Thursday, December 14, 2017
Home  >  Features  >  FAGIN THE JEW - A MightyVille Review

Dark Horse Comics was kind enough to provide MightyVille an early look at the re-release of the Will Eisner classic, Fagin the Jew. Sam Moyerman, a fan of the original release, snatched it up and shares his thoughts now.


Dark Horse Comics was kind enough to provide MightyVille an early look at the re-release of the Will Eisner classic, Fagin the Jew. Sam Moyerman, a fan of the original release, snatched it up and shares his thoughts now.


It is always with great trepidation that I take on the task of reviewing one of the great masters of comics.  Will Eisner is a god to this industry.  He’s one of the credited creators of the graphic novel, a man who wasn’t just a great creator, but also one of the first great teachers of the medium through his landmark textbooks.  For crying out loud, one of the two sets of accepted comic book awards is named after him.  And Fagin the Jew isn’t a new book by him either, it’s a 10th Anniversary Edition of one of his last books re-released in a new edition with a brand new introduction by comic luminary Brian Michael Bendis.  So how would I find anything to say about this?  How could there be anything to add to the criticism of a master’s final work?

They say time heals all wounds.  Time changes and mellows people.  It forces us to change our viewpoints on things.  To re-assess.  I had an interesting moment last week when I read Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison for the first time and realized that, at 25, I would have thought it was the most amazing book ever written.  At 35, however, I merely found it worth the money I paid for it.  So I approached this re-release with the same idea. 


As a Jew at 25, I felt that Fagin the Jew was one of the most important books on the shelves, part of Eisner going back through literature and reassessing portraits of Jewish villain characters in classic literature.  Fagin was the first of these, the evil Jew from Oliver Twist, and the only book released before his death (I was, and still am, angry we never got his Shylock).  At 35, I realize a little more that these classic books were the products of their time; Anti-Semitism ran rampant in Charles Dickens’ time, as did all forms of racism (Huckleberry Finn, considered the Great American Novel, has a character whose name includes a word we are not allowed to say).  It doesn’t excuse the stereotyping and negative portrayals per se, but it does help us to understand it a little bit better.  Attempting to understand this practice is the motive that leads Eisner to undertake this writing in the first place.

As stated in his own introduction and Bendis’ introduction (most surprising part of his intro: Bendis’ admission that he never knew Fagin the Jew existed before now), Eisner also created characters based on racism and stereotypes.  The Spirit’s sidekick, Ebony White, was the definition of the black stereotype in Eisner’s early years, as if he took Step’n Fetchit from the stage and screen and placed him squarely in a weekly comic.  Over time Eisner realized how wrong this character was and began to change him before removing him completely.  Personally, I felt that during some of those middle years of The Spirit, Eisner did succeed in building Ebony up past the stereotype by infusing him with a sense of honor and honestly that was lacking in many characters, but I can still see why there would be complaints.  Fagin the Jew was a chance for him to do that with other characters, to add a sense of realism and sympathy to them where their creators couldn’t.


In Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Fagin was an evil man.  A guy who rounded up runaways and cast offs, who collected children to run around the streets of London and steal for him.  Eisner doesn’t necessarily change any of that.  He accepts the original text as it is.  His story is more to show how Fagan became that way.  What was it that causes Fagin to turn into such an old miser?  In this new text, Eisner shows us a man who at one point had his honor and integrity, who tried to overcome obstacles in an honorable way, the way a man should.  But he was also a man who was shown those opportunities only to have them stolen from him.  To have everything he could ever possibly have had taken from him.  He shows that Fagin’s fellow Jews are only ever able to escape their awful place in life by converting and leaving their Judaism behind.  If they are unwilling to convert they are lied to, cheated, and framed for crimes.  Fagin becomes so beaten and broken down that he begins to live that life too.  Why be honest to a world that will never be honest back?  It is only after being beaten down and beaten up over many years does Fagin turn into the character that Dickens wrote.  And with that Eisner is successful in what he attempted to do.

Visually, even at an old age, Will Eisner was still a master illustrator.  His work here is just as visually brilliant as his past work.  Like a fine wine, Eisner just got better and better with age.  And the book is worth purchasing and reading for that alone.  Watching Fagin go from young boy to grizzled angry old man is astonishing and feels real.  His backgrounds (sometimes literally) drip through the pages.  We can feel every injustice.   But after a while that’s the problem.  He crams so much back-story into this tale that by the end it’s desensitizing.  Every page is a new injustice and because there are so many years to cover, no one injustice get time to truly breathe.  In the end it’s paced more like a Harvey Pekar book than a Will Eisner one.  Eisner was always able to showcase raw emotion, make the reader feel the emotion as well, but with this book the reader never really gets a chance.  The most impressive, and most Eisner-like, parts of the story are the framing device pages of Fagin talking to Dickens while in prison, which hold onto you longer than any of the inside tales.  It is in these pages where the sympathy for Fagin really comes to fruition.


If you’ve never before read Will Eisner, first off, shame on you, and second, this isn’t the first of his books you should read.  Go get Contract With God.  But for those who are already in love with the man’s work and missed Fagin the first time around, it’s a worthwhile book, not just because of the message and idea behind it, but for the artwork and Eisner’s own essays. 

Fagin The Jew is available now from Dark Horse Comics.


(Sam Moyerman is a professional demon hunter. He editorializes on the hunt while camped out within the protective womb of hollowed monster husk.)


What's your favorite Will Eisner story? Let us know!


More from Sam on MightyVille:

WOLVERWEEK: The True Origins of The Wolverine

Mr. Moyerman Goes to (Wizard World) Philadelphia

We Know How It All Began Already


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