Opus 160:

Opus 160 (April 24, 2005). Eisner's Last Literary Work: Another Advance for the Medium

Will Eisner's last production, a book entitled The Plot, is emblematic of the man's creative enterprise. Like much of his life's work-the Spirit, a comic book crime-fighter without costume (but with literary pretensions) engaged in noir narratives too complex for the meager number of pages they were allotted; instructional comic books with industrial as well as military applications; graphic novels, the literary aspiration realized- The Plot is an unprecedented, pioneering undertaking. Because it deploys the verbal-visual narrative mannerisms of the comics medium, it looks like a graphic novel; but it is history and polemic, not fiction. It is also a mystery and a scholarly examination and a cry from the heart. And it is not entirely successful, like much of Eisner's latterday literary endeavor. But, again like most of his work, it dares to go where few, if any, have gone before, and it is therefore typical of the artist's life-long crusade for the literary status of his chosen medium. We do not demand of our pioneers that they achieve their objectives perfectly; we admire them for making attempts that are heartfelt and competently executed and therefore exemplary and inspirational. Due out at the end of May, The Plot (150 7x10-inch pages, hardcover; $23.95) is an impressive manifestation of this kind of bold venturing; it is, in other words, quintessential Eisner.

            Characteristically, Eisner was working on the book through his last hours in the hospital following heart surgery that everyone thought had been successful. His editor at W.W. Norton, Robert Weil, spoke with him twice on January 3, "to let him know that the final revisions to the text, based on his conversations with historian Stephen Bronner, were now complete. The next morning," Weil continued, "I learned with great shock that he had unexpectedly passed away. ... there was just the slightest comfort in knowing that this work, which was as important to him as anything he had done in his 70-year career, was indeed finished."

            The book takes its name from a wholly fictional plot to take over the world, a scheme  supposedly conjured up by Jews. This outrageous canard was fabricated by the Tsar's secret police to thwart a tendency towards modernization in 1890s Russia. Powerful traditional interests opposed to change sought to divert the Tsar from his intention by appealing to his anti-Semitism: to that end, they manufactured a document purporting to be a blueprint for world domination that was formulated at an international conclave of Jews. According to this document, modernization -discarding the feudal systems of Russia and the monarchies of Europe-was the method by which the Jews would achieve their ends.

            Called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the scurrilous "report" was first published in 1905, appended to a novel by Nilus Serge, a Russian religious fanatic and conspiracy nut. The bogus nature of the document was established beyond question in 1921. A reporter for the London Times was able to demonstrate that The Protocols duplicated the gist (and, in many instances, the text, word-for-word) of a book published in 1864 by an obscure Parisian agitator, Maurice Joly. His Dialogues in Hell was a political attack on France's current ruler, the usurping Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III): employing imaginary conversations between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Joly hoped to reveal Napoleon as a conniving dictator in the mold of Machiavelli's Prince. In other words, The Protocols was a hoax, and there had never been anything remotely resembling an international conspiracy of Jews to take over the world.

            Despite irrefutable evidence that The Protocols was a forgery and a fraud, the document has been published again and again, and it circulates still throughout the world, where the credulous believe in the plot it alleges.

            I spoke to Eisner in the fall of 2003 just after the publication of his graphic novel, Fagin the Jew, which he described as a "polemic," an argument intended to refute the stereotypical image of Jews as perpetrated in the Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. During our conversation, he said he was at work on another book in the same vein, this one attacking the astonishing vitality of the spurious Protocols. He said he'd thought The Protocols had long since disappeared over the horizon, but one day while surfing the 'Net, he'd encountered the document-to all intents and purposes, alive and flourishing. He resolved then to try to do something to undermine its inexplicable vitality. The Plot is his try at it.

            "Over the years," he writes in his Foreword, "hundreds of books and competent scholarly articles have exposed the infamy of The Protocols. These studies, however, are written mostly by academics and are designed to be read by scholars or by persons already convinced of their fraudulence. I have spent my career in the application of sequential art as a form of narrative language. With the widespread acceptance of the graphic narrative as a vehicle of popular literature, there is now an opportunity to deal head-on with this propaganda in a more accessible language. It is my hope that, perhaps, this work will drive yet another nail into the coffin of this terrifying vampire-like fraud."

            Many of the graphic novels Eisner has created over the last 25 years have explored the Jewish community of his youth, growing up in the Bronx. As a Jew, he experienced anti-Semitism himself, and he has written about it before, notably in The Heart of the Storm and in The Dreamer, graphic novels with a strain of autobiography in them. But Fagin the Jew is a direct assault on anti-Semitism; and The Plot is likewise at attack on the virulent Protocols.

            The pages of The Plot look like the pages of most of Eisner's graphic novels: instead of tiers of panels comic-strip style, the pages display visual vignettes that define their narrative function by artful arrangement of light and dark, a shape in one panel forming the border of the next panel. Eisner adds subtle tones to his pen-and-ink renderings with a gray wash, giving some sequences, particularly street scenes in early 19th century Europe, a delicate dream-like quality. Visually, the volume is as handsome an achievement as any in the Eisner library.

            As a narrative, or argument, the book takes shape in three segments. In the first, Eisner traces the origins of The Protocols, starting with Joly's diatribe; in the second, he compares the texts of The Protocols and Joly's Dialogues in Hell; in the third, a chorus of actual incidents-trials, newspaper articles-reveal the deception and show that The Protocols survive every rebuttal and return, time after time, as viciously potent as ever.

            The first section, the longest in the book, is the most successful. A historical narrative, it takes on the ambiance of a detective story as Eisner takes us from the mostly failed life of the pamphleteer Joly to the Tsarist court and then back again to France, where the fabrication of The Protocols takes place, using Joly's book as a guide. Then we return to Russia and meet the slightly mad fanatic Nilus, whose publication of The Protocols assures that they will circulate widely. As the unraveling of a mystery, the narrative has an inherent suspense, and because Eisner is able to focus for rather lengthy passages on a succession of characters-first Joly, then the Russian aristocratic plotters, then the forger in Paris- the factual recitation is personified and fosters our interest in much the manner of a novel. As sometimes has happened in his graphic novels, Eisner's characterizations slip occasionally into bathetic melodrama, but over-all, the maneuver is nevertheless effective: putting characterization in the service of exposition, Eisner is able to present historical fact as biographical drama, a tactic in itself likely to sustain our engagement-even though the "mystery" of the origins of The Protocols is alone sufficient to the task.

            The second stage of Eisner's argument is also effective but in a quite different way. We meet Philip Graves, the reporter for the London Times who exposed the forgery in 1921. And for 17 pages, we get a comparison of the texts of The Protocols and Joly's Dialogues -page by page, running side-by-side. We can easily see how the language of the fiction was adopted to manufacture the fraud. And Graves, who is making the same comparison as we are, occasionally comments on what he sees: he points to one passage which appears identically in both documents, saying, "A clever metaphor, no wonder The Protocols copies it." As narrative, which presumes suspense, this section is scarcely engaging; but it is not intended to be. Here, Eisner is calling upon the most persuasive witness to testify to the fakery of The Protocols: the documents themselves, which, taken together, prove the one to be the source of the other. And the source is not fact but fiction, as made-up as The Protocols itself.  The device is inarguably effective.

            The last section of the book is somewhat disjointed. Beginning with Hitler's use of The Protocols to shore up his case against the Jews, Eisner takes up in sequence the various re-emergences of The Protocols and the ensuing court cases and other exposes of the document, each of which ends with the participants assuring themselves that this time, The Protocols are finished, discredited for once and all. And then, on the next page, the infamous document re-surfaces and is again responsible for death and destruction, ending in the now expected chorus of satisfaction that it has, again, been decisively refuted, never to cloud the minds of people again. Then on the next page, the cycle resumes. Here, too, Eisner's method is understandable, but in leaping decades at a time, the narrative loses its momentum. Still, the chorus supplies this section with its ironic unity. Sadly, the recurring epitaph also suggests that the colossal humbug is still not dead; it may well emerge again, thriving on human ignorance and bigotry, which has, throughout the history of The Protocols, nurtured the life of this insidious deception.

            The authenticity of Eisner's interpretation of the jaded origins of the nefarious document is attested to by essays that bookend the work. In his Introduction, the distinguished international novelist Umberto Ecco discusses "the patchwork" of sources that make "The Protocols an incoherent text," the very incoherence revealing "its fabricated origins." In an Afterword, Stephen Eric Bronner, who has studied The Protocols extensively and written about it, puts the document in historical context. A concluding section footnotes the sources of Eisner's presentation after which a bibliography supplies an extensive list of scholarly works on the subject.

            The Plot may not be Eisner's best work, but it is a story, an argument, that profits greatly from the application of skills it took a lifetime to develop. Eisner turned to this project, as he says, convinced that the techniques of a visual-verbal medium could do what scholars haven't been able to do-convince the wider popular audience that The Protocols is false. Alas, as Eisner's narrative itself reveals, the exposes have not taken place entirely in the shaded groves of academe where they could be ignored by a larger readership: newspapers and the popular press have also publicized the nature of the fraud-to no avail. But "comics" may succeed where other media have failed. In his steadfast dedication to his medium, Eisner hoped the vibrant blend of words and pictures would make the case both more persuasively and pervasively than the others. Perhaps, at last, the stake has been driven into the heart of the monster. Or not.

            We cannot help but remark, as Tom Underhill so perceptively does in his review in The Comics Journal (No. 267), on the ironic parallel between Joly and Eisner: Joly also had high hopes for his book. He hoped his Dialogues in Hell would bring down the tyrant Louis Napoleon. It didn't. Underhill thinks Eisner was "self-aware enough" to construct the parallel, thereby tempering the seeming naivety of his aspiration for his book's effectiveness. But I'm not so sure. Eisner portrays Joly as a fanatic, obsessed by an impossible dream. When he depicts himself at the end of The Plot, encountering yet another instance of the perverse obduracy of the nefarious Protocols, Eisner is puzzled but hopeful, not obsessed. And on the last page, he shows us that he realizes that the despised book is still alive, still wreaking havoc. Besides, Eisner's hope, he says, is to drive "another nail" into the coffin of The Protocols, not the final nail. Eisner was certainly aware of the futility of any ambitious expectation for a book-any book-but I don't think he constructed a deliberate echo of Joly's fate in his own hopes for The Plot. The image of Eisner at the end of the book is not as obvious an invocation of the picture of Joly at the beginning as Underhill suggests it is. The parallel Underhill sees provides the book with a cautionary patina. But Eisner scarcely saw his cause as hopeless or doomed to failure.

            Eisner's hopes were both more and less ambitious than Joly's: Eisner's hopes were much more long-range than Joly's passionate dream of fostering a revolution in his lifetime. Eisner hoped that a book with a mainstream publisher would make it into places that the product of graphic novel publishers could never aspire to-the nation's classrooms, where it might influence tomorrow's citizens rather than just opening the eyes of today's. He was consequently pleased that Fagin the Jew was published by Doubleday, which also produces books for schools. With The Plot, Eisner may have upped the ante a bit: W.W. Norton is a publisher of both scholarly and popular works, undeniably an uptown house, and Norton has already announced that it will be re-issuing all of Eisner's graphic novels. The Plot may not be a graphic novel-a fiction-but its classification scarcely matters: it has achieved a status for visual-verbal narrative that, like most of Eisner's work, shows the way for others to follow.

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