A Late Pioneer Is Still Pushing Boundaries

Graphic Novels

By Josh Lambert

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
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What’s so comic, exactly, about comic books? As far back as the Golden Age, when the form flourished in the hands of mostly Jewish American young men, relatively few of the word-and-picture narratives to which we ascribe this label have been primarily concerned with humor. The dominant modes have been action, mystery, horror and romance. Still, silly as it sounds, even when they aren’t the least bit funny they’re known as comics.

It is for his attempts to address this problem, among many other achievements, that comic book pioneer Will Eisner will be remembered. He passed away in January at the age of 87, a grandfather figure in his industry. Creator of “The Spirit,” a classic newspaper strip, and namesake of a prestigious set of industry awards, Eisner stood, throughout his long career, for the expansion of his field.

Several of his efforts were nomenclatorial. Based on courses he taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Eisner’s textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art,” offered the first systematic theorization about the form. Without denigrating the popular tradition, his serious approach attempted to raise the prestige of artists and to liberate them from the limited ambitions implicit in the medium’s unfortunate name. And when Eisner published “A Contract With God” in 1978, he called it a “graphic novel.” The new category made sense for creators, publishers and readers, and the genre has expanded — in terms of the ambition, creativity and prestige of the works produced — ever since.

“A Contract With God” needed to be called something other than a comic book, partially because of the unusual subject it treated: Jewish life. Devotees of the medium can, of course, cite previous examples of comic book Jews: As early as the late 19th century, a stereotype called Ikey Mo appeared in the early British strip “Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday,” and an adventurous historian might date Jewish comics back as far as the paneled frescoes of biblical scenes — Second Commandment be damned! — found on the walls of the ancient synagogue in Dura Europos, Syria. But Eisner’s turn to Jewish life and autobiography in the 1970s heralded a modern flood of such works. It’s no coincidence that Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus,” has called Eisner “an inspiration to several generations of cartoonists.”

In “The Plot,” which he finished just before he died, Eisner once again pushes boundaries. As do many of his previous books, “The Plot” blends what he described as the “two broad applications” of sequential art — “instruction and entertainment” –– which he regarded as inherently linked. In its method, depth and resonance, “The Plot” is unique, and neither “comic book” nor “graphic novel”

seems an appropriate label for it. Because it analyzes the way history has been told, and uses pictures and words to do so, the book might be called, fittingly, “graphic historiography” — though one can’t quite expect that name to catch on with the kids.

“The Plot” tells the story of a text, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” one of the world’s most famous literary frauds. First distributed in Russian in 1905, it purports to be a report from the meeting of a cabal of Jews bent on dominating the world. As Eisner relates, despite having been exposed as forgery as early as 1921 in the London Times, “Protocols” was employed by such influential antisemites as Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford in their campaigns against the Jews. Today, “Protocols” continues to be available in at least a dozen languages — Eisner cites Japanese, Arabic, Spanish and Russian editions of the 1990s — and on the Web. (For more about “Protocols,” please see sidebar, page 10.)

Tackling a tangled history in which the issue of authentication itself is central, Eisner again expands our notion of just how serious his medium can be. “The graphic novel does not easily accommodate the traditional footnote method of documentation,” he writes — not a problem one imagines many comic book artists to have lost sleep over. Eisner rises to the challenge, though, and with short scholarly essays by Umberto Eco and Stephen Eric Bronner, a reference section and an extensive bibliography, “The Plot” would fit comfortably on the syllabus of an undergraduate history seminar.

Like the antisemitic e-mail hoaxes that circulated after 9/11, “Protocols” presents a bizarre problem to its enemies: How does one effectively disprove an allegation that is immensely popular despite being patently and obviously false? In other words, no one in his right mind could take “Protocols” seriously — but what about the millions out there who aren’t, in this sense, in their right minds?

Eisner’s strategy is to lay bare, in a compressed graphic narrative, the process through which “Protocols” was created. “The Plot” opens with a grisly suicide in Paris in 1878. Through flashbacks, we learn that the dead Frenchman, Maurice Joly, authored “The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu” in 1864 as a philosophical attack on the reign of Napoleon III. Decades later, a Russian forger named Mathieu Golovinski, exiled in Paris, is hired by the Russian secret police to produce a document that will prejudice Tsar Nicholas II against Jews and liberals, and justify various authoritarian policies. Golovinski cribs extensively from Joly’s “Dialogue” and produces “Protocols,” which is first published in 1905 by a Russian mystic named Sergius Nilus. Each player in this saga comes alive through Eisner’s expressive drawings, and the episodes move quickly and dramatically.

A meeting in Constantinople between Times of London correspondent Philip Graves and Mikhail Raslovlev, a Russian émigré, provides the setting for 17 pages of column-by-column comparisons of Joly’s “Dialogues” and “Protocols.” Though Joly’s text is only occasionally copied word for word, the plagiarism is glaring and consistent. Apparently Golovinski knew the high school student’s trick where words are substituted, but ideas and structures are mindlessly re-created: “foes” replaces “enemies,” and “All people are chained to heavy toil” substitutes for “There are tremendous populations riveted to labor.”

Having established the fraudulence of “Protocols” for his readers, Eisner’s narrative then gallops toward the present day, linking the resilience of “Protocols” to continuing violence against Jews worldwide. A final pair of images, dated 2003 and 2004, depicts the firebombing of an anonymous synagogue. As it burns, papers flutter to the ground with headlines describing antisemitic violence: “November, 2003, Terre Haute, Indiana, Holocaust Museum Destroyed by Arson,” “Campus Booth Smeared With Anti-Semitic slogans, Lewiston, ME. March 2003.”

In “The Plot,” Eisner tells a story not at all comic. The telling is nonetheless generous and even heroic. Eisner understood that the magic of sequential art, or graphic narrative — whatever you want to call it — is its unrivaled power to distill complex stories into comprehensible narratives and to compel audiences young and old. Harnessing this power, Eisner’s parting gift to his current and future readers, and to the Jews, is nothing less than the best attempt ever made to eradicate the lie of “Protocols,” and to rescue future generations from the horrors that the text has occasioned.

* * *

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

By Will Eisner

W. W. Norton & Company, 142 pages, $23.95.

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