Never Too Late

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Though Will Eisner jokes about being "in denial" about his age, 86, it seems he must be denying it somehow. Having worked in comics for about 65 years, ever since high school, Eisner continues to produce nearly a full book a year, making him more productive than many artists one quarter his age. In addition he appears in San Diego every year to hand out the comics industry awards named in his honor. Creator of the groundbreaking "The Spirit," a comic supplement that appeared in newspapers from 1939 to 1952, Eisner went on to a 25-year career as a pioneer in the field of comics as educational material. Later, in 1978, his book "A Contract with God" appeared, published by a small press. Twenty-five years after this first-ever "graphic novel," Eisner's latest book, "Fagin the Jew" (128 pp.; $15.95), has just been published by Doubleday, an imprint of the very mainstream book publisher Random House.

"Fagin" takes the famous sly criminal character from Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," referred to throughout the book "the Jew," and fills in his back-story. This way Eisner hopes to accomplish a corrective to Dickens' negative stereotype. Moses Fagin's story parallels that of Oliver Twist in his being orphaned at a young age, trapped in a rigidly stratified society and at the mercy of its caprices. Crime, "the trade of the streets," becomes his only option and he soon finds himself shipped off to the colonies as a convict. Years later he returns to London and organizes a group of street urchins into a petty crime gang which Oliver joins. By the end, after Fagin is sent to the gallows, the reader becomes aware of a connection between him and Oliver Twist that goes further than mere association. The spry, talkative Will Eisner spoke with TIME.comix by phone from his office in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

TIME.comix: At this past Eisner Awards ceremony in San Diego, Neil Gaiman (author of the new book "The Sandman: Endless Knights"), gave a keynote speech that painted a rosy picture of the state of the comics medium. Afterwards you bounded on to the stage and said, "We're almost at the top of the mountain!" Can you elaborate?

Hans Deryk/AP
Will Eisner in his studio in 1998

Will Eisner: What I meant was that at this moment in time people who are working in this medium have reached the point where we are beginning to receive, I wouldn't say approbation, but certainly a kind of respect for what we're doing. Over the years comic artists, people who were engaged in this business, were regarded with a great deal of contempt and it's only in this last two years that, for example, the libraries have begun to accept the material as legitimate reading. In fact in 1984 I did a five-page article in the School Library Journal begging them to include comics as a way of increasing the standards of the medium. Of course I was met with a loud yawn at the time, but since then libraries have begun to pick it up. And recently the Library Journal has been writing glowing remarks about [the medium.] So that prompted my statement that we are almost at the moment where we have become legitimate.

TIME.comix: What is the story behind "Fagin the Jew?"

Eisner: Fagin started a number of years ago when I was looking through the European mythologies, faerie tales and so forth, and it struck me that there was a thread of stereotype in all of those. And I believe strongly that there's nothing wrong with stereotype. Stereotype has been made a bad word. But it's not a bad [thing] unless it's used badly -- for evil purposes. But [sometimes] it's the only way you can communicate, visually. At any rate, one of the books I turned my hand onto was "Oliver Twist." In reading it again it struck me that Dickens committed an evil thing when he referred to Fagin throughout the book as "the Jew." I did some further research and discovered that Dickens himself was not anti-Semitic. When he was reminded of the fact that he had created this "error," so to speak, he tried to change it later and apologized profusely. I began to realize that there was a thing happening in all our literature in which we create stereotypes that live throughout [history] and establish identity figures. So I felt that I had a chance to depart from the kind of book I was doing [previously], which was essentially social commentary, like "Name of the Game" [in 2001], to do something that was more of a polemic. The function of "Fagin the Jew" was to write a biography of Fagin, which needed to be done. I didn't alter the thrust of Fagin -- he was still a criminal, he still gets hanged at the end -- but the opportunity to show what his life was like gave me a chance to take an issue with it.

TIME.comix: Do you see the use of negative stereotype as a continuing problem in literature?

Fagin shows Oliver the ways of pick-pocketing in "Fagin the Jew"

Eisner: I think it has always been a problem. The author, whether they're doing comics or film or regular literature, has a responsibility. For example, "Oliver Twist," began as an adult series in newspapers. It is now a children's book. The subject matter at the time was addressed much more to adults than it was to children. So over the years literary and film work has helped develop stereotypes for our society. I think that becomes a responsibility. Literature has a [particular] responsibility because literature is the main source of our cultural continuation.

TIME.comix: As you say in the introduction to "Fagin," you have your own history with stereotype, most particularly in the character Ebony White, a big-lipped, saucer-eyed African-American comedic sidekick to the Spirit. Although Ebony evolved with greater sensitivity in the latter half of the series' life, do you see "Fagin" as a kind of mea culpa?

Eisner: I suppose if I denied it nobody would believe me. But I if you go back and examine how I handled Ebony, I was aware that I was dealing with something that was volatile and had I a responsibility. The only excuse I have for [that portrayal] is that at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity. Later I attempted to depart from it by having a black character, a detective, who spoke proper English and I had an airplane pilot that was black.

TIME.comix: Isn't there a parallel, though, between Charles Dickens' depiction of Fagin and your depiction of Ebony, in that both were created out of the culture of their time?

Eisner: The only difference between what he did and what I did is the fact that his Jew was an evil man and the presumed characteristics of the Jew -- the money-clinging, tight-fisted, narrow-eyed character -- was what he capitalized on. For example, Dickens' depiction of another villain [in "Oliver Twist"], Sikes, makes no mention of nationality.

TIME.comix: The idea of fleshing out another author's character is interesting. I'm wondering how you would feel if somebody wrote a biography of Ebony White?

Eisner: I would deserve it. [Laughs] I would deserve that. As a matter of fact that probably would be a very worthwhile idea. I think more, if I were somebody else and were to undertake that, I would probably do something about his psychology. He lives with the Spirit, his engagement was solely tied up with the Spirit and I would probably touch on the slave mentality that he probably had.

TIME.comix: Did you think of doing just that: a biography of Ebony White?

Eisner: I once thought about it but I've left "The Spirit" and have gone off onto other things. My mention of Ebony in this book was something I felt I had to honestly do because if I didn't mention it somebody else would. But as far as the Spirit is concerned, I stopped doing "The Spirit" in '52 and when people ask me, Do I ever feel like doing it again, I say, "When I do, I lie down until the feeling goes away." If the "Fagin" book is successful I think there's more to do in that [polemical] direction.

TIME.comix: I'd like to ask about your evolution as an artist. In "The Spirit" days, though the work was radical for its time, you were using the conventional mechanics of comics: clearly defined panels, polished, inked drawings and full color. In the latter part of your career, including "Fagin the Jew," you have moved away from panel borders and into a sketchier drawing technique with just a brown wash for color. What's behind your change in style?

Eisner: It's a very conscious thing. The transition can best be characterized by the fact that "The Spirit" represented a youthful interest in demonstrating my artistic skills. Plus, the medium I was working in, newsprint, required a strong, solid line that enclosed color. Also my reader at that time was a younger reader. Now I'm aiming at an adult. An adult has sufficient life experience that they can supply the background where I have a blank area. Another element in the change is that I feel the story has far more importance now than when I was working [on "The Spirit."] Anything that would interrupt the story, such as highly complex artwork, is no longer useful. You'll find that in the case superheroes and adventure stories, the artwork tends to be very tight and complex, heavily detailed and so forth. I'm dealing in impressionism. So my work today, if you want to put a name to it, would be impressionistic.

TIME.comix: Your work on "The Spirit" has often been described as cinematic, but it strikes me that look of you work has changed to something more akin to theater. Most of the angles are straight on, with no distortion and little projection. It's proscenium-like.

Eisner: Yes. That's very astute of you.

TIME.comix: Do you have memories of the Yiddish or so-called Borsht-Belt theater?

Eisner: Yes. My father painted scenery in the Yiddish theater. He used to take me to plays. I've always been fascinated by plays. I've always felt that there was something very real about plays. "The Spirit" was originally done with a cinematic approach because I felt that the language at the time was being impacted by cinema and cinematic ideas. [But] I was never really satisfied with it. It was interesting and fun to experiment with but for me live theater is a reality. You understand that I am writing for believability. All my stories start [metaphorically] with the words "Believe me." Real theater is the closest you can get to providing the audience with a real experience. ... You sit there and watch real people doing real things. ... So all my work, beginning with "Contract" was meant to [evoke] live theater.

TIME.comix: The characters in "Fagin" are extremely expressive, like actors.

Eisner: I struggled to improve the gestures and acting of the characters. One of the biggest problems in this medium is the difficult time in developing what I call internalization. You take a superhero scene where the character is doing something but you don't know what he's feeling internally. It's only the body posture, the gestures, which enable you to determine what he's really thinking. I worked more on the business of gestures and postures, what you call the "acting," than I did on anything else in this book. That's because for this story I needed to convey the internalization.

TIME.comix: What about your Art, in the general sense? Have your themes changed?

Eisner: Well obviously the themes I'm interested in now are more connected to [real] life and human experience. I still believe and have always believed that the main interest of readers is survival. That people are essentially concerned with survival.

TIME.comix: So the exploration of survival is the theme that ties your work together?

Eisner: Right. Man's struggle to survive. Look at all my books, underling all of them is the depiction of human beings struggling to survive one way or another.

"Fagin the Jew" is available at all major bookstores