Will Eisner’s “Cookalein” demonstrates the graphic novel’s ability to discuss controversial adult topics. Eisner creates a graphic narrative which shares little in common with contemporary comics by presenting fundamentally flawed and therefore realistic characters. Let’s focus on Willie, 15, the oldest son of a lower class family spending the summer at a mountain house. He and his family spend an evening in the casino (read: dance hall), where Willie meets Maralyn Minks, who is on vacation without her husband.
Willie’s father sees him dancing with the married woman and exclaims, “Hoo, hoo look it our Willie dancing with Missis Minks…a Man already!”
While Willie’s mother worries, “Hff…She should keep her hands off him…He’s only 15!”
But Willie is enjoying the attention, and when Maralyn compliments his dancing and asks his age, he answers that he is nineteen. When Willie is ready for bed, he climbs into the hay loft of the barn, since his mother and father claimed the bedroom for the night. Maralyn, retires to a bedroom sharing a wall with Willie’s parents. She tires of their arguing, and decides to pursue Willie in the hay loft. She undresses and seduces him. After Willie “becomes a man” and loses his virginity, the duo is interrupted by a furious Irving Minks, Maralyn’s husband.
Irving strikes Maralyn multiple times, then forces her to have sex with him right in front of Willie in the hay loft. Irving then carries Maralyn back down the ladder and up to their bedroom in the house, leaving Willie alone and confused in the loft.
After a separate subplot involving rape between two adults, the story concludes with Willie standing on the fire escape outside of his family’s apartment at the end of the summer, with his mother telling him how he will be “the man of the house” soon, since his father will be working more.
I thought “Cookalein” was the most complex of Eisner’s stories in A Contract with God because of ambiguous ending. With other subplots involving rape, the coming of age subplot could be overlooked easily. But focusing on Willie’s experience, it’s easy to understand how he could very well be confused as to what “manhood” actually is. Simply put, he goes on summer vacation, attracts an older woman, loses his virginity to her, and immediately witnesses a “man”, her husband, beat his this woman and force her to have sex with him. How would you react in that situation? Wouldn’t you be confused? Would he become a “man” like Irving? Or an absent working father like his own? The story’s final two panels, his contemplative expression while apparently gazing at the moon suggest his confusion. Eisner’s work urges the audience to engage with more psychological and emotional issues than similar artists of the time. With A Contract with God, Eisner created a genre, the graphic novel, which spurred future artists and writers to experiment with the medium and separate the genre from the kiddish notion of Sunday morning cartoon strips.