Sunday, 9 August 2015

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner Review

Will Eisner created a superhero comic called The Spirit in the 1940s which had a supporting character called Ebony, drawn as a racist stereotype. It wasn’t just Eisner doing this though, Ebony was indicative of how blacks were depicted in comics in this era - pick up a copy of Herge’s Tintin in the Congo and prepare to be shocked! 

Unfair (not to mention offensive) stereotypes bothered Eisner in his later years and he sought to redress the balance of how Jews were traditionally depicted. His focus was Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist where illustrator George Cruikshank drew Fagin as the stereotypical hook-nosed Jew. (Odd that Eisner didn’t try to go back and humanise Ebony but then Eisner was Jewish, not black, so I guess Ebony’s portrayal didn’t bother him THAT much). The result is Fagin the Jew. 

Moses Fagin’s origin story is much like many Jews’ stories from the late 18th/early 19th centuries. His family immigrated from Eastern Europe and were shunned by British society. Fagin’s father was forced to steal to keep his family fed leading to an early death and a young Fagin also having to learn a criminal lifestyle to survive, despite wanting an education and a legitimate job. 

Fagin’s story is a tragic one but isn’t very compelling either - it’s basically Fagin gets kicked again and again until he decides to become a full blown thief. Then at roughly the halfway mark it becomes a retelling of Oliver Twist. So much for Fagin’s story then, I guess it’s now all about a kid called Oliver! 

The art is very expressive and the poverty of Victorian England is something Eisner draws really well. His best work focused on drab cityscapes like in the Contract With God Trilogy and he does fine work with the shabby hovels Fagin and Oliver live in. 

Eisner does humanise Fagin more than Dickens did, and does away with Cruikshank’s design of Fagin, so I suppose this comic was successful in that regard. But do people really view Jews today as the Victorian caricatures Hitler and his cohorts believed them to be? it seems redundant to say that there was more to Fagin than this sly, scheming Jewish stereotype when most people reading Oliver Twist will know that to be the case anyway - who believes racial stereotypes besides bigoted racists (who’ll unfortunately always be around but are at least a minority)? 

Eisner was a great cartoonist but Fagin the Jew is a very minor work that’s far from being a must-read. He takes a safe subject to get outraged about and says nothing special about it.

Fagin the Jew

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