The Plot: the Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2005)

It’s a shame when a legend lets you down. No matter whom they are, their missteps often hurt more than when a creator with mediocre talent lets you down.

I’m struggling to come to terms with the final book written and drawn by the great Will Eisner. The Plot: the Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a book that Eisner spent twenty years working on, hoping to use his very considerable graphic skills to help drive a nail into the coffin of one of the most hateful and evil books in human history. However, in doing so, Eisner forgot the most important part of a book: to make it interesting.  

I love Eisner’s comics. He’s inarguably one of the ten greatest cartoonists of all time. His work on the Spirit in the 1940s virtually wrote the book on heroic comics. In the ’70s Eisner pioneered the graphic novel form with his A Contract With God, Signal from Space and A Life Force. Even close to his death last December, at the age of 87, Eisner was producing interesting comics work. In fact, The Plot is his final work, published posthumously, which gives it extra weight as part of his legacy.

I’m also Jewish, so this graphic novel, which details the long and sordid tale of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has been used for the last hundred years to justify systematic anti-Semitism, was especially interesting to me. I wanted to know the history of the book that has sown hatred and passion nearly everywhere it was published. 

Unfortunately, in writing this book, Eisner forgot many of the lessons that make his great works so wonderful: rather than creating interesting characters, a thoughtful plot, some pathos and passion, Eisner created a didactic book, strident when it could have been restrained, floating on the surface of an issue when it could and should have been all about depth.

Instead of really looking deep into the issues raised by this book, Eisner delivers a polemic. He can’t believe a book as evil and ridiculous as The Protocols could even exist, so the book is all about the self-serving fools who propagate it, without real insights into why they want the book to spread. For instance, we see how the Nazis adopted The Protocols as a central part of their philosophy without readers seeing the gap that the book fills. We see the court of Tsar Nicholas II and how the book infects Russian society, but we never get a feel for the reasons Nicholas adopted it. Readers are told Nicholas is weak and needs to seize upon a weapon to keep the starving Russian peasants quiet, but we never get a feel for the anti-Semitism that was already present in Russian society, or for that matter even see the Tsar actually act. Instead, we just see Nicholas’s sycophants and advisors manipulate him into pushing the book.  

Again and again, Eisner misses an opportunity to give readers a look inside the minds of the people he shows. We never learn why men push the book, aside from being evil and self-aggrandizing. The book spreads throughout the world, but why do people read it? What is the power it has? Most importantly for a reader, who is affected by it? Readers know intellectually of Russian pogroms and Hitler’s evil, but until the very last page, we never see the impact of The Protocols. The book has power, but it’s never shown.

Eisner’s always had a nice ear for dialogue. His characters have always seemed realistic because they look and sound realistic. People have normal conversations and seem to really live complex and interesting lives. In The Plot, however, Eisner’s ear turns tin. Characters don’t say what they think; they say what need to in order to advance the plot. Like characters in a Marvel comic of the 1980s, characters speak exposition: when Maurice Joly, the author of the original story, commits suicide, the men who pick up the body talk about Joly’s life with an amazing depth and breadth of knowledge. They are omniscient narrators in human form, telling the story in detached and dull terms, taking the drama out of the scene. 

By the end, when Eisner draws himself into his story, confronting some anti-Semite protestors in San Diego in 2001, the book has become just overwhelmingly strident and angry. I kept wishing Eisner would stop bringing in straw men to fight against, but instead try to give readers insight into the power of The Protocols and the people who believe and promulgate that book. Perhaps because Eisner is incredulous at the book’s power, he can’t see under the skin of the people he depicts.

And that’s the real reason why this book is so frustrating. It’s understandable but a shame that Eisner can’t do more than create ciphers to fight against. If he’d shown the believers of The Protocols as banal men, looking to fill holes in their pathetic lives with their hatred, the book would have some power, and frankly some hope. Instead, with straw men continuing to believe in evil, Eisner shows a lack of insight into his enemies which dooms the book. Worse, readers are left with no idea of why people are so passionate about The Protocols, and therefore the book has a feeling that things will never change.

In the end, this is a very noble failure but a failure nonetheless. I expected something very insightful from Eisner, but instead he produced a work where his passion about the subject kept him from doing his best work. 

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