Will 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?
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.
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.