While reading Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, I was immediately struck by the similarities I was able to draw from it to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, almost in a Lincoln/Kennedy kind of way. I’ve come up with a small list of these similarities which I’ll try to elaborate on without giving too much away about Maus, which I highly recommend reading.
- Black and white: The first and probably most obvious connection between the two works is that they’re both drawn void of color. Although the art styles are completely different, there is something to be said about being able to show expression and detail well with only two color choices.
(Auto)biographical: Another similarity before even getting into the texts is the biographical and autobiographical nature of the stories. As noted in the preface of A Contract With God, “The creation of this story was an exercise in personal agony. … I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an ‘adopted child.’ But his anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine.” (pg. xii) This story isn’t strictly about Eisner’s life, but it does have plenty of parallels: living in tenements, being Jewish, and being angry over his daughter’s death. Maus is much more autobiographical. It switches back and forth between the present tense of Spiegelman talking to his father, and the past tense where he’s telling his father’s story. In the present tense, the story is told by Spiegelman himself, discussing his father’s past as well as his struggles with the interviewing process.
Time period: Both texts were written/started near the same time. A Contract With God was first published in 1978, while Maus was originally published one chapter at a time in a magazine, starting in 1980. (In 1991 the first 6 chapters were published together as the first book of Maus, titled My Father Bleeds History.) But equally as important, the timelines of the stories overlap. Although they are set in different countries, they both take place in the 30’s – 40’s. We see in the opening pages of A Contract With God that it is set in “the dirty thirties”, while the main story of Maus (dealing with Spiegelman’s father) is set during the Holocaust, so that both stories deal with the after-effects of WWI.
Poverty: This, to me, is a major theme, and both works deal with main characters living in less than ideal situations. In A Contract With God, the focus is clearly on the people living in the tenements. Most have very little money, and scrape together what they have just to get by. Even though Frimme escapes this poverty and buys the tenement on Dropsie Avenue, he is still always surrounded by others who are poor. In Maus, poverty is everywhere. Although Spiegelman’s father is wealthy enough now, he still lives like he’s going through the depression because of how he was raised. And, of course, we especially see poverty when his father talks about the Holocaust, where the Nazis took literally everything from him, including his wife.
Spoiler Alert Death: Both stories end with the death of the main character. In A Contract With God, we see Frimme appear to be smote down by God, directly after finishing his second contract with God. In a happy mindset, ready to go out and live his life anew, he dies. Similarly, in Maus, after finishing his story telling with his son, Spiegelman’s father dies, seemingly finally at peace with his son.
So, what does this all mean? Sure, the works have similar ties, but what does that imply? Did Art Spiegelman build off of Eisner’s work, or it just interesting trivia that so many things happen to coincide. Maybe the truth really is stranger than fiction.