If you’re a reader of graphic novels you’ve probably heard of a guy named Will Eisner–you know, the guy they call the godfather of the genre. You might have heard of his groundbreaking comic strip The Spirit. If you haven’t I recommend you get a hold of a copy of A Contract with God. You won’t be sorry.
The greatest pleasure with sitting down and getting comfortable with Eisner’s work is that you’re actually reading a rich and complex piece of literature, a rarity in the young genre that is comics. Eisner’s characters feel real. This is evidenced by his visual style, that feels less comicky and more akin to realism. Like the greatest comics artists, such as Jack Kirby and Frank Miller, you can immediately recognize his craftsmanship.
Fagin the Jew was one of the last graphic novels from the legend (the fact that he was still publishing up until his death an impressive feat in its own) and concerns the famous character from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. You will recall that Dickens’s version of the character was portrayed as a villain and always referred to as “the Jew”. Dickens played up the nasty stereotype, characterizing Fagin as a thief and swindler. While it’s easy to signal out Dickens, it must be noted that this racial discrimination was common during the time of the celebrated author’s England. Unfortunately, the use of the term “Jew” as pejorative can still be heard today, among other racial slurs.
Will Eisner was no stranger to racial discrimination. Early on in his career he created a character named Ebony White, who was a sidekick for The Spirit.
Yeah, as if the name wasn’t bad enough. The character has long since been cited as an example of the darky racial stereotype. In his introduction to Fagin Eisner discusses this troublesome issue. He admits he used a stereotype for the character but defends his use because he made an attempt to portray the character in a more realistic manner. It’s hard not to call Eisner a hypocrite. In any case, Fagin seems to be an attempt at atonement. It can also be viewed was an indictment against Dickens. Only Eisner could have the clout to take on a giant.
The comic is a telling of Fagin’s life. It opens with Fagin in jail, recounting his journey to Charles Dickens, who has just wrote Oliver Twist. Fagin’s tale is one of woe. He’s a child of the streets, treated with scorn for his race, and ultimately kicked out of England for a crime he didn’t commit. He finds more torment in the colonies, where he runs into more more misfortune before returning back to the motherland. From there he becomes a swindler, running a crime organization of children who steal pocket watches from strangers. He goes on to tell about how he met a young boy named Oliver, and how he met his fate.
Narratively, the tale is apologetic in how it casts Fagin as not a criminal but rather a player in the system, one who was destined to always be treated as an outcast. It’s a relevant narrative today, especially in America, where a child of poverty is often destined to be a criminal. Some lessons are never learned.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite engaged with the narrative. Part of the problem for me was that I couldn’t take Fagin’s tale seriously, because ultimately, it’s a work of fiction, just as was Dicken’s tale. While Eisner may attempt to correct the wrong that Dickens committed, his point would have been more powerful if it was an actual true story. Alas, there was no real Fagin.
With that said, Eisner made great pains to make Fagin as historically true as he could. In an appendix he wrote for the comic, he goes into length about the way Dickens’s illustrators exaggerated the facial features of Jews, Fagin included. Eisner’s depiction is more humane and warm, and reflects more of a real person. It’s here where his strengths lie.
Eisner’s illustrations always stand among his peers. They have a timeless quality, and are homespun, like a Rockwell painting.
His characters feel welcoming and humane, as if you could be them. Eisner’s style isn’t flashy, doesn’t involve crazy angles or panel arrangements. Rather his style feels likes a an classic Hollywood film, where continuity trumped all artistic devices. The goal was to present the story clear and unobtrusively. Eisner’s comics aim for the same goal. His work feels natural and crystal clear. We always know where the characters are going and where there motivation is. It’s his art art that above all else imbues his characters with humanity. That he can write too is an added bonus.
As it stands, Fagin the Jew achieves its goal of making us empathize with Fagin’s plight. Eisner never lets the character off the hook, instead going to great lengths to show how his character took the path that was before him. It makes for a great progressive read and social commentary, and I don’t think it’s grandiose to say all of humanity could benefit from reading it. And while you’re at it, revisit the classic that is Oliver Twist.