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Arts & Culture

Will Eisner's "The Plot"

The father of the graphic novel debunks history's most notorious anti-Semitic tract

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

"The Family Circus" it ain't.

Aside from its excess of exclamation marks, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion appears too intellectual – and too inflammatory – to share ancestry with the Sunday funnies or superhero stories. But this harrowing graphic novel, subject of a new special exhibit at Maitland's Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center, sprang from the same mind that helped invent our modern illustrated entertainment industry – not once, but twice.

If you've never visited the oldest Holocaust museum and research center in the Southeast, don't feel alone. I've lived here since 1996 and had never set foot inside the modest beige building abutting the Roth Jewish Community Center before now. Similarly, the vast majority of fans filling the seats at screenings of last summer's Dark Knight Rises and Avengers blockbusters probably wouldn't recognize the name Will Eisner, nor recognize the role he played in cultivating those characters' creators, not to mention the medium they played in.

Up until the mid-1930s, "comic books" simply reprinted newspaper strips into booklets. In 1936, a year before the Superman publisher Detective Comics (now simply known as DC) was born, Eisner created some of the first characters specifically intended for the comic book format for the short-lived Wow! magazine. Later that year, he founded the first successful comic book "packaging" company with partner Jerry Iger. By the time Will left the company in 1939, Eisner and Iger had given early employment to Batman creator Bob Kane, Avengers co-creator Jack Kirby and other influential artists.

(Incidentally, Eisner is no relation to the former Disney CEO and had no relationship with that company. But his authentic autograph is suspiciously similar to the familiar corporate logo loosely based on Walt's signature – which one came first has been hotly debated – and his partner Iger was, coincidentally, the grand-uncle of Disney's current CEO.)

Never satisfied with mere superpower slapstick, Eisner pushed the medium with morally complex stories that shone a spotlight on society's margins. Between 1940 and his death in 2005, Eisner created the widely read noir crime comic The Spirit (much better than the 2008 flop Frank Miller film may have led you to believe); developed illustrated instructional manuals for the U.S. Army while serving in World War II; and invented the term "graphic novel" for his 1978 book-length work A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories.

That last title was the first of several exploring Eisner's ethnicity. Like Kirby, Stan Lee, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and many others in the industry, Eisner's family were Jewish immigrants. (For a fictionalized but faithful view of this golden era in comic books, read Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.) Eisner addressed anti-Semitism in a number of late-career works, including his revisionist examination of the character Fagin from Dickens' Oliver Twist. That theme became the central focus of his final graphic novel, The Plot, which inspired the Maitland institution's current installation.

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