would be a "guiding document" for him to live his life by, derived from the word of the Torah; as Frimme again boasts to God that it's impossible for Him to break the second contract like the piece of paper means something, he has a heart attack and dies.
    • A detail that might make it less blasphemous, or even more: as a Jew, the idea of individuals making covenants with God, or even winning court cases against Him is not unknown to Frimme Hersh. But God didn't agree to anything. God never offered any deals, let alone signed either "contract". Which means Frimme Hersh is trying to force God into a contract.
  • Creepy Child: Rosie, a child seductress who arranges to benefit from Scugg's proclivities and death. She also poisons his dog for no reason.
  • Crisis of Faith: In the titular story Frimme Hersh, a pious man who lived all his life in accordance with the laws of God, loses his faith when Rachele, his adopted daughter, dies.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: The death of his beloved daughter Rachele serves as one for Frimme Hersh.
  • Defiled Forever: Goldie believes she's this after she's raped by Benny. Herbie assures her that he doesn't consider her to be so, and makes an Honorable Marriage Proposal on the spot to prove it.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: At the end of A Contract With God Dropsie Avenue is destroyed by a furious fire, that starts on the roof of one of the buildings and spares only Frimme Hersh's old tenement, where a just man (or, more precisely, a just kid) is apparently living. According to the Book of Genesis, something like that happened to two infamous cities which called the wrath of God upon themselves.
  • Domestic Abuse: Sadly common. Alcoholic or jealous husbands beat their wives, and while the wives sometimes retaliate physically, they're more likely to abuse their husbands emotionally.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Missus Minkus sleeps with fifteen-year-old Willie, and doesn't mind after she finds out. Missus Minkus is not condemned for statutory rape and Willie is met with compliments regarding his age. It is ambiguous as to whether he has been traumatized.
  • Driven to Suicide: Scugg.
  • Egocentrically Religious: Frimme Hersh.
  • Even Jerkass Has Loved Ones: Scugg and his dog, the latter's death from Rosie's poison did not bode well for the former.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The super in the titular story is loyal to the owner and always takes their side, but even he is troubled when Frimme Hersh makes a sudden and radical increase to the rent that he knows "Missis Kelly", who is on a widow's pension from Ireland, won't be able to pay.
  • Faith–Heel Turn: Played Straight with Frimme Hersh, who turns into a dishonest real estate speculator when his adopted daughter suddenly dies. Ultimately Subverted, as he seems to feel genuine remorse for having abandoned his faith and finally tries to conclude a new pact with God.
  • Fille Fatale: Rosie, who is prepubescent, uses her sexuality to manipulate Scugg. She gets away with it.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Frimme Hersh dies of a heart attack just after he created a new contract with God.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Herbie's proposal to Goldie after she's been raped by Benny. Strongly implied that this will actually work out well for them since he loved her already and, as a doctor, he's exactly the kind of advantageous marriage she was looking for in the first place.
  • Hypocrite: When Frimme Hersh tells the story of his contract with God to the elders of the synagogue and asks them to draw a new one, their perplexed and horrified looks show that they immediately realize how blasphemous is his request. Later they discuss the request and one of them lampshades that they would violate the law of God by abiding by Hersh's request. But they decide that they are just abbreviating the law. It is implied that the reason is that Hersh has promised to donate to the synagogue the tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue if they procure him a new contract with God.
  • Gold Digger: Goldie and Benny is this trope, though the latter is a male example. When Benny discovered that Goldie was this rather than a wealthy person, he raped her out of frustration.
  • Jerkass: Scugg from The Super, both antisemitic and uncaring towards the tenements of Dropsie Avenue.
  • Karma Houdini: Rosie. Our last glimpse of her shows her calmly counting out money after manipulating and arranging the death of Scugg.
    • Benny, who only gets a bit of a tongue-lashing for raping Goldie, though the content of that tongue-lashing suggests that he may have a Karma Houdini Warranty that may expire someday.
  • Kick the Dog: Frimme Hersh seems to go out of his way to be the worst landlord he can be, but particularly egregious is when he callously says "No exceptions!" after being reminded that "Missis Kelly", who was kind to him earlier in the story, won't be able to pay the newly-increased rent since she's on a widow's pension from Ireland.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Played brilliantly in the titular story. On the surface, it may seem a religious cautionary tale about the foolishness of trying to force God's hand, complete of the protagonist being struck dead after having tempted God a final time and of a rain of fire falling on a guilty community. However, God is never seen nor heard and the entire story may just be the delusion of a man devastated by grief and obsessed with religion.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Rosie's plan is cruel, but it would have come to nothing if Scuggs hadn't been perving on a ten-year-old.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Frimme Hersh never seems to realize that pretending to bind God's will on equal terms with a human being is blasphemy according to his own religion.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Each of the four stories could count as this to some extent (as Denny O'Neil notes in his introduction in the DC Comics edition, the book doesn't really have "good" or "bad" guys), but The Street Singer probably takes the cake, as it's the shortest and has the least room to sketch out any kind of arc or resolution. Long story short: the titular street-singer, for all his alcoholic wife-beating tendencies, does genuinely want to improve his family's lot and takes the diva's offer to mentor him into stardom seriously. Unfortunately, he forgot to write her address down, and in a neighborhood like the Bronx every alley looks the same...
  • Shiksa Goddess: Frimme Hersh, though a subversion since he abandoned his religion, took a gentile mistress. Willie's father has an adulterous relationship with one too.
  • Sour Prudes: When Sam tries to talk to Fannie about their marital issues in the privacy of their bedroom in Cookalein, she scolds him for using "dirty words" when he says the word "sex".
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Sam in Cookalein. His wife is verbally abusive and they have a Sexless Marriage. When she finds out he's having an affair, she's not surprised and believes it's because she's become physically unattractive after a life of poverty and hard work, but a) Sam wants to have more sex with her, but she's a Sour Prude who refuses to discuss it; and b) the woman he's cheating on her with is in fact prettier than she is, but is middle-aged and working poor just like they are. In the end, it's clear that Sam is cheating with this other woman simply because she actually likes him.
  • Took A Level In Jerk Ass: Frimme Hersh abandoned his faith and became a real estate tycoon after losing his adopted daughter.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Despite being 10 years old, Rosie knew about Scugg's sexual interest and even seduced him for money. Also, she murdered his dog with poison.
  • Younger Than He Looks: Willie is fifteen years old but his older appearance caused him to be seduced by a woman who is the wife of Irving Minks, the boss of his father Sam.