Coming to Terms with The Plot: Will Eisner’s final, fatally flawed graphic novel

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jason Sacks

It's a shame when a legend lets you down. No matter who they are, the legend’s missteps often hurt more than when a creator with mediocre talent lets you down. We have all suffered through movies where our favorite actors or directors just didn’t produce their best work, or have been frustrated with musicians who put out CDs that just don’t match the quality of their previous work. It’s even more frustrating when the work in question is the creator’s final creation, one that took them much of his later life to complete.

I'm struggling to come to terms with the final book created by comics legend Will Eisner. Eisner spent twenty years researching The Plot: the Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eisner had dreamed for many years of using his graphic skills to help drive a nail into the coffin of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book that has perhaps helped to cause more pain and suffering than any other book in human history. However, in doing so much research and investing so much passion into his work, Eisner lost perspective on The Protocols. Instead of seeing the evil caused by the book as the true evil, Eisner came to consider the book itself as evil. Therefore, instead of writing about the pervasive impact of anti-Semitism, and how The Protocols has helped to turn its readers towards hatred, Eisner seems to consider The Protocols as a sort of poison fruit, turning everyone it touches towards evil. It’s a surprisingly shallow approach for a man who devoted so much of his creative output towards seeing below the surface of his characters.

I love Eisner's comics. Will Eisner is inarguably one of the ten greatest cartoonists of all time. His work on The Spirit in the 1940s virtually wrote the book on heroic comics. In the '70s, Eisner pioneered the graphic novel form with his A Contract with God, Signal from Space and A Life Force. Even close to his death last December, at the age of 87, Eisner was producing interesting comics work. In fact, The Plot is Eisner’s final work, published posthumously. That fact gives this graphic novel extra weight as part of Eisner’s legacy – it was a dream project that reflected his personal attitudes and consumed Eisner in his final months of life. In many ways, the themes of The Plot were capstones to his legacy and approach to the medium. Eisner’s works always represented his passions, his intellect and his Jewish upbringing. The Plot could be seen as an intellectual look at the passions aroused by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamously anti-Semitic work.

I'm also Jewish. My ancestors, living in Russia and Poland, might very well have fallen victim to the passions aroused by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Therefore, this graphic novel was especially interesting to me. I wanted to know the history of the book that has sown hatred and passion nearly everywhere it was published. More, I wanted to know why the book would have aroused such passions. A book is nothing but a collection of words; why have these particular words been so dangerous over the decades?

Unfortunately, in writing this book, Eisner forgot many of the lessons that make his great works so wonderful: rather than creating interesting characters, a thoughtful plot, some pathos and passion, Eisner created a didactic book. The Plot is strident when it could have been restrained. It floats on the surface of the issues it raises when it could and should have been all about depth. We are told that The Protocols is evil and arouses tensions, but Eisner rarely goes into the heads of those creating hatred, and never in the heads of those who believe what they are taught.

Instead of really looking deeply into the issues raised by this book, Eisner delivers a polemic. He can't believe a book as evil and ridiculous as The Protocols could even exist, so Eisner’s book is all about the self-serving fools who propagate it. Eisner doesn’t deliver real insights into why leaders want the book to spread. For instance, we see how the Nazis adopted The Protocols as a central part of their philosophy without readers seeing the gap that the book fills in German society, nor why the book was so eagerly embraced by ordinary Germans. Eisner touches upon the bankruptcy of Germany between the World Wars, but this fact is brought up as a backdrop for the story, never as a central element of the spread of hatred. Leaders use the book in Germany to spread hate, but we never see why the book has power or how it affects normal people. How did ordinary Germans come to see the cause of their financial hardship as the Jews rather than incompetent leadership? Readers get the view from far above the actions, but never really get to see the true impact of the actions.

Similarly, readers see the court of Tsar Nicholas II and how the book infects Russian society, but we never get a feel for the reasons Nicholas adopted it. Readers are told Nicholas is weak and needs to seize upon a weapon to keep the starving Russian peasants quiet, but we never get a feel for the anti-Semitism that was already present in Russian society, or for that matter even see the Tsar actually act. Instead, we just see Nicholas's sycophants and advisors manipulate him into pushing the book. Since this is a key moment in the narrative of Eisner’s book, it’s frustrating to see this moment presented in a way that robs the scene of its inherent drama.

Again and again, Eisner misses an opportunity to give readers a look inside the minds of the people he shows. We never learn why men push the book, aside from their being evil and self-aggrandizing. The book spreads throughout the world, but why do people read it? What is the power it has? Most importantly for a reader, who is affected by it? Readers know intellectually of Russian pogroms and Hitler’s evil, but until the very last page, we never see the impact of The Protocols. The Protocols has power, but its power is almost never directly shown.

Eisner's always had a nice ear for dialogue. His characters always seemed realistic because they look and sound realistic. People have normal conversations and seem to really live complex and interesting lives. In The Plot, however, Eisner's ear turns tin. Characters don't say what they think; they say what need to in order to advance the plot. Like characters in a Marvel comic of the 1980s, characters speak exposition: when Maurice Joly, the author of the original story, commits suicide, the men who pick up the body talk about Joly’s life with an amazing depth and breadth of knowledge. They are omniscient narrators in human form, telling the story in detached and dull terms, taking the drama out of the scene. The book is full of scenes like that. Consider this scene, set in 1923 Germany, for instance:

First Nazi soldier: Have you seen Gottfried Zur Beek’s “Protocols”? ...it’s a success! And General Ludendorf’s article last year has clearly “identified our enemy” with the public.
Second Nazi soldier: We need this now. Our country is suffering from the worst inflation…we’re in ruins. This is splendid propaganda!
First Nazi soldier: I see. Beek uses the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to show the Jewish plot to control the world!
Second Nazi soldier: Make sure that Hitler gets a copy at once…he will want to study it.

The conversation between the two unnamed soldiers is pure exposition, and actually seems to paint the Nazi movement in a different light than Eisner probably intended. He implies that the Nazis used The Protocols merely as a cynical means to manipulate public opinion, not as a keystone of their movement. Did the early Nazis not take anti-Semitism as a key tenet of their philosophy until these two faceless functionaries discovered Beek’s book? Eisner implies that even Hitler had never heard of The Protocols until it was brought to his attention, which seems far-fetched to me. Further, by showing the two officers as unnamed officials instead of specific men, Eisner robs them of their power. Instead of being individuals looking to climb the bureaucratic or military ladder, the two officers are faceless functionaries who exist merely to advance the story.

By the end, when Eisner draws himself into his story, confronting some anti-Semite protestors in San Diego in 2001, the book has become just overwhelmingly strident and angry. I kept wishing Eisner would stop bringing in straw men to fight against, and try to give readers insight into the power of The Protocols and the people who believe and promulgate that book. Perhaps because Eisner is incredulous at the book’s power, he can’t see under the skin of the people he depicts. The scene in San Diego is especially telling: Eisner confronts the protestors not with anger about their anti-Semite views but with a lecture that The Protocols is a forgery. For men who sincerely believe in such hateful views, what matter is it that one of the foundations of their belief system is based upon a lie? I wished that Eisner had tried to get inside the heads of those protestors, to try to understand why The Protocols were important to them, and why they didn’t care that the book was a fake.

And that’s the real reason why this book is so frustrating. It’s understandable but a shame that Eisner can’t do more than create ciphers to fight against. If he’d shown the believers of The Protocols as banal men, looking to fill holes in their pathetic lives with their hatred, the book would have some power, and frankly some hope for the future. Instead, with straw men continuing to believe in evil, Eisner shows a lack of insight into his enemies which dooms the book. Worse, readers are left with no idea of why people are so passionate about The Protocols, and therefore the book leaves the reader with a feeling that things will never change.

Only Eisner’s art, which has always been a great constant in his work, is a saving grace of the book. Even there, though, we see fatal flaws. There are a number of wonderful sequences in the book that are undercut by thoughtless work. On page 47, for instance, there’s a wonderful wordless sequence where the 19th century Russian propagandist Soloviev is reading over Mathieu Galovinski’s draft of The Protocols. The scene of Soloviev reading and considering each page is a wonder of intelligent panel design, and speaks of Eisner’s excellence. Yet the scene is undercut by Soloviev’s appearance. He looks strange, bizarre, evil on first glance. He’s a manipulator and we know it the minute we see the man. Therefore, there’s no doubt for we readers that Soloviev will approve the manuscript and create more havoc for the Jews. Eisner’s book is full of scenes like that, which is intensely frustrating for a reader.

In the end, this is a very noble failure but a failure nonetheless. I expected something very insightful from Eisner, a great book about anti-Semitism and its poisonous effect on world society, but instead Eisner produced a work where his passion about the subject prevented him from doing his best work. In his 2003 book Fagin the Jew, Eisner went out of his way to try to shatter stereotypes of Jews throughout fictional history. I wish Eisner had applied the same rigor applied to Fagin to this book. I can’t help thinking that there’s a great graphic novel in all the scenes that were cut from early drafts of The Plot.

Read Jason’s “Obsessed with Comics” Blog.

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