Graphic novels lend themselves well to dramatizing intrigue, mystery, and conspiracy. In The Plot, the grandfather of the graphic novel takes on the mother of all conspiracy theories. Will Eisner's final work—he died in 2005—investigates the history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious fraud that has been used to demonize Jews across the world for the past one hundred years. Eisner announces in his preface that this work is "a matter of immense personal concern" (p. 1). He knows that many academics already have investigated the Protocols, and The Plot is clearly indebted to this body of scholarship. Eisner proposes here, though, that the graphic novel provides "an opportunity to deal head-on with this propaganda in a more accessible language" (p. 3). Some scholars may be unsatisfied either with a story that moves quickly through the tangled history of the Protocols, or with invented dialogue between protagonists, but that criticism would be shortsighted. In The Plot, Eisner effectively dramatizes the history of a fraud and, in so doing, successfully exposes the Protocols to a potentially wide readership.
Eisner guides his reader from 1848 to 2004, while emphasizing two themes. The first, a story well known to anyone versed in the history of antisemitism, is that Jews have been a convenient enemy targeted by those who feel dispossessed by modernity. The Protocols works effectively as a propaganda tool because it has proven adaptable for blaming Jews for all the ills of the modern (and postmodern) world. Eisner's second theme is the naïveté of believing that the repeated exposures of the Protocols as a fraud will somehow lessen its power to spread hatred of Jews.
Like others who have exposed the Protocols, Eisner explores the sources from which the work was plagiarized. Seventeen pages of running text provide [End Page 186] side-by-side comparisons of passages from Maurice Joly's Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (1864) and the Protocols. Even in including this textual evidence, Eisner preserves a sense of drama, transporting his readers to 1921 and allowing us to sit with the journalist Philip Graves as he discovers that the Protocols is fabricated. Soon after Graves exposes the Protocols as fraudulent in a series of London Times articles, Graves's editor speculates that the exposé will put an end to the Protocols. "This fraud will soon be well known everywhere," the editor tells Graves, "So, my boy, what harm can the 'Protocols' possibly do now?" (p. 94). On the very next page, a young Adolf Hitler speaks of the "Jews' strategy to undermine nations!" (p. 95) The juxtaposition effectively communicates Eisner's message about the danger of underestimating propaganda's power. (Eisner later tips his hat to propaganda in contemporary politics when he asks why, if everyone knows that the Protocols is fake, it is still published. The answer: WMD. The Protocols "is a weapon of mass deception!" [p. 114].)
Eisner remains true to the historical influence of the Protocols by not over-emphasizing the Holocaust in The Plot. Though the Protocols was a convenient text for the Nazis, the history of the Holocaust likely would not have been significantly different without the book. Hitler is portrayed as interested in the Protocols only early in the 1920s, and Eisner uses a soft hand in guiding his reader through the Holocaust era—including one 1945 incident in which an American intelligence officer finds Joseph Goebbels' diary, which contained references to the Protocols (p. 110).
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Protocols retains its power to generate hate, a fact that clearly motivated Eisner. Eisner himself becomes a character in the novel, traveling to archives and libraries to research the Protocols and even confronting college students as they protest against some vague form of Jewish influence. One of the protesting students gives voice to the "logic" behind the Protocols today. "Even if it is a fake!," he yells at Eisner, "people should read the book because it reveals...