Reviewed by Bill K., Materials Handler
Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner is instantly available as an ebook on Hoopla.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is certainly a classic of literature. Whether one has read the book or merely seen one of the dozens of adaptations, the title character’s story and the image of him asking for more endures in the cultural consciousness even 180 years since it was published.
It was another character, however, that stuck in the mind of Will Eisner, the comics legend long-considered the creator of the “graphic novel”: Fagin, the leader of the gang of thieves who take Oliver in, notorious from the book’s initial publishing as a horrifically antisemitic caricature. Despite some later depictions de-emphasizing his Jewish ancestry, the antisemitic sting of the character has never really gone away.
Eisner takes the opposite approach in his 2003 graphic novel Fagin the Jew, making the character an unabashed and proud Jew. The book frames its story with Fagin awaiting his execution after the events of Oliver Twist, speaking directly to Dickens and sharing his life story and his side of the story.
The reader sees Fagin, a poor Ashkenazi Jew in England, forced into crime at a young age to survive, and seeking a better life not just to better himself, but to do his community proud. In these early pages, Eisner gives a look at Jewish life in pre-Victorian England, both the squalor of the poor as well as the upper class, politicking their way to something close to acceptance in English high society. Close to, but never fully; even though they were tolerated in Britain more than much of Europe at the time, Jews were still othered and never fully equal.
It almost seems like a Dickens tale itself, with Fagin’s boyhood reflecting Oliver’s story. Except every time Dickens might give his protagonist a joyful reprieve or happy ending, Eisner offers no such comforts. Try as he might, Fagin can never escape the prejudices against his race, both personal and structural. It is an ultimately tragic story, even with a somewhat positive postscript.
Eventually, Fagin meets and partners with the vicious criminal Sikes, leading into a retelling of the story everyone knows but from his viewpoint. Eisner depicts all the tragedies in Oliver Twist’s final act and climax as tragic misunderstandings on Fagin’s part. Truth be told, this section of the narrative is not quite as interesting as Eisner’s fully original anti-Dickensian tale. Still, it is ultimately fitting to the whole, showing how prejudices and assumptions can make simple villains out of complicated situations and imperfect people.
The theme, and value, of Fagin the Jew is respect. Fagin’s quest for respect in a society which will never give it to him, and his—and by extension, Eisner’s—demand of respect for the Jewish people. Indeed, in one scene, the author seems to speak through the title character, in a soapbox moment giving a passionate defense of his people and lashing out at the stereotypes in his depiction (Dickens himself doesn’t come off so positively).
Eisner’s artwork is charming, warmly evoking classic literature illustrations. And the story they’re telling is an impassioned, proudly Jewish story that’s as readable and investing as the type of timeless classic literature it deconstructs.
This is review is part of the Finding Value series, inspired by the eleven core values central to the Library's mission. Tune in as Library staff review books and movies that highlight the values accessibility, civil discourse, inclusiveness, integrity, intellectual freedom, lifelong learning, literacy, respect, safety, service, and stewardship.