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Will Eisner Made Fighting Bigotry An Art Form

Two particular aspects of his late-in-life resurgence seemed to give Will more pleasure than all the recognition and praise that had gone before. He especially prized the worldwide use of his two instruction books, and his 17 years teaching courses in comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And he received great personal satisfaction from his decision to use graphic novels to mount a specific and ongoing fight against anti-Semitic prejudice.

Last fall, when Will was in Washington to participate in a forum at the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, I asked him if there had been a single blinding flash or moment of truth that moved him to rush to the barricades, one hand clutching his meds and the other waving his trusty pencil, as a one-man anti-defamation task force.

Will Eisner used graphic novels to fight anti-Semitic prejudice. His "Fagin the Jew" portrayed the Charles Dickens villain in a different light. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

He chortled and explained: "I had to reinvent myself."

He immediately footnoted himself, acknowledging that the line belonged to Jules Feiffer, who once worked in Eisner's shop. Will wasn't really explaining anything, though, but was thinking about getting ready to explain something. Perhaps. And in the meantime, he was going to resort to the basic conversational fancy-footwork device of answering a question with a question.

His comeback question was: "Do you remember the incident we were involved in on Waikiki Beach?"

I assured him that I would never forget it.

"Then you, of all people, should understand," he said.

That bright day on the Honolulu beach, we had unintentionally wandered into a private area and made the mistake of seeking directions from an isolated group of native Hawaiians. Because of our appearance and circumstances, we were subjected to ridicule, disdain, intimidation, insults and threats.

When we finally managed to extricate ourselves, I turned to Will and saw that he was laughing about it. "Now, my fine WASP friend," he said, "you know how it feels."

The closest Eisner ever came to revealing his true, inner self was in his "To the Heart of the Storm." In that graphic novel, a young man riding a troop train during World War II recalls his early life in poverty, the anti-Semitism his immigrant parents and their children faced, and the family stories his parents told. Will said he had intended to reset "the biology of prejudice" using realistic experiences rather than scholarly documentation, but discovered, painfully, that he was producing an autobiography.

"It took me an agonizing year to complete and it turned out to be a real battle and a period of deep therapy," he said.

His final graphic novel, "The Plot," a denunciation and rebuttal of the forged anti-Semitic manuscript "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," is in the hands of his publisher and is expected out later this year.

He was a fighter all the way, and he went down swinging.

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