Friday, February 17, 2006

THE PLOT by Eisner

The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

I just got around to reading Will Eisner's last book, THE PLOT, an attempt to bring the refutation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a treatise used to incite anti-Jewish sentiment for the last century) into a popular form. It's an uneven but entertaining book, I thought. I've always had a mixed reaction to Eisner's non-Spirit "serious" comics, certainly admiring the storytelling and technical skills he brings, but often finding the melodramatic style and exaggerated characters a bit off-putting. Of those I read, only TO THE HEART OF THE STORM really worked for me throughout.

This book is quite different from his previous graphic novels, depicting Eisner's interpretation of historical events starting in mid-19th century France and moving to Russia and around the world. The first half of the book traces the origins of "Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu", a French pamphlet used to criticize Napoleon III, and the attempts of certain Russian factions to block reform and modernization contrary to their own interests by using the Tsar's distrust of Jews, and how they merged in the creation of the "Protocols", purporting to reveal a vast Jewish conspiracy.

That all works very well, and is the best part of the book. Eisner drops a lot of information and dramatizes it well, not always realistically but effective and entertaining. It's a shame that towards the end of that section he just summarizes various other events in a quick text page, as it would have been interesting to see how he would have drawn that.

The next section of the book drags, unfortunately, as Eisner devotes about two dozen pages to the proof, discovered in the early 1920s, that the "Protocols" are indeed fake, mainly by comparing selections of them to the earlier "Dialogues in Hell" while a character reads along and makes some observations. It's hard going, especially since both of the source texts are pretty dull, and I can see why Eisner might have wanted to include them to give the book some scholarly heft, but it's not very good comics.

The final section picks up slightly, as he traces the wide dissemination and influence of the "Protocols" through the 20th century and beyond, starting with their use in the rise of Nazi Germany, despite clear evidence of their falseness and repeated attempts to debunk them once and for all. It's all short vignettes, and some work better than others, at times Eisner stages the scenes so that it feels more like the characters are talking to the reader than anyone around them in an attempt to get a lot of information in a short space.

Overall it's a book worth reading, but I think Eisner kind of tried to do too much, and might have better served the material by focusing on the first third more. The middle didn't really benefit from being done as comics, and the point of the last part probably could have been made more elegantly.

I'm not sure it all matters, though, as Eisner seems to avoid the point that the reason the fact that the "Protocols" are fake never takes, especially in the modern day, is that the actual text is irrelevant. Very little of what appears in the excerpts he selects has any bearing on modern anti-Semitism, and I doubt many of the widely disseminated copies are read at all. It's just a pretext for the hate, not the cause. I was going to tie this around to the current furor over those Danish editorial cartoons, but don't really have time to do the additional research. I think the connection is obvious enough, though. Anyway, while I can understand Eisner's desire to do a popular debunking of the "Protocols", and think the book is overall an artistic success, I'm not sure it'll actually convince anyone who needs convincing, if that was his desire.

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