Fagin The Jew 10th Anniversary Edition—Will Eisner Wrestles with Counter Narrative, Stereotype, and Antisemitism

Fagin the Jew w/a Will Eisner Dark Horse Publishing
Fagin the Jew
w/a Will Eisner
Dark Horse Publishing

With literature, film, television, and comics discursive content, both in creation and viewing, cross-pollinating and having greater availability due to technology, the need to develop applicable cultural critical evaluations and conversations about content is of great importance as society uses more multimedia approaches to interacting with media and each other. One such problem that mass media is always in need of being in check with is discriminatory ideology, whether apparent, hidden in metaphor, or even handled with ignorance. To counteract, or even to promote awareness of, discriminatory representations in media requires different kinds of texts and visual media that stimulate conversations or offer an invitation to conversations about the troubling problems of discrimination. Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew can be such a text to invite discussions as it addresses antisemitism in literature and media, focuses on counter narrative, and addresses how artists need to think about how one may equate a stereotype to a cultural whole (e.g., Fagin the Jew addresses the problems that Dickens created a character that lumps all Jewish people as associated with being thieves and deceivers, but more on that momentarily).

In the introduction to Fagin the Jew, Eisner discussed how he was troubled in retrospect by his own possibly myopic approach to characterization and stereotype, most notably with the design and use of The Spirit’s African American sidekick Ebony White.

An image courtesy of Matt Seneca's Blog
Ebony White. An image courtesy of Matt Seneca’s Blog

Essentially I believe what Eisner addresses in Fagin is a realization that the character of Fagin (author Charles Dickens creation) and his own creation Ebony White are indicative of the problem that media has perpetuated for centuries, the problem of “institutionalized” or “accepted” stereotypes that  promote racism. Such representations of racism promote supposed accepted norms (behaviors and attitudes), for a mythologized “everyone.” Stereotypes, which can function as a layer of racism, strips genuine, dynamic cultural identity. These kinds of identity stripping stereotypes are a problem in comics, something that scholar Jeet Heer points out in his concluding essay in this edition of Fagin the Jew. Heer argues that comics generally use stereotypes as a “suppression of ethnic identity.” Eisner himself admitted that, at the time, he didn’t know or didn’t think about how his representations of Ebony White may be negative, it was just something that was accepted. In his own thoughts in Fagin Eisner reminds us that at the time of his work on The Spirit that programs like Amos and Andy, white men in black face performing a minstrel act, were comedic norms, therefore he had no qualms about his design and characterizations of Ebony White. That, though, is how so much institutionalized discriminatory ideology exists—everybody is doing it, so it must be OK. But that is the trap, the acceptance of this undefined cultural “everyone.”   

Therefore I believe a major point of Fagin for Eisner, and the art of cartooning/comics, is to try to work out the problem that artists are sometimes the perpetrator of racism and stereotype. Stereotypes and racial attitudes, any attitude really, is born of influence and education. It seems that Eisner is using Fagin as a platform to demonstrate that such attitudes are ingrained and passed down, even in canonical literature, with little questioning. Think of it like this: if the character of Fagin is a representation of antisemitic behavior on the part of Dickens, and the novel Oliver Twist has been in print for two centuries and has been taught as apart of the primary school curriculum in America, not to mention numerous television, stage, and theatrical productions, can one then assume if one does not question Dickens representation or have discussions about what is being projected, that such a representation is accepted as one of the “everyone’s” cultural norm attitudes? This is why, as Allen Webb and Brandon Guisgand wrote about, it is important to engage with the texts (historically) and/or with the other multimedia outlets, in order to understand “the mentality, the attitude, and philosophy that develop antisemitic ideology and help bring about racism and violence.” Therefore, if one wished to engage in such a thought one has to understand and apply such theory that racism, sexism, or any type of discrimination is institutionalized as a cultural whole, that there is a foundational or starting point, always perpetuating and incubating until hopefully the roots of it are brought to light and discussed. Eisner, in thinking about the character of Fagin, seemed to have found that thinking about institutionalized racism reflected in the arts is of great importance, for both reader and creator.

courtesy of uwsp.edu
Oliver Twist meets Fagin in the original drawings based on the text. (courtesy of uwsp.edu)

One way to combat that institutionalized discrimination, something that I believe Eisner is putting importance upon, is that one must first educate oneself on the history of the representation, and, if in a position, as Eisner set out to do, present a counter narrative to challenge the ideology. What is a counter narrative? It is exactly as it sounds—presenting a different viewpoint of an established narrative. Now, that narrative does not necessarily have to be fiction; rather, think of narrative as a story communicated by an individual or individuals. As a word of caution, do not confuse counter narrative with re-imagining. They are not the same. A re-imagining is some type of generic term to say re-packaged and in a positive light can be used to introduce material to a new generation but in a negative light can mask people who cannot generate their own ideas and are looking to ride a previous idea to success or recognition. A counter narrative is about presenting a different perspective, directly challenging original ideas and intentions. For comics and any type of visual media the positive possibilities of this means presenting a completely different representation altogether, which is what Eisner does with his Fagin…

Fagin by Eisner, a softer yet still street urchin chracterization
Fagin on the left by Eisner, a softer yet still street criminal characterization

…as compared to accepted cultural stereotypes andassic movie representations of a character like Fagin as demonstrated here by someone as notable as Sir Alec Guinness…

courtesy of londonparticulars.wordpress.com
The untrustworthy physical stereotype of Fagin on film and stage as promoted by the original text and drawings. Photo courtesy of londonparticulars.wordpress.com

And for those wondering if the above example is biased, Google (or use whatever your search engine is) Fagin the Jew images and see how that movie representation till this day still holds, and you will be surprised by how many there are.

So does this mean that creators/artists are just insensitive and discriminate at will? No. And that is another major point that Will Eisner discusses in his notes in this edition. A great question he poses for all artists is how does one differentiate between “good” stereotypes and “bad?” Stories, myths, narratives…all these have foundations, and storytellers are always building to create some type of universal recognition. I believe the point Eisner is moving towards is that one needs to do the homework and decide about what representations, signs, symbols, or text may be hurtful or promoting negative stereotypes. In other words, the artist is responsible for the material and therefore responsible for possibly influencing the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of people who read the work they produce.

The strength of Fagin as constructed by Eisner is the idea that you can challenge stereotype; you can stand up and insert cultural identity and a modified visual representation through a counter narrative. Comics have a great and entertaining history with often convoluted genealogy and counter narrative, more often as a way to entertain, and with good reason, but that doesn’t excuse those who create comics if they promote bad stereotypes that promote and enforce negative norms. That is why a possible strength of Fagin is as a book about having conversations about the problem of antisemitism in the arts and discriminatory stereotypes in general. These are conversations that can be about establishing that culturally we can challenge the classics, that we can take a longer look at the foundational texts that may have been acceptable at one time, but now should bare grater scrutiny for the messages that they transmit; we can take media that we now know as possibly promoting negativity, place it with something that counters it, and use those comparisons as a powerful move with conversation towards positive change and understanding in the way stories are told; and, of great importance, challenge ourselves and the artists and creators to pause to think about what they produce and be accountable for the material and ideas that spring from the material.

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Jeffrey Hayes is a contributor to the Capeless Crusader website. He spends his time reading and writing on a variety of things for his own entertainment and every now and again pokes his head out to confirm that the world is indeed going on about daily business just fine without him. He still wants to see movies of his dreams. contact: jldprod2002@gmail.com

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