Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Eisner on Racism and History

Reading Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew is a bit like reading three separate stories that are related via one character. If you are thinking of writing comics and have tried to read as many writing resources as you can before putting pen to paper you will have come across the three act structure more than once I can assure you. And this story is no different, however each act feels almost detached from the previous one. Of all the Eisner stuff I have read this work feels the least structured.

The majority of what I’ve read by Eisner, outside his work on The Spirit, tends to be thematically linked works that don’t necessarily equate three acts of one story. Work like The Contract with God trilogy or New York Stories tend to share a setting or some characters to achieve their ends so their multiple arcs under one banner work in their own separate ways. In Fagin the Jew, the connection between the three arcs is one character so the difference in narrative is more pronounced.

Fagin’s early life is pure Eisner comics with a run down kid living as a refugee Jew in the unforgiving streets of London. Here he quickly learns how being streetwise is what will let him survive in a city that has nothing but contempt for him. From his father’s lessons and short life, to his apprenticeship with the accepted Jews who try to lift up their brethren by collective charity or simply by deciding to be culturally Jewish but religiously Church of England. It is a fascinating exploration of an immigrant culture at a specific time that feels timeless in many respects because of the shared history of the Diaspora.

When the story moves into the plot of Dickens’ Oliver Twist it feels like a different actor has been introduced to play Fagin. Suddenly this rather sympathetic character is forced to fit into the mold cast by Dickens and I’m not sure it is completely successful as Fagin becomes a harder personality with a few moments of warmth. It feels like he is suddenly removing himself from culpability and being entirely too selfish all of a sudden in order to fit the Dickens role, when he was entirely more accessible and slightly more gullible leading up to this point. In many ways that warmness is repressed as a reaction to his previous treatment and while understandable on an intellectual level, and upon recollection, it still feels like Eisner is trying to balance his message with the plot of Oliver Twist.

And in the final arc the message comes full circle in Oliver’s treatment of Fagin. How this man we’ve come to know and understand is so easily cast aside. His life only becomes important upon recollection and as the future generations take a more generous and accepting attitude towards one another does he become a more powerful and important figure worth remembering. And in that, I think the book is success in delivering its message even when it struggles to balance the two narratives.

Eisner’s run down artwork is the perfect presentation for this story. From the sepia tones to the fuddled lines of the characters clothes it is the perfect presentation for something meant to feel historic. And what it does is make the work feel timeless. It is next to impossible to remove Eisner’s non-Spirit work from a certain period in New York and even this story looks and feels as if it could easily be displaced there rather than Victorian England.

I’m a huge fan of Eisner’s ability to give his art emotion. From the embarrassment at their position in life to their pride and joy at other moments, every emotion looks genuine. And they look genuine even through their shabby dress because the structure of each character and panel is simply masterful, that no matter how many layers of rags are heaped upon it the natural understanding of comic book art always shines through.

This is a book worth your time both as entertainment and as something of a historical document. Just reading Eisner’s own introduction makes it something worthwhile to any student of Eisner’s and the comic book medium where Eisner confronts his own creations. He speaks of creating Ebony and how looking back at it, it is obviously racist even with all the qualities the young character portrayed and Eisner explores his relationship with the character and his later attempts to fix those errors. I have to say that I think the approach that The Spirit Archives is taking is the one Eisner would have approved of, in that these stories deserve to be read, warts and all, because they are important for their content as much as for how they recorded attitudes in a specific time and place which is lost for various reasons in the Tintin removals. Eisner is aware of what he did and he realized that apologizing wouldn't simply make it go away, so in many ways this work here is both an exploration into how his own racist portray came to be as much as it is an atonement for it.

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