Fagin The Jew by Will Eisner

Wilsonknut.com Fagin the JewWill Eisner is obviously the genius and father behind the birth of graphic novels. As Alan Moore says, “Eisner is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains.” He has captured the existential joy, striving, desire, and despair of everyday life in his comics from the beginning. In many works, Eisner focuses on the lives of working-class Jews. In Fagin The Jew, Eisner does the same, but different. Oh, the paradox! Right?

Counter-Narrative

Eisner presents a counter-narrative to Charles Dickens’ caricature of Fagin, the trainer of a gang of young thieves in Oliver Twist. Dickens portrays Fagin in the racial stereotypes of his time. This is an interesting graphic novel to study, especially with the racial tension and examinations we see in today’s culture.

In the foreword, Brian Michael Bendis explains the impetus of this graphic novel. Eisner wrote a comic called The Spirit in the 1940s, which included a character named Ebony. Ebony was a racist caricature, plain and simple. As time went on and Eisner experienced more of life, he felt guilty about it. Bendis says he thinks he was even haunted by it.

Bendis writes:

Will took his complicated feelings about race and caricature and applied them directly to his feelings about Judaism and how Jews have been reflected in the media for hundreds of years, by sinking his teeth directly into the classic Oliver Twist and one of the most famous Jewish stereotype characters in all of fiction… Fagin.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Eisner has Fagin present his counter-narrative directly to Dickens as he waits for the hangman. Fagin tells of how he grew up in London’s Ashkenazi community. A combination of systemic anti-semitism, cruel fate, and poor decisions force Fagin into crime in order to survive. Unfortunate circumstances follow Fagin throughout his life. Although he wants to do good, fate places stumbling block after stumbling block in his way.

Eisner’s sepia artwork gives Fagin the Jew the visceral grime and glory of 19th century England. Eisner captures expressions and gives life to characters like no other. Unfortunately, the narrative device tends to drag and over-simplify in order to work in the events of Oliver Twist, plus Fagin’s own story. In terms of narrative, Eisner seems to have tried to cram too much into a short format and does more telling than showing. Regardless, Fagin the Jew is worth the read. You can pick up a copy here.

Moby Dick – Chaboute

Chabouté Moby Dick coverHerman Melville’s Moby Dick has been adapted and reinterpreted many times for good reason. It is the great American archetype of mad obsession and the struggle distinguishing between good and evil. It captures something deep about the human condition. If you’ve ever struggled reading the original, it’s understandable. The narrative is full of interruptions with scientific jargon about whales and detailed whaling processes. However, the underlying story is something everyone should read. So, if you struggle with the classic, you should check out Chabouté’s graphic novel version.

Shrunken Heads

Chabouté’s version of Moby Dick closely follows Melville’s narrative. You would think that would be easy; however, Chabouté uses very little narrative, unlike the original. He let’s dialogue and textless panels do the storytelling. He does more with less, proving that a picture can be worth a thousand words.

That is where I think this version of Moby Dick shines. You hear the sound of Ahab’s wooden leg on the deck overhead and the creaking of the ship and the sounds of the dock in the fog. You feel the visceral dread of the sailors—all without reading a single word. That’s the magic of comics.

Black and White

Chabouté draws the book in a stark pen and ink. The style gives the book an ancient, seafaring feel. On one hand, it works really well with the overall tone of the book. It’s edgy, tense, and bleak. The sharp black and white captures Ahab’s madness and the crew’s apprehension. There is no reasoning with Ahab. It is a black and white matter.

On the other hand, Moby Dick as a novel is rich with meaning. The driving theme of Moby Dick questions where exactly the dividing line is between good and evil. Aren’t there shades of grey? Why is Moby Dick white, and yet called evil, when Ahab is clearly insane and leading the men to their deaths? The minimalistic pen and ink struggles to capture that richness. I would have liked to have seen Chabouté work the themes into the artwork.

Several defining moments in the original story cry out for color. For example, the firing of the Try-Works is when they burn parts of the whale’s body in three ovens on the deck. The ship looks like a floating funeral pyre. Melville describes the process as smelling and looking like “the left wing of the day of judgement; it is an argument for the pit.” Pen and ink just doesn’t do this scene justice.

Pequod

Despite the lack of color or shading, Chabouté captures the essence of the characters, ship, and sea. Ahab’s face leaves no doubt to his single-minded purpose and madness. The sailors grow increasingly worried and anxious without saying a word. The whaling scenes give you a sense of salty chaos and crashing waves. The story moves at an excellent pace.

Chabouté’s adaptation is well worth your time. Overall, he captures the spirit of the book and transports the reader to the Pequod’s deck on this dangerous journey. If you’re interested in Moby Dick, you should also check out Classics Illustrated Moby Dick drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. You can find a copy of Chabouté’s Moby Dick here.

The Unwritten

wilsoknut.comIt’s been a while since I’ve written, but I have extra time on my hands with the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and what not. If you have extra time on your hands and you want to get lost in a story, you can’t go wrong with The Unwritten. There are 11 volumes of this epic, and it will pull you in and transport you to oh so many places. The Unwritten has everything you can think of—adventure, fantasy, post-modern social commentary, metafiction, comedy, on and on.

Tommy Taylor & the Bogus Identity

This is the story of Tommy Taylor. His father is perhaps the most successful author on the planet. His father’s books, however, are about a boy wizard named after and based on his son, Tommy. We recognize the boy wizard troupe as a nod to Harry Potter. So, Tommy Taylor is world famous, but only as a character in his father’s books. The real Tommy Taylor would like a life and identity of his own.

The story kicks off with this identity crisis, and jumps back and forth between the real Tommy Taylor and the Tommy Taylor of his father’s books. His father’s fans are rabid about a long awaited final book. Tommy resents the books and his father. It doesn’t take long for reality and story to start intertwining, which isn’t that original of a concept, but that’s not all there is to it. It’s much deeper than that.

And The Twists Keep On Coming

A sketchy cultish cabal shows up, and Tommy goes on the run trying to figure out why they’re after him. A girl who is eerily similar to his fictional counterpart’s friend befriends Tommy himself and gives him advice, and the conspiracy continues to grow. What exactly did his father do? What was he up to? Speaking of his father, where is he?

Every volume of The Unwritten will keep you on your toes. The plot never gets predictable, partly because this isn’t just a story. It’s a meditation on the power of stories in our lives. The meta, postmodern beauty of it all will have you thinking and rethinking what it all means. It’s a smart, mysterious book.

On top of that, you have characters and subplots twisting and turning. The book pulls in classic stories and fables going back through all of literature—Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Everything is given a twist. Where do all these stories come from? How do they exist in our collective psyche, and what does it have to do with Tommy Taylor?

Tommy Taylor and the War of Words

The Unwritten is not just all words. The art is beautiful and compelling, and gives us different looks for different narrative elements. There’s written book pages, dialogues, TV broadcasts, and websites. There’s fairy tales and super heroes. It will immerse you in the story and many worlds of the stories.

Once I started The Unwritten, I didn’t want to put it down. It really captures the magic of stories. Each volume adds to the mystery, and you’re never sure where it will go. I read it over a year ago, and the journey is still fresh in mind. Get lost in the story while you’re riding out this quarantine thing. You can start here.

Swamp Thing, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

wilsonknut.comI know I did this bass ackwards by reading Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan before reading the classic Alan Moore Saga. It just happened that way. Nothing I can do about it now, but find a copy of Moore’s take and read it. And that will happen, for sure.

I remember seeing the Swamp Thing movie as a kid. I literally don’t remember any details other than thinking it was weird, but I know my cousins and I watched it repeatedly on VHS. The fact that I can’t remember anything probably speaks to how good a movie it was. There was tough competition—E.T., Blade Runner, etc. Thankfully, Brian K. Vaughan’s Swamp Thing is better than the movie version.

Children of the Thing

Volume one focuses on Tefe (there’s an accent on the last ‘e’, but I’m struggling to make it work, so I’m leaving it off) the child of Swamp Thing and Abby Holland. The first chapter suckered me in. It’s dark and strange, and leaves you wanting more. The second chapter, which is really the backbone to the story arc , didn’t have the same effect. It took me a while to really understand where the story was headed. The third chapter delves into The Green, which is an environmentalist’s wet dream. It seems a little silly and Wizard of Oz-ish. Honestly, it was difficult to muddle through, but once the backstory is complete the volume takes off.

Other Points of View

Vaughan does something interesting in the fourth chapter, which really kicks off Tefe’s journey. It’s told from the point of view of another character—one who happens to be unreliable. The plot twists here drew me back into the book.

From this point on, Tefe’s journey is driving the story. It’s a story of self-discovery, which often make the best stories. Vaughan continues to use shifting points of view to great effect, giving insight into new characters who join Tefe. All the seeds he plants along the way bear fruit later in the volume (see what I did there?) I definitely wanted to continue to volume two to see where this trip is going.

Swamp Thing

There are a lot of artists listed in this volume. The artwork was okay. It wasn’t earth shaking, but it sufficed. My only gripe is with the depiction of the creatures in The Green. I just felt they were more childish than they should have been given the gravity of the rest of the volume. The real treasure artistically is Phil Hale’s collection cover artwork. It’s stunning.

I would say Swamp Thing, volume one by Brian K. Vaughan takes a few chapters to get going, but after the third chapter it really begins to take root and grow into something worth reading. See there. I did it again. If you’re a fan of Vaughan or Swamp Thing, you should check it out. You can get a copy of the book here.

On the Graphic Novel by Santiago Garcia

wilsonknut.com on the graphic novelOn the Graphic Novel by Santiago Garcia  is a scholarly, in-depth look at the history of graphic novels.  It’s a hefty book, coming in at over 300 pages, but it’s so worth it. Garcia not only covers the history of sequential art, but the evolution of the form.  If you have more than a passing interest in comics, this is a great education.

There are a lot of great quotes from writers and artist in On the Graphic Novel. Perhaps the best place to start is with Garcia explaining what he intended with this book:
And this is the question that this book answers: not what comics are, not what the graphic novel is, but rather what the meaning of comics for us was, what it is now, what different functions comics have performed in our society and culture, and how the idea of the graphic novel is related to that.
Garcia starts with a discussion on the definition of graphic novel and comics.  Eddie Campbell says, “It’s undeniable that there is a new concept of what a comic is and what a comic can be and what it can do that has arrived in the past 30 years.”  This discussion takes us into the complex ambiguity of comics, their history, and their weird place in our culture.
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Historically, Garcia begins with illustrations in the 18th and 19th centuries and walks us through to the 2000s.  He covers all the important artists, characters, and evolutions in format and style. On the Graphic Novel discusses the golden age of superhero comics, but more importantly studies the non-superhero comics of the time.  Romance, crime, humor, and horror comics lead the way for the modern graphic novel. All of the great contemporary books are discussed—Maus, Blankets, Black Hole, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, et al.
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Garcia also discusses MAD Magazine, Raw, and Heavy Metal.  Perhaps my favorite section of the book dealt with the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s.  That era has always intrigued me.  On a side note, if you have never seen the documentary Crumb, you need to check it out.
On the Graphic Novel is worth the read for anyone interested in the workings of comics and the modern graphic novel.  It’s a little pricy, but I think the weighty content will give you your money’s worth.

White Collar: A Novel in Linocuts

wilsonknut.comWhite Collar: A Novel in Linocuts by Giacomo Patri is a striking work of art.  This is a great example of an early graphic novel. Patri originally self-published the book in true DIY style in the late 1930s.  The novel depicts the trials of an advertising illustrator and his family in the years following the Great Depression.
The story begins in 1929 when the illustrator is gainfully employed.  He seems to look down on or at least ignore the struggling blue collar workers he passes on his commute.  He is the proverbial company man.  Then the stock market crashes. He loses his job, and we see his family’s journey on the downward spiral. White collar is obviously socialist labor movement propaganda; however, the simple truths it embodies are profound.
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Like a silent movie, the novel has no dialogue or traditional narration panels. Patri sparingly uses words on books, bills, and signs to give clues of the action taking place. He captures a remarkable amount of emotion in the stark black and white of the linocuts. The interactions between the illustrator and his wife are particularly painful.  As a graphic novel, this is a early example of illustration being used to deliver a long-form story with serious content meant for adults.
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The original copies hand made by Patri are difficult to find and very expensive.  Luckily, Dover Graphic Novels has recently published affordable versions in hardcover and paperback. It’s a very nice piece of graphic novel history.

The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan

 

The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vincente is truly prophetic in the same way Brave New World and 1984 are prophetic. It’s a dystopian detective story set in 2076.  The cloud containing everyone’s deepest, darkest online secrets has “burst.”  Everyone’s information has been revealed over a 40 day “flood.”  People’s lives have been ruined. Naturally, society has a knee jerk reaction, as we humans are prone to do.  The internet is banned. Privacy becomes so highly valued that people start wearing masks and costumes in public.  Journalism becomes the “fourth estate,” federally regulated.  Paparazzi, unlicensed and illegal journalist, become something like underground detectives. Enter our hero.

Vibes

P.I., the main character, is a paparazzo who is investigating a woman’s background when he stumbles into a murder mystery and conspiracy.  One people are willing to kill for. The story has a great L.A. noir vibe to it while at the same time being brilliantly futuristic.  The mix of antiquated technology, like pay phones, and new tech that we wished existed, like magnetic cars, somehow creates a highly-believable world.   The Private Eye is a digital comic, and Martin and Vincente do a beautiful job with panel arrangement and coloring.  Others have written about how well they’ve done this, and what the digital format means to comics in general.  So, I will just point you to one of their articles here.  It’s good stuff.

Prophecy

I said at the beginning that this book is prophetic. How?  We now live in a world where Facebook depresses people, because their real lives don’t look nearly as good as their friends’ online identities. It seems like every week the news runs a story of hackers stealing more account information from online services.  Throughout the 2016 election cycle we’ve heard about email hacks, private servers, Bleachbit, and Ken Bone’s comments on Reddit porn.  Have you listened to the Radiolab episode about Dark0de? Listen to it. The Private Eye doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The Private Eye

Seriously, if you haven’t read The Private Eye you need to quit what you’re doing and immediately go to Panel Syndicate and buy it. It’s name-your-price, DRM-free. You can also get a hard copy here.

Elektra: Root of Evil by Chichester and McDaniel

I have literally had Elektra: Root of Evil for years. I just never read it, mainly because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to Elektra: Assassin.  How could it?  Bill Sienkiewicz didn’t draw it and Frank Miller didn’t write it.  So, it has sat bagged and boarded until this week. Netflix’s Luke Cage inspired me to dig around in the old boxes, and here we are.  Elektra: Root of Evil is a four-issue limited series from the same team that wrote the Daredevil Fall from Grace storyline.
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I have to say my fear of disappointment was warranted.  Root of Evil is not terrible, but it’s not great.  Meh.  I’m not a fan of the artwork by McDaniel.  Although, there are some interesting panels, all of them during flashbacks.  McDaniel conjures some images from Elektra: Assassin during her memories of training with Stick and the Chaste in the snow.  There’s also a strange, but interesting shift when she remembers Tekagi creeping on her in the lake. This turns into a weird love affair, which leads me to the storyline.
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The storyline in Root of Evil felt very plain to me.  Again, meh. Elektra assembles a team to take on the dark Snakeroot clan.  Snakeroot is attempting to restore power to the sword Sakki by taking three specific innocent lives. I never think of Elektra as being someone who would put together a “team,” so that seemed strange. Elektra bounces from insecure to cocky throughout. There are a few surprises and clues to her past, which were the highlights of the story.  Overall, I just wasn’t impressed. I realize none of this is fair, since I can’t help but compare it to the Miller story. Take that for what it’s worth.  I look forward to seeing what they do with her character in the Netflix series.

The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy

I’m just going to get it out of the way up front.  I’m not a big fan of The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy.  It’s not terrible by any means, but I just struggled with the storyline and the art didn’t excite me that much. I’m sure it’s just a failing on my part as a reader, and you should check it out for yourself.

Cli-Fi

The Wake fits neatly into the cli-fi category (climate fiction). A shady government character brings together a team consisting of an expert on whale songs, an expert in mythology and folklore, and an expert hunter of all things of the ocean, whether legal or illegal, to investigate something that has been making mysterious noises in the ocean and has peaked the attention of U.S. Homeland Security.  I don’t want to give away spoilers, but the plot moves quickly.  

The team ends up trapped in a deep-sea base trying to escape the thing.  Growing up with Alien and other movies where the protagonist is running from a monster in some weird industrial setting just made this section of the series seem stale to me.  The good news is the second part of the series is better, in my opinion.

The Wake

Fast forward to after the apocalyptic climate event. We have a new protagonist, a descendant of the expert on whale songs.  She’s investigating mysterious messages being broadcast from somewhere far away.  She’s convinced they hold the key to saving the world, but the government in the new waterland-ish world doesn’t necessarily want anyone to figure it out. This part of the series seemed fresher to me; however, there’s a lot fanciful semi-evolutionary, semi-spiritual hypothesizing about human origins and why events have happened.  Some of it just seemed half-baked to me. Several times I wasn’t quite sure what was going on or what it meant to the story as a whole. I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book, but as a whole I was disappointed. Check it out and see what you think.

Saga, Volume 4

wilsonknut.comI haven’t written about Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples to this point, because I figured there were enough people singing its praises (and rightfully so).  Also, I’m just always late to the party. It is a phenomenal series—original and beautiful. If by chance you haven’t seen it or heard about it, you should definitely check it out. Be warned. It’s not for the squeamish and earns its mature rating, but once you start reading it you’ll likely not want to put it down.

wilsonknut.comwilsonknut.comI like to read in a longer format, so I typically wait for the collected volumes. Volume 4 prompted me to write, because it seems to be a big departure in terms of storyline and tone. Up to this point, Alana and Marko, star-crossed lovers in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, are on the run from the authorities, assassins, and tabloid journalists.  They are from separate warring planets, and knowledge of their relationship and love child would harm the war machine (or what we call the industrial military complex).  They are determined to keep their baby, Hazel, safe. This drives the story and adventure.

In volume 4, Hazel is now a toddler and speaking, but more importantly Alana and Marko have settled into family life.  There’s no fairy-tale married life in this fairy tale. Alana is working to put food on the table, but her job doesn’t give her any true satisfaction or meaning in life. In fact, it is soul sucking.  So, she starts looking for something to fill the emptiness and keep her going. Marko is a stay-at-home dad, which you don’t see often in comic land. This doesn’t give him true satisfaction, and with Alana working all the time, he starts to feel like he needs something more. Vaughan captures this shift so perfectly.

This mix of character reality with the fantasy world is what makes Vaughan’s stories so compelling. The characters and worlds are so original I can’t fathom how he comes up with the stuff, but then there’s the “here’s what really happens in relationships after the honeymoon.” It’s some of the best writing out there.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty of action and adventure in the volume.  A janitor goes off the deep end and kidnaps the newly born robo-prince. As fate would have it, his path crosses with Marko, Alana, and Prince Robot IV in what looks like it will be a wild ride in volume 5.  Don’t forget. There are assassins out there and other craziness. Keep reading.

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