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.
I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011. RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone. Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir. RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past. His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm. There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines. Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.
The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself. There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme. There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples. It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark fun all around.
The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers. I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series. Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013. Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes. You can check out the hardcover volume here.
What Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.
Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human.” That sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:
In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.
Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the Golden Age of comics. He discusses the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:
Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.
As the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics. He looks at them in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life, his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. At that point Morrison begins to interrupt the analysis of superhero comics with his own memoir. Morrison had many identity crises. He performed drug inspired occult experiments, and dove into new age philosophy.
Morrison’s career takes off in the Dark Age and Renaissance. His memoir takes over, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:
If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.
Morrison says that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments. That seems completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age. He also completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.
Alan moore and frank miller
Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. Morrison explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” The last section of the book discusses his “experiments” and explains his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence. A whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.
The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. Check it out here.