Fagin the Jew
Author: Will Eisner
Artist: Will Eisner
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
The villain in Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Fagin the Jew, is an offensive antisemitic stereotype. Will Eisner decided to reinterpret Dickens’s caricature and humanize Fagin in his own story. Fagin is by no means the hero, but Eisner sought to provide context for his life of crime. Unlike Dickens’s plucky hero, Oliver Twist, Fagin endures similar circumstances in Eisner’s novel. Unlike Oliver, he is weighed down with prejudice and never gets Oliver’s happy ending.
Fagin the Jew has been hailed as “skillfully executed, thought-provoking, and enlightening” by Gene Kannenberg, Jr. in his 500 Essential Graphic Novels. It has even been compared to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead because it gives “life to Fagin” just as Stoppard transformed Hamlet’s friends into lead characters in their own story. Even though Eisner’s book does deeply explore the impact of Fagin’s poverty on his life, it is often “lighthearted in a way Eisner’s fans will find familiar.”
Eisner starts the novel with Charles Dickens meeting Fagin before his execution. Fagin essentially tells Dickens his story as the gallows loom. Moses Fagin explains that he immigrated to London as a child and a poor family of Bohemian Ashkenazic Jews. While his family no longer faced pogroms, London was problematic for jews because antisemitism was prevalent.
After his father died, Fagin became the primary breadwinner of his small family when he was still a child. In essence, Fagin’s life is a mirror image of Oliver Twist’s. While Oliver successfully navigated his way out of poverty and into a small fortune, Fagin was constantly thwarted at inopportune times. Eisner shows that bigotry often prevented Fagin from achieving his better life.
Fagin only begins his life as a career criminal in earnest after being thrown out of school and forced to live as an indentured prisoner. Eventually, he meets Sikes and drifts towards crime. At this point, the story begins to merge with Oliver Twist’s life. Eisner shows that Fagin’s fate was sealed by a tragic misunderstanding’s on Fagin’s part.
Unsurprisingly, Eisner’s artwork throughout the book is remarkable. He uses sepia tones throughout the novel to evoke artwork from the 19th Century. His character designs are memorable, and Eisner was outstanding at showing his characters’ emotions through their facial expressions. Eisner also changes the formatting of each page constantly. This allows him both move the story along quickly and focus on key moments by only showing one or two images per page. His visuals demonstrate that he had mastered the art of storytelling.
Will Eisner’s career as a comic book writer started in the mid-30s after some of his comics were published in WOW! What a Magazine by his future collaborator Jerry Iger. He had comics published in all four of the issues of the short-lived magazine. After WOW!, Eisner and Iger formed the Eisner-Iger Studio.
At 19 years old, Eisner began creating comic books, including Hawks of the Sea, Sheena – Queen of the Jungle, and Blackhawk. He even turned down a pitch from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for Superman. Eisner-Iger Studio produced comics for pulp publishers to stay afloat. His first big hit was The Spirit in 1940, which was both syndicated and appeared in its own comic published by Quality Comics. After being drafted into the military during World War II, Eisner continued to work on The Spirit and other projects, including Baseball Comics and John Law.
After Eisner decided to create graphic novels that fundamentally altered his career. Instead of writing standard comic strips or books, Eisner created graphic novels including A Contract With God, The Dreamer, To the Heart of the Storm, The Building, and Life on Another Planet. Fagin the Jew is another example of his effort to create books for adults. Due to his contributions to comics, Comic-Con International established The Eisner Awards to celebrate and honor his legacy.
If you want to learn more about Eisner you should check willeisner.com. It is has numerous resources on Will Eisner and his career.
Where to Find Fagin the Jew
Even though Fagin the Jew was published in 2003, it is pretty easy to find. You should check your local comic bookstores to see if they have it in stock. If you not, you can order through Amazon or purchase it on Comixology. You can find both the original version of the graphic novel and the 10th-anniversary version published in 2013.
Fagin the Jew (2003) – Paperback
Fagin the Jew: 10th Anniversary Version (2013) Available in paperback, kindle and comiXology