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Random readings in Will Eisner [Feb. 20th, 2018|10:06 pm]
At the Graphic Novels Reading Group, we are looking at the work of Will Eisner. I'm not a huge Eisner fan: which is to say that I've never particularly enjoyed his work, but I recognise that he is a significant and influential figure, so it's good to revisit that from time to time. Besides, there are several of his books in the library catalogue, which ought to allow us to share them round and discuss them (it's getting harder to choose topics where this applies). When it came to raiding the shelves, not so much (we are hoping that the library will find more scattered around the branches), and someone else was faster off the mark in grabbing The Spirit, which is why I have been reading The Plot: the Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This comes late in Eisner's career; the publication date is 2005, which is the year he died; it came out shortly after his death. But he had apparently been working on it for 20 years, on and off. I picture him pushing it aside with an oh, this isn't working... and then stumbling across the Protocols again, being quoted in evidence or reissued, and thinking ...but I really do need to do it!

Why is this a book that Eisner felt the need to complete? Because, as he says in The Plot itself, every time he thinks the Protocols have been killed off, so comprehensively discredited that they will fade back into history, they reappear, produced once again with a triumphant flourish as proof positive of a Jewish plot to gain world domination. Before social media, even before the internet, the Protocols were pamphlet-enabled fake news.

So Eisner sets out to counter their reach, using the skills he perfected drawing educational strips for the army. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purport to be the guidance formulated by a meeting of Jewish sages, using devious means to gain control of the world. Eisner isn't content to point out that this is ludicrous, impossible to take seriously, patently not happening; instead he attacks the document itself. It isn't even an original forgery: instead it draws heavily on a nineteenth century French satirical dialogue taking place (in Hell) between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Machiavelli, obviously, though I wonder what Montesquieu had done to deserve this treatment). For page upon page upon page, Eisner juxtaposes passages from the two texts, while a couple of talking heads discuss what we are reading and draw conclusions.

This seems to me to be the big problem with The Plot: it relies very heavily on talking heads, not because Eisner has made bad choices about how to tell his story, but because men talking to each other is the story. From the factions competing to influence the Tsar to Eisner himself visiting the archives, the pages are full of lively, individual figures, talking, talking, talking. They could be portraits. Setting aside the self-portrait, it seems unlikely that they are actual likenesses (and Philip Graves, the Times correspondent in Constantinople, disconcerted me by his resemblance to John Cleese). I don't share the unease of a fellow member of the reading group, who felt that false likenesses constituted a flaw in an essentially true story (though like him I was unhappy with a picture of the Times report that the Protocols are a forgery: news on the front page of the Times? In 1921? Surely not!).

tl:dr version: If you were looking for a handy reference work with which to debunk Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this is it. If you wanted a narrative of general interest, then for all its visual charm, it isn't.

Scrutiny of the shelves at Durham Library turned up a single volume of Eisner, a piece of Dickens fanfic called Fagin the Jew. That's fanfic in the sense of so identifying with the character that you don't feel the author has done them justice. Eisner's introduction to the first edition places this in the curious context of wanting to atone for the racial stereotypes he employed, not maliciously but thoughtlessly, in his own early work (he gives the example of the Spirit's comedy sidekick, Ebony White).

Fagin the Jew is another late work, published in 2003, and Eisner uses the same style in both, softening the image with a wash of grey or sepia ink. The sample images of Ebony White included on the introduction made me wish for the clear black and white, the definite line of The Spirit.

Morally, too, the best Eisner can do for Fagin is a sort of grey wash. The framework of Oliver Twist is never challenged: Fagin is a kindly old man who is genuinely fond of the poor boys he feeds and shelters (and sends out to commit crimes for which they, not he, will be punished if caught). He has his own story (which includes bad luck as well as bad judgement, and a period of transportation to the American colonies), but his involvement in the story of Oliver Twist is the high point of that story, and Fagin goes to the trouble of narrating substantial parts of Oliver's story which he has not observed at first hand.

Something I didn't know - and wouldn't have picked up on if Jeet Heer's Afterword hadn't pointed it out - is that Eisner has deliberately reacted against the usual depiction of Fagin. Cruikshank's original illustrations made him the stereotypical Sephardi Jew, presumably because this was the familiar, longer established community in Victorian London. But precisely for this reason, the Sephardi were more affluent, more assimilated (this is all generalisation of course, but think of Disraeli) than the more recently arrived Ashkenazi. Eisner's Fagin is Ashkenazic, almost Germanic in appearance.

tl:dr version: So that was interesting, but I don't really think it comes off.

Increasingly, I suspect that for all Eisner thought seriously about comics graphic novels / sequential art, his own work appeals more to people for whom the visual side comes first. Certainly when I think of The Spirit, I think of the ingenious ways Eisner works the title into the opening panel, hiding the letters in the shapes of buildings or the arrangements of windows. Of the stories themselves I have only the haziest memory.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.