I have never written an article on Will Eisner before. How the heck can someone write an every-other-week column about Jews and comics for over a year and without ever having written about Eisner? Because I was scared, I was scarred I wouldn’t do him justice. One could receive a doctorate degree simply for studying Eisner and how his work shaped comics. How could I attempt to compete with legit scholars on his work? I may not have read every single autobiography (although I have read many) about Eisner, but I have certainly read most of his work and I am deeply connected to it. When I sat down to write this column, I realized that I too could write a book about Eisner because his work is so influential on me.
Eisner was born to an Austro-Hungarian Jewish father, first generation off the boat, and a Romanian mother, literally born on a boat heading to the US. His father was a Viennese painter who had to give up his dreams during the depression to work in furniture decoration. Eisner’s mother was illiterate, but had “peasant smarts,” Eisner has said. She taught him the value of money. This conflict between artistic talent and understanding the value of the dollar is one of the things that sets Eisner apart from his contemporaries.
Eisner grew up in the Bronx and attendedDeWitt Clinton High School with other comic Yids such as Stan Lee, Bob Kane andBill Finger. Eisner was one of the few early Jewish creators who never changed his name. When the comic industry was first poppin’ off, Eisner along with editor Jerry Iger started their own studio to create material for other publishers. Creatively named the Eisner & Iger Studio, it made a lot of the material used in the early days of the industry, and it made a lot of money. The studio also helped create the assembly line method of creating comics that is still used today (writer to penciler to inker). Two years later, when he was given the chance to write The Spirit, a sixteen-page newspaper insert, Eisner sold the studio for $20,000. In today’s market that is Scrooge McDuck money. It should be noted, even though Eisner was one of the creators who made craploads of money in the early days of the industry, he is rarely spoken of as a shark who took advantage of others, unlike his successful peers. The Spirit was the first weekly comic-book insert for a national newspaper syndicate… and during a period when most creators were screwed out of their creations, this clever businessman retained full ownership of The Spirit.
Eisner left the industry when The Spiritended in 1952, and he found success as a commercial illustrator. (He still used sequential art during this period, but used it to make instructional material for different clients.) He made his great return to the comic industry in 1978 with A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, one of the first graphic novels. Eisner always had a distaste towards superhero comics which he felt were one-dimensional. He wanted to create “sequential art” that could gain the same respect as other art forms. Partially due to his previous financial success, Eisner was able to create semi-autobiographical graphic novels which he then attempted to sell to “park avenue publisher[s].” He used the term graphic novel in order to sound more fancy. Deemed “the father of the graphic novel,” Eisner spent his later life trying to gain sequential art the respect it deserved, and he did it by writing what he knew, and what interested him the most- Jewish history.
“I understand Jews, and I like to write what I understand,” Eisner said. “I’m part of a generation that was very conscious of our Jewishness, but we were not scholars. As time went on, I developed a strong Jewish identity. I read as much about Jewish things as I can.”
Eisner spent his last 30 years writing tales about Jews and exposing anti-Semitism. His work told tales of Ashkenazi Jewish life in America. They were the stories of my parents and their parents.
(Although the Spirit’s Semitic background is often debated, this list will only focus on Eisner’s outwardly Jewish material.)
Top 4 Will Eisner Jewish Graphic Novels
A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories
Of course, A Contract With God has to make the list. This marked a monumental moment in comic history, leading to graphic novels infiltrating bookstores and libraries. The book contains four stories which all take place on the Bronx streets Eisner grew up in. The title story is about Frimme Hersch, a frum Hasidic Jew, who questions his faith when his daughter passes. Similarly, Eisner lost a daughter. Eisner was not brought up a religious dude, but his autobiography, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics, states “He had been brought up to believe in a deity, but life had left him an agnostic grasping for faith.” In the preface of A Contract With God, Eisner writes that “[t]he creation of this story was an exercise in personal agony. My only daughter, Alice, had died of Leukemia eight years before the publication of this book. My grief was still raw. My heart still bled. In fact, I could not even then bring myself to discuss the loss. I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an ‘adopted child.’ But his anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine.” A Contract With Godshould be on any list of important modern Jewish works. Although the title story is the most intense, the other Bronx tales also give great insight into our history.
I love this comic. I have read so many thick books about the birth of the comic industry, most very repetitive and long winded. The Dreamer, in less than fifty five pages, gives the experience of what it was like for Eisner during the dawn of the industry. As anyone who reads my columns knows, if we are talking about the early comic industry we are talking about Jewish history, period. The tale stars such characters as Ken Corn (Bob Kane), Jack King (hmmmmm, wonder who this could be) and Jimmy Samson (Jerry Iger).
Fagin The Jew
I was an English major during my undergrad years. It always infuriated me how anti-Semitic “classic literature” is, and how much my classmates tried to avoid acknowledging it (and often denied it). This especially rang true for the works of Hemingway, F. Scott. Fitzgerald andCharles Dickens. Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens refers to the villainous Fagin as “the Jew.” In Dicken’s novel, Fagin is a “grotesque” “miser” who takes advantage of kids to hoard his wealth. Eisner’s graphic novel is told from the perspective of Fagin. The story shows that Fagin’s father was killed by Anti-Semites when Fagin was young. Fagin is shaped by the hardship he went through due to his Jewish and lower-class background. In order to survive, Fagin is forced to resort to crime. When Fagin’s cohort, Bill Sikes, murders his girlfriend, it draws attention to Fagin, and he is arrested and sentenced to be hanged. Immediately before the hanging, Fagin helps Oliver attain the information he needs to better his life. This was one of my first exposures to Eisner, and I fell in love with how he weaved Jewish history with issues of assimilation and Jewish pride while breaking down a classic stereotype.
The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Eisner’s final graphic novel, released posthumously in 2005, was also his first non-fiction work. It traces the history of one of the most anti-Semitic myths of all time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols, first published in 1905, has been used consistently as propaganda to justify anti-Semitism. Although it had been shown to be a bullcrapped forgery numerous times, to this day anti-Semites latch onto the ideas in The Protocols, continuing the myth that Jews are involved in an evil conspiracy to control the world. Similar to Fagin, this book breaks down stereotypes and shows how damaging they can be.
Additional reading: everything else.
Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth
From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books by Arie Kaplan
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerald Jones
The Will Eisner Companion by N. C. Christopher Couch and Stephen Weiner
Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics by Michael Schumacher
Cover image- Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist