By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 08/18/2013 10:00 am EST
Long before Jane Austen prejudged zombies and our beloved 16th president began moonlighting as a vampire hunter, one of the most reliable conceits in fiction was retelling a famous story from another character’s point of view. I could go all former English major-y on you and point to the novels of Joyce Cary or the monologues of Samuel Beckett or even the Glass family stories of J.D. Salinger, but I’ll stick with the two obvious, but ideal, choices.
In 1968, the musical team of Webber and Rice created the Rock Opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which depicted the Passion Week through the eyes of the All-Christian Team scapegoat Judas Iscariot. Two decades later, Marion Zimmer Bradley unleashed Mists of Avalon upon a mostly-male epic fantasy fan base. The novel re-imagined the Arthur legend through the eyes of Morgan le Fey. In these two revisionist takes, we are offered a sympathetic retelling of an epic story through the eyes of the villains. Before I read Mists of Avalon, I had failed to notice that virtually all the women in the Arthurian legends were extremely flawed and sometimes downright evil. Being raised Christian, I pointed my finger of grievous matter and sufficient reflection at Eve Eden—the grandmother of all femme fatales. As Richard Pryor summed up after a costly divorce, “Chicks will f*** you up!” And Judas, although not female, was even worse—he was a Jew!!! Never mind that Jesus was also Jewish…
Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head in classic literature throughout history, most notably in Shakespeare’s Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and Fagin the Jew from Charles Dickens’ early novel Oliver Twist. A lot of the anti-Semitism, (as well as misogynistic slants) makes some “classic” works of the past rather difficult to read with modern eyes. The same has to be said for the way Negroes were portrayed in many comics from the Golden Age. Even comic legends like Milton Caniff and Will Eisner were guilty of using offensive racial stereotypes.
Will Eisner wanted to make amends for his stereotypical step & fetchit portrayal of Ebony, the Spirit’s African American assistant. In his penultimate graphic novel, Eisner decided retell Oliver Twist and provide Fagin the Jew (as Dickens repeatedly referred to him) with a backstory.
Now before we go any further, I need to point out two things:
1) If I were given the choice between Eisner’s late graphic novel output (from Contract with God to The Plot) and The Spirit Sunday sections from 1940-1952 (with time off for WWII), I’d choose The Spirit sections hands down. They belong on the highest level of the comic pantheon.
2) I am a middle-class, gentile white guy—I have always been a middle-class, gentile white guy and if the fates and the stock market are aligned, I plan to die a middle-class, gentile white guy. I despise racial inequality and anti-Semitism. My parents sent me from my suburban home to an inner-city high school so I could understand that not everyone had the same breaks I’ve had. Mom and Dad were children of the Depression. I think they did a fair job of raising me. So to be fair, I can only empathize with Blacks or Jews and how they have been treated in real life (and) fiction, but I have never had to experience any of the hatred personally.
The Spirit is the most WASP-y of Eisner’s comic output. But the white bread world was pretty much the standard M.O. for the time. Many of the early comic book architects—both at the drawing board and in the management offices—were Jewish, but their product took place in the gentile world. The first time I noticed a kind of Jewish feel to a comic was Lee and Kirby’s run on The Fantastic Four. For some inexplicable reason, the fictional New York of the Baxter Building reminded me of the Jewish Borscht Belt Gotham of ’60s TV situation comedies—especially The Dick Van Dyke Show. For me, it made NY more exotic and added a home-spun, everyday layer to the cosmic stories.
Jump ahead a decade to the mid-‘70s, and with Eisner’s return to comics, he embraced his Jewish heritage, reflected in many of his post-Contract with God projects. And as his reputation grew and The Spirit continued to appear in reprints, Eisner said he always felt bad about the character of Ebony. So he decided to tackle Oliver Twist to show the world how Fagin ended up the way he did.
This is admirable and challenging, but Fagin the Jew is a rather mediocre adaptation/re-imagining of one of the minor—albeit famous—early novels of Charles Dickens. The GN is beautifully drawn and nicely lettered and told in the same pages filled with unframed panels that became Eisner’s later-period storytelling standard, but what do we gain from Fagin’s background story? It comes back to The Old Testament and the Arthurian Legends. Fagin gets a lot of decent breaks for a Jew living in early 19th century Europe, but he forgets the simple lesson—“Chicks will f*** you up!”
The clever framing device—on the night before his execution, Fagin tells his side of the story to Charles Dickens—actually works against Eisner’s efforts. How reliable a narrator is Fagin? Is the story he tells to Dickens an attempt to clear his name? And note again, he blames all of his falls from society not on being Jewish, but rather by getting involved with the wrong woman at the wrong time.
Had I read the GN without all the background confessionals, I might have found this conceit rather exciting. Fagin is always looking for an edge all the way to the steps of the gallows. But Eisner—with the help of Brian Michael Bendis and Dickens scholar Jeet Heer—makes it clear that this GN is a reaction to the way Jews have been mistreated by literature.
The well-written and passionate introductions and afterwords set Fagin the Jew up to be something quite exciting and an opportunity for Eisner to stretch himself as a storyteller and make amends for Ebony. We wait to be dazzled. Instead, we get a story filled with the kind of coincidence that was Dickens’ stock and trade. Fagin falls into the depths of despair twice because of trysts with young women. Now, I know this is a standard plot device, but I can’t help feeling that Eisner was just trying to erase the plausible homosexual overtones of the character—a decrepit old man harbors a bunch of young “darlings”. (Your call—it all depends on whether or not your British Lit professor thought Fagin was a pedophile.)
I swear to you on my Oxford Companion to English Literature (edited by Margaret Drabble) that I am not trying to be contrarian or provocative. I am just sorely disappointed by a work that the author suggests is his attempt to make up for past sins. Another admission: I’ve always liked Ebony. I think he is one of the facets of The Spirit Sunday sections that make it one of the best and most important extended works in the history of comics. Ebony is a real person to me—a hero, a worker, dedicated and trustworthy. He knows his lot in life is hampered by his manner of speech and he decides to do something about it. And as with Fagin, it is a woman’s manipulation that pushes Ebony into new adventures.
With the two introductions and two afterwords there is a lot of anticipation with very little payoff. It seems to me that Eisner was more focused on changing the visual image of Fagin as opposed to his actual character. Okay, so Fagin now resembles Mike Ploog’s Santa Claus instead of Murneau’s Count Orlok. We are given a Fagin that acted like a Jewish stereotype because of he was a victim of circumstance and because of the way Jews were treated and not because he was an evil, conniving bastard.
I got that the first time I saw Oliver! I never knew Fagin was Jewish until I read the book. Now according to Will Eisner’s re-imagining, Fagin is trying to say that he may have done all the bad stuff with the kids, but he didn’t kill the whore! What are we supposed to think? What is Dickens—listening to the story—supposed to think? I am reminded of the terrific satirical sequence in Nicholas Nickleby where a theatrical troupe tweaks Romeo and Juliet (just a bit) in order to provide a happily ever after for those star-crossed kids!
That was played for laughs, this is not. All Eisner does in Fagin the Jew is retell Oliver Twist in order to justify Fagin’s lot in life and then exonerate him from the murder of poor sweet Nancy. What does it prove? What ground does it break? Whose sins does it atone? I may have enjoyed the graphic novel a lot more if not for the supplemental material. This sets the tone and points the reader in a particular direction—Eisner set himself a lofty goal and then failed to achieve it.
I could imagine Eisner creating a great Spirit story where he re-imagines Ebony and tells, say, a tale of racially-fueled hate crimes in Central City. Or he could have retold the story of Fagin as a gentile. Here, the man—who was based on an actual person—became a criminal because of his surroundings and any person, regardless of race or creed, would most likely have ended up the exact same way. Fagin the Jew plays out the same way any cinephile with one eye open can interpret On the Waterfront as Elia Kazan’s excuse for naming names before Congress. “I did a bad thing so let me make amends by showing why Fagin was bad, but wasn’t as bad as Dickens says he was.”
Just to make one last stab at this: Look again at that cover—a beautiful watercolor of a jolly old Fagin taking his two young darlings by the hand into a dark tunnel. What if we were to say that it represented Will Eisner leading, oh, let’s say Oliver Siegel and the Artful Shuster or any number of unnamed and uncredited assistants down the path of work-for-hire? It’s not true, but that scenario might have made a better subtext than Eisner offered in Fagin the Jew. In his introduction, Brian Michael Bendis mentions that he was a lifelong fan of Eisner, but that he had never heard of this graphic novel. After reading this 10th anniversary edition, I can see why it fell into partial obscurity. It just doesn’t work as a testament of redemption, and with all the explanations offered, it doesn’t work as a retelling of a classic novel either.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.