The Arty Semite

Will Eisner's Hometown Spirit

By Michael Kaminer

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Courtesy of Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art

“Cookalein” is Yiddish for “a modest bungalow, usually in the Catskills” where mothers would cook for their vacationing families. It’s also the title of one of the more modest but moving works in “Will Eisner’s New York: From the Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel,” which opened last week at Soho’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, running through June 30.

The exhibit showcases the work “of the comics and graphic novel master that was inspired by, and which spotlighted, his hometown, the city he always held closest to his heart: New York,” according to its website. Progressing from the iconic early “Spirit” cartoons to his prodigious later output of graphic novels — most with Jewish themes — the show offers a rare opportunity to see Eisner’s original work up close. While much of his graphic-novel portrayals are “affectionate, and softer-edged in terms of social commentary,” co-curator Danny Fingeroth told the Forward, “some works are as savage as any Philip Roth or Saul Bellow on the less pleasant sides of the Jewish-American experience.”

Along with pages from seminal works like “A Contract with God” (1978), about early 20th-century Jewish immigrants, and the autobiographical “To the Heart of the Storm” (1991), the show also includes originals from “The Plot,” a razor-sharp cartoon “refutation” of “Protocols of the Elder of Zion” released after Eisner died in 2005. And while the exhibit includes cartoons inspired by Eisner from heavy-hitters like Jules Feiffer and Al Jaffee, Fingeroth maintains the artist still hasn’t earned the kind of renown he deserves. “Once you get past Art Spiegelman and Stan Lee, who does the general public know?” he said. “How many graphic novelists does the general public know at all?”


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