By Bob Andelman
I interviewed Benjamin Herzberg, briefly, for the final chapter of Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, not long after Eisner passed away. We discussed his involvement in the creation of Eisner’s final book, The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
It struck me funny that, no matter how much I thought I knew about Eisner’s activities in the last three years of his life, I didn’t know about Herzberg’s involvement in The Plot under after Eisner was gone. Not only that, but we never crossed paths despite working intimately with Eisner during that same period of time.
The next time I spoke with Herzberg was in October 2005, a few days before we were both scheduled to be speakers at the International Comic Arts Festival at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. We were both invited to speak about Will Eisner and Herzberg thought it might be smart if we discussed our intended subject matter.
Good thing he did.
As the author of the Eisner biography, I planned to give an overview of Eisner’s history, tell some stories about Eisner that were not in the book — which was still a few weeks away from publication — and read some short excerpts.
It was the first major speaking engagement I’d ever done and I decided to teach myself PowerPoint the same week. I wrote out what I planned to say and was in the process of creating a slide show to accompany my talk.
On the phone, Herzberg started telling me about the content of his talk. It freaked me out because so much of what he planned to say was in my talk. I may be the biographer, but Herzberg went to school on Eisner.
I had one thing going for me: I was speaking first.
I told Herzberg that I thought that I was invited to discuss Eisner’s life and that the organizers probably figured that he, in turn, would talk about his personal involvement with Eisner on Fagin the Jew and The Plot. Since we only had 45 minutes each — and the Andrew Cooke and Jon B. Cooke documentary, Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer — would be shown between us, I suggested we each focus on our unique connection to the artist.
Herzberg, who could have taken offense and told me to piss off, instead sent me his own PowerPoint presentation so we could avoid overlap. Good thing, too, because that definitely would have happened.
Thanks to Herzberg’s gentility and good humor, we each made well-received, complementary presentations that day. And I now knew that one day I needed to broaden the book’s description of Herzberg’s collaboration with Eisner.
Herzberg is a pretty amazing guy, whose personal mission is to do good in the world. In his day job, he is a Senior Private Sector Development Specialist in the Small and Medium Enterprise Department of the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C., working on investment climate reform processes, more often flying around the world than driving. Previously, he was senior business development advisor at the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, responsible for developing strategies aimed at eliminating legal and regulatory obstacles to business competitiveness and investment growth. Before that, he served as the economic advisor to the OSCE Mission to Bosnia Herzegovina, where he produced business development, training and advocacy programs promoting public-private partnerships and private-sector participation in civic society, and worked on projects to stimulate investment in the small and medium enterprise sector.
Herzberg studied in France and Great Britain, and holds a post-graduate degree in Geography and Environment from the Université des Sciences et Techniques, Lille, France and a Suma Cum Laude Master’s degree in Geography from the Université de la Sorbonne, Paris, France. Did I mention that he is a very smart guy?
As you’ll read below, he also has been a comics publisher in Sarajevo and France.
ANDELMAN: You had an interesting experience with Will Eisner in that — and I don’t think most people are aware of this — you worked with him on both Fagin the Jew and The Plot.
HERZBERG: Yes, I did. I can’t really say I was his assistant in the way people perceive an assistant to be. I was not sitting next to him at the drawing table day-in and day-out the way, for instance, that Milton Caniff had an assistant helping him, but I did provide a lot of assistance on those two books, especially on the second one.
It started with Fagin, for which Will asked me to do the historical and pictorial research. I also provided comments on the narratives and the structure of the book, but this was fairly light. The bigger contribution I had there in terms of the narrative was to scrap the original 30-page conclusion Will had drawn originally, because it was putting the book off balance a little bit. These pages, which were eventually replaced by a shorter piece, must be in Denis Kitchen’s file somewhere, But most of my contribution was on the visuals. Will had asked me to find documents about the Jews in London between 1790 and 1830. It was quite specific, and with that, I did research in museums and in libraries, and I found a number of good pictorial documents. Some of them, actually, were put at the end of Fagin the Jew.
We had a very interesting relationship then. I did that from New York, where I was based at the time. By the time the book was published, I was already living in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Will had thanked me in the front of the book. He also sent me a nice drawing in Sarajevo to thank me for my help on Fagin. He had told me he had sent me this picture, and I started to worry as I did not receive it for a while. One day it just came… from a neighbor. The picture had been delivered to my neighbor by mistake, as of course, Will had not sent it via certified mail or anything like that. That was like him. He would just put it in the cheapest envelope possible, unprotected. I saw that he had actually drawn it on the back of a page of roughs.
ANDELMAN: Well, he believed in economy.
HERZBERG: Yeah, but it was not a big deal for him to send a picture, but for me, it was a big deal, because it was a big color picture.
ANDELMAN: How did your involvement in The Plot come about?
HERZBERG: I was living in Sarajevo, working on economic development, helping small businesses get better economically. One day I received a phone call from Will asking me to assist him on The Plot. That started an even deeper collaboration than on Fagin in terms of building the book. I also did a fair amount of historical research on The Plot, but although I went quite far, Will actually ended up asking a few other people that were able to provide an academic credential to the book. Christopher Couch, for instance helped on it also.
ANDELMAN: How did he describe The Plot to you?
HERZBERG: Well, The Plot was a funny piece of work, because it just didn’t start the way any other book from Will had started before. Will usually worked backwards on books, working from the end, knowing what the end was going to be, and then building the story up to the beginning. Once he had a pretty god structure in mind, he would then start drawing from the beginning to the end. So he really never started drawing before really knowing what the intent of the book was and what the end of the book was going to be. But in The Plot, he had a topic, and he had a feeling about what he wanted to do, but it was fairly undefined as to how the book was going to be constructed. So this book had five different beginnings before the beginning that you see in the published book was finally chosen.
ANDELMAN: And how far along was he when you came on?
HERZBERG: Right at the beginning, I think I came right from the beginning, before it actually started. I was very honored, because Will was not someone who spoke about his projects to people usually. He kept them to himself because he felt that speaking about an idea or project would just oblige him to formulate maybe too early what it was about when it was not yet defined. But by the time he called me on for The Plot, I guess we had built that type of relationship where we could really think about the idea together.
ANDELMAN: Well, it’s interesting, because in the biography, Denis Kitchen had said that Will wouldn’t tell him what he was working on, that he would just say, well, it’s just a book, and it’s set in that period of time. And that’s about it. Denis wouldn’t know too much detail until it was actually done, so it is interesting that he told you about it as it was just kind of germinating and that he actually brought you in to help work on it.
HERZBERG: Well, maybe I need to give you a little backgrounder here, to give some context. Just to give you the history of it, I knew Will since about 1995. I knew his work from way back, and in 1995, I was in Israel at the time, and I was trying to build a comic book magazine. I failed miserably, but in the process, I had contacted Will and sent him basically some type of a fan mail explaining what I was trying to do and seeking his advice, and he replied very nicely, and we started to build a relationship by mail.
One day, I just went to see him in Florida. I happened to be in Florida, and I went to see him, and we started to develop quite a friendly relationship, chit-chatting about nothing and everything. I was quite an expert on his work by then, because I had been collecting it for a long time, and I had definite ideas about what he was trying to say in his books and how sometimes the American public did not understand fully his newer works, compared to The Spirit for instance. And since I’m French, I have a very European perspective on his work.
So we developed that relationship, and it was very interesting, because we really clicked. I think the fact that I am Jewish probably has something to do with it. Maybe the age also. I was probably looking for a grandfather figure at the time.
ANDELMAN: I think that it also helped that through the years he had always had such a strong European base of support that his door was really open for a European point of view. He might have been more prepared to accept a European view on his work and influence than even an American, because he grew up with the American point of view. He knew what people here thought.
HERZBERG: Yes, that’s an explanation, maybe. I mean, Will in Europe has been very strong since he came back into the picture in the 1970s. But if you think about it, Europeans have been creating graphic novels forever. I mean, if you think of Hergé and other European comic artists, the book format that they had developed way back, they were already graphic novels. And people started to do things for adults within that graphic novel format very early on. The likes of Bilal, Hugo Pratt, and all those people were doing very elaborate graphic novels. So anyhow, I was very familiar with graphic novels, and my expectations of the genre were actually very high when I started to see Will’s graphic novels. As I said, European comic artists had been doing graphic novels for a long time, even though they were called something different. So maybe that was a perspective that brought something to our friendship. But I think it was more of a personality thing than an artistic perspective one. I was quite entrepreneurial then, and this may have played also, as Will was a true entrepreneur at heart.
A funny story I heard on the way back from his funeral, from a good friend of his that had been a very successful entrepreneur in the food business, is that, believe it or not, Will had tried at some point to go in the fortune cookie business. He tried to convince his friend to create a new venture where Will would produce mini-strips of cartoons that would go inside the fortune cookies you get at the restaurant. It didn’t go anywhere, but this was the type of person Will was, always on the lookout for the next big thing. And when I was telling this friend about the type of ventures I had tried my hands at, he told me “Ahh, now I understand”.
ANDELMAN: What types of ventures?
HERZBERG: Well, for instance, I founded a comic book publishing company in Sarajevo, GASP Editions. I ended up in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina after living in Israel and then living in New York. I lived two years there, working on economic development, during daytime and on comics at night.
GASP stands originally for Graphic Art Sarajevo Project. The project was intended to bring some type of a renaissance to the comic book industry in Bosnia, which had been in existence but only for a short stint before the 1991-1995 war. Actually, Fax From Sarajevo…
ANDELMAN: Joe Kubert’s book.
HERZBERG: Yes, it’s a great book by the way. It tells the story of the one and only comic book publisher in Bosnia before the war. He left during the war and never came back. When I came to Bosnia, it had been a long time since any comic book publisher had been there, and there were hardly any artists in the country. But I found a few, and these young artists had absolutely no reference point. It was very hard for them to find any kind of comic books. They were 20 something and had grown up during the war, served in the army, etc. They only found a few things that this publisher from Sarajevo had published, which were mostly compilations of old American stuff and compilations of a few European classics, such as Hugo Pratt or Bilal (who comes from there originally). So their drawings were very interesting. They were basically set in time in the 80s, and they had no outlet to distribute their work or to even publish it themselves. So I created a company there that took their work and distributed it on the European market. When I did that, I approached Will to ask him to write a forward for the book “Sarajevo: Side Stories.” This book we put out was distributed in Angoulème, the French comic book festival. It’s at least the same size of Comic-Con International in San Diego. Will wrote the forward just after September 11th, so it was interesting, as I don’t know of any other text where he addresses the 9/11 issue and what it meant for artists.
By the way, just a side story here: Will drew a short strip for a 9/11 book, that shows someone’s TV exploding in the living room while the person is watching the events unfold. It was a great page. Well, later on, I found a drawing in Art Spiegelman’s book, In the Shadow of No Towers that really echoes Will’s drawing. It’s close to being a copycat, in fact. I asked Art Spiegelman about this during a talk he did at “Politics and Prose” in DC where I live now, but he denied having even seen Will’s drawing before he did his. Maybe two great minds just met on this…
Anyhow,let me get back to where I was. The Sarajevo book was quite a success in France. Small distribution, but good success, with lots of good press. It went very quickly. I mention it to illustrate that Will and I had started to kind of collaborate at that time. We had started to transform our friendship into a collaboration with Fagin, and then he started to help me on this book once I was in Sarajevo. He was receiving the portfolios of the artists from Bosnia and was commenting on their work all along. At some point also, Will wanted to do a book of the Spirit covers he did for the Kitchen Sink reprints, and he actually asked my guys to work on that. He wanted us to remove the titles for each page. He shipped me some cover reproduction, but – and this is typical about Will not mastering new technologies – they were basically just Xerox color copies, so despite all our efforts, we just could not do a quality work, because we needed digital access to the originals and without that, Xeroxes were not going to cut it. Well, Will was apparently not too disappointed, because he then helped me out when I was putting another venture together to do educational comics for the medical market.
ANDELMAN: Still in Bosnia?
HERZBERG: No. We used Bosnian artists but did it in France. We had an agreement with the Pasteur Institute, a very well known medical institution in the world, and the idea was to distribute medical comics in pharmacies. So you would go to the French equivalent of CVS, and buy comics for your kids who have the flu. The first book we did was about getting your first periods, because, let’s face it, every single girl in the world gets her first period at some point, so it’s a pretty good market. The brand was called MediComix. You can find all the information on GASP-Editions.com. I still get requests about this from time to time.
ANDELMAN: All right.
HERZBERG: Anyway, Will helped me there, and I was really inspired by his work on educational comics. It’s an era of his life that I really appreciate and that most people don’t understand. I was appalled when I saw the writing of Gary Groth in The Comics Journal, basically despising Will for having left the field of comics in the 1950s and gone into a commercial venture with American Visuals working on educational comics. I think it is lack of understanding of what he was trying to do with the medium. I really despise people that despise artists that go into commercial ventures. Somehow, a lot of people think that the comic book industry is above all other fields in the world and that people that work in it should be poor and starving and drawing comics on the corner of their table at night.
ANDELMAN: So what I think you are saying here, Benjamin, is that you will not be sending Gary a card on the 30th anniversary of The Comics Journal??
HERZBERG: Well, I read the Comics Journal. I think it is a very high quality journal, actually, and I read it every time it comes out, and I often go to the bookshop, and I am disappointed when it is not there yet. It is a valuable source of information and insight, and some of the people are very smart, and I think Groth is one of them, but I think he just has a lack of understanding of what Will was trying to do when he formed American Visuals. Also, vilifying an artist because the artist decides to bring his art out and merge it into a commercial carrier I think is just plain dumb. A lot of artists went to commercial illustration, but Will was actually successful, and he ran the company, so I guess that rubbed people the wrong way.
ANDELMAN: Right, and some of that in that period of time was simply a matter of survival. They had to change what they were doing if they wanted to keep paying their bills.
HERZBERG: Yeah. I think it is the same reason why Will went into comics in the beginning. He had to pay the bills, and he was a good artist, and he actually found a way to make it very profitable. Think about it: One of the first salary he got for his art was I think 15 or 25 dollars for a Gre-Solvent commercial flyer. And he immediately reinvested all of it into creating the Eisner/Iger shop. People today say he was running a sweat shop, but he found a way to be profitable while keeping artistic integrity and also help develop other artists. A lot of other people went to his shop and then became well known artists on their own. Kubert was just one of them (who was basically just cleaning pages at that time). But think of Kirby, Powell, and so many others, So his shop was really what in French we call pépinière. A pépinière is the place where you nurture buds for plants that grow bigger.
Well, let me come back on track… Will helped me in the Medicomix venture. I had based the idea on his work on educational comics and the PS magazine. I am a big fan of educational comics, because I really believe in the power of the medium to convey information to people in a way that will make the information stick. Anyhow, all this to say, with our various dealings on Fagin, Gasp-Editons and MediComix, we had further developed a collaboration at that stage.
So to answer your original question, when he started to think about The Plot, I think he was in a sufficient level of comfort with me so that he could afford to include me from the very beginning. He had the idea, and we started to talk about it when he had not written anything about it, I think. Then he jotted down some type of quick introduction, which I saw in Florida, and I thought it was totally off-line, and that’s where we started really debating how the book was going to be built.
ANDELMAN: Now, let me interrupt you for a minute, because at that point, he had written something, and you realize, “You know what, Will, boy, I have a great respect for you and your work, but I think you are off track here,” and you have to speak up and say something. Any hesitation to do that on your part? Did you have to think twice about the way you said things, or did you feel comfortable just saying exactly what you were thinking at that point?
HERZBERG: Well, no, I was not hesitating, because I was very sure of myself, the same way he was very sure of himself! He was stubborn, and I always think I am right, so you can imagine the type of discussions we had. I think I was seeing Will a good bit as a grandfather, really, and so the same way you know, when you have a grandfather who thinks he is always right and the grandchild tells him he is wrong. Also, we had built a relationship for a long time, but I think even from day one, I had to tell him what I was thinking about his work when he started showing me things.
ANDELMAN: Was this taking place via email, via telephone, in person?
HERZBERG: We were using all three communication means, including face to face when I went to Florida. Or, for instance, when I organized a conference in Paris on comics and Judaism, a panel discussion, where he came for the launching of The Name of the Game in France. So we found ways to see each other, I either was in Florida, or he was in France, and we also used the phone, the mail and email, of course.
But the first time we talked about The Plot was on the phone. He called me on my cell phone when I was in Bosnia. Then the second time, I was in Florida and he was showing me his first introduction. Then sometimes he was showing me something, and I was coming back home and digesting the pages and then sending him a very long email explaining to him what I was thinking or how I thought he should change the sequence or introduce a new character or such and such. Some other times, he would send me packages of roughs in Sarajevo and I would then call him to discuss.
But let et me be very clear here: he was always the master of his own work. This was his book, but it was a bit like Jiminy Cricket with Pinocchio, nagging in the ear of the main character, but then the main character does what he wants to do anyway.
ANDELMAN: How so?
HERZBERG: The first introduction he showed me, for instance, there was a clear indication that Will was not sure of how he wanted to approach that book. It was a very fictional introduction, when Will had told me for starter that he wanted to stay tight with the facts, and not venture in fictional events. I actually disagreed with him on this, but when he showed me the intro, I was, like, “There is no way this is what you told me you meant to do”. Will, with The Plot, was actually torn between two inclinations. On the one hand, he did not want to take the course of anti-Semitism. That was not his purpose for this book.
ANDELMAN: Right, because he always said that he was not a crusader.
HERZBERG: He was not a crusader, and this was a factual report, a document in comic book format on what The Protocols were and how they had been fabricated and distributed, and he wanted it to remain there. He wanted to build a case about it. So he was more comparing himself to a lawyer trying to bring evidence rather than trying to influence the jury with sentimental stories that will make them feel bad about the Jews and feel how bad The Protocols were… He wanted to remain on the facts.
ANDELMAN: He felt that the evidence was already in existence, that he could present it in a way that it might reach more people.
HERZBERG: Yeah. The evidence was in existence for a long time, and there are amazing researchers and historians who have been writing on this topic for a long, long time. There has been a series of trials where The Protocols were clearly exposed as a fake, and we even know the identity of the person who created the fake since the 1990s when two Russian and French researchers discovered it. I won’t go here into the whole history of The Protocols, but there is a huge amount of information available on how fake the Protocols are, yet it is mostly academic information. Common people who could be influenced by that usually don’t have access to this type of information, however they have access to the Internet, herethe lies about the Protocols are widely distributed. Will wanted to democratize the truth, and in doing so, he needed to be true to the information. But it was still between that point of view and the other one, which was that you are talking about a consummate storyteller here. This is a guy who can’t stop telling stories, and every time you spoke with him about anything, he had a little story to tell. And when he was putting these ideas on paper, his craft was marvelous, and the stories took form in a way that captivated the reader’s attention. And so it was very hard for him to reconcile on the one hand the willingness to stay put and only very close to the facts and on the other hand the drive to tell a good story and to bring the reader into some type of an epic story about The Protocols. This dilemma was apparent throughout the book, throughout the construction of the book, and I probably helped him a little bit to sort out those feelings, so the book that you see, is basically the result of a battle between the two inclinations.
So it is not really a graphic novel. People compare it to graphic novels, and I think that is inadequate. For instance, people look at new devices that Will had to use, such as putting in the middle of the book seventeen pages of comparisons between two documents to show the similarities between those documents, which is one of the proofs that the Protocols are a fake, because they were actually copied, nearly word for word, from an earlier pamphlet that was set to create animosity against Napoleon the Third, and which had nothing to do with the Jews at all. In doing so, Will, in the first part of the book, drives the reader’s attention by telling the story of the protagonist and showing that the book is a fake, but you know that this evidence is not good enough, that people aren’t going to trust him just because he said so. So he has to show the murder’s weapon, So he puts in the middle of the book an actual proof, the two documents side to side (the anti-Napoleon pamphlet and The Protocols), with only a little comic device on the bottom to keep readers interested in shifting through those pages, because he wants the reader to see for himself.
And then the third part of the book is actually more factual once he gained the reader’s belief that what he is saying is true. Then he tells how devastating The Protocols have been and how they have been replicated in so many languages around the world and how they refuse to die. So all this construction was kind of a new thing for Will, and he had to try it out several times. For instance, the seventeen pages in the middle of the book started out to be ninety-nine pages.
ANDELMAN: I was going to say, I remember seeing it in his studio, and he handed it to me, and I didn’t know he had been working on it. This was while I was working on the biography, and he handed it to me, and it’s this huge manuscript, and he explained how it had to have this hundred pages of text in the center, and I just looked at him without having read a word of it at that point and was like, “You’re kidding, right?” I remember saying, “Will, who is going to read this hundred pages? People will come to you to read a graphic novel, and they may buy into you — because of your background and educational comics — telling this story, but I don’t think that the audience that is going to buy a graphic novel or a graphic history is going to sit through a hundred pages of this.”
HERZBERG: It was a big issue, and we tried several things on that. Will edited it from the ninety-nine pages into one pages at some point, but that really didn’t work either, so we thought about putting the ninety-nine pages as an annex of the book. Those ninety-nine pages have something extremely interesting, and I think they should be published one of these days, and every comic book artist should be looking at them whilelearning the craft. There is the boxed text I talked about on the top, and on the bottom, there are basically two characters, one of which is drinking, and the other (Phillip Graves, the Times correspondent in Constantinople in the 20’s) is actually reading the text above and commenting on it. Immagine that going on for ninety-nine pages. Imagine being in a theater with two characters that captivate you for ninety-nine minutes just talking with each other. Eisner is the only one who could make that work in comics.
ANDELMAN: It sounds very French.
HERZBERG: It was the best existential comics sequence that I have ever seen in my life. Those ninety-nine pages have different events happening with different emotions going through, and it’s the same shot ninety-nine times, and it’s still interesting. It’s an amazing exercise de style as we say in French.
ANDELMAN: You can see why a European was perfect to work with him on this, because an American just wouldn’t have had the patience.
HERZBERG: Yeah, I know! Well, The Plot had really some twists and turns in the making of The Plot.
ANDELMAN: How so?
HERZBERG: For instance, Will at the beginning was not in the book, and I think, on one hand, at some point, got carried over by the factual aspects of the book and was so true to the facts and wanted to exclude any other aspects of the facts so that the latter part of the book became kind of too dry and too educational. We talked about ways to smooth that out, and then he decided to actually put himself into the book as a character. His part as a character in the book would actually serve as some type of device to keep the reader’s attention, so he decided to put himself in as a character.
ANDELMAN: For some reason, I thought that you had had some influence in convincing him to do that.
HERZBERG: I gave him the idea, but then he decided to do it, so I can’t take credit for what’s in that book because it’s his book, and while we had many discussions about it, it’s his book at the end of the day. So I could have proposed it, and he could have said no. In that case, I proposed it, and he said yes. He took some time to think about it because he had to own it first before he decided to do something. I am quite pleased about the book, I have to say. I was a bit disappointed by some of the reviews. I think people took it as a graphic novel and were expecting an entertainment book. This is not an entertainment book. This is a book that is supposed to teach something in a way that remains entertaining, but it’s mostly a document. It’s not a graphic novel. I call it a “graphic historical investigation”. It’s kind of a new genre, and I think that if just five percent of the energy of the people creating books around the world would be directed at doing this type of work, I think there would be a lot of good material out there.
One last thing that I can say about why Will did this book and also why he started to do Fagin the Jew also: I can give you just my two cents. I see his work span across half a century. I think when Will did a graphic novel, he positioned himself — that’s how I see him, at least — as a Balzac. Balzac, who wrote The Human Comedy, described the 19th Century French society inside-out through stories of individuals. If you want to understand the French of that period, you go read Balzac, he says it all. In his graphic novels, Will really does that, too. He described his contemporaries, and he touched on universal things by doing so. If you want to understand the New Yorker of the 20th century, you go read Eisner. In A Contract With God, he explores the themes of death, the relationship with God, deception, self-discovery, etc. Then you have the relationship to the city as an evolving and merciless character in others of his books and the anonymous feeling that the city creates. You have the theme of assisted suicide – or greed — in A Family Matter. You have the theme of social ascension, cultural assimilation, and a the cost of family ties in The Name of the Game. Basically a series of universal themes are treated, and by treating universal themes like that, through the stories of individuals, and while describing their environment with such empathy, Will, I think, really is the Balzac of comics.
But in his later works, he switches, the same way another writer switched a century before him: Emile Zola. With Fagin and The Plot, Eisner, from Balzac, becomes the Zola of comics. Zola, an amazing writer of the 19th century, risked his career, and even his life in 1898 when he wrote J’Accuse, which means “I Accuse,” about the Dreyfus affair, accusing the French army and government of anti-Semitism. Zola used his literary background and the credibility he had with French society to defend the innocent and by doing so, he was becoming a militant. And Will started to do that. From Balzac he became a Zola. From the note taker of his contemporaries, he became the defender or the accuser. He took on themes of prejudice in Fagin the Jew, and he took it upon him to prove to the world that libel, rumor, and lies don’t bring good things to the world with The Plot.
There is really a kind of a militantism in Will’s work toward the end of his life, because I think he became more concerned with time passing, of what he was leaving behind as a …
HERZBERG: Not really a legacy, but he wanted to leave something behind him. I don’t think it was in order for him to feel good or grandiose about himself, but he really wanted to contribute to the world. There is a Hebrew term that describes that, maybe. It’s called tikkun olam, which means “repairing of the world.” Every Jew has some mission to repair the world around him or her, and I think Will wanted to contribute to the betterment of the world, and that’s why he did those two books. The next book he was thinking about was an adaptation of works by Primo Levi called If This Is A Man. Do you know that book?
ANDELMAN: No. I have heard of Primo but not of the book.
HERZBERG: If This Is A Man, I think, is a masterpiece. It’s his account of Levi’s time in the concentration camps. A very, very well known book.
Will was looking for his next theme. He thought about dealing with the Koran, for instance, but then we talked about it. I did the first research for him about what was out there and how it had been treated and everything, and the project was abandoned. There a few other projects also abandoned before the idea of If This Is A Man about.
ANDELMAN: What do you know of or what do you think of the notion of the Anti-Defamation League trying to get The Plot distributed in the Middle East? You have had some involvement in that?
HERZBERG: Yes, I have. Since Will passed away, I have helped the estate as much as I could and lent a hand when they needed one to promote some of his work or arrange for the distribution of his work. I helped them, for instance, both Ann Eisner and Denis Kitchen, on some dealings with Grasset. Grasset is a French publisher that published The Plot, and The Plot worked tremendously well in France. It’s the best Will Eisner book in France in terms of sales, ever. It had more than 30,000 sales in France. It’s major for a comic book from Will there. Grasset did very well on The Plot, and it’s the only graphic novel that they have ever published, so I helped them out with that. They for instance took an article I wrote in French about Will’s life, and distributed it to all their sales force, so that they could promote the book appropriately. I also helped organize an exhibit of the originals in Paris. With the Anti-Defamation League, I helped the Estate a bit.. But now my work keeps me real busy, so Carl Gropper, who handles the Estate with Ann, is really the main driver on that.
ANDELMAN: What do you think will be accomplished by distributing it in Arabic?
HERZBERG: I think it corresponds to the original intent of the book and of Will, which was to put the evidence out there for as many people who are able to read it. There is, I think, a lot of people who don’t have access to the evidence, but who have been told a lots of lies about The Protocols. Once they have The Plot, they can decide not to believe it, they can decide not to read it, but at least Will wanted them to have access to it, and so the estate has been working toward the fulfillment of that wish from Will, and I am helping when I can.
ANDELMAN: I have to ask you, I have been thinking about this as we have been talking. You obviously put an awful lot of time into these projects with Will, starting with Fagin. Were you paid for your time?
HERZBERG: No, I wasn’t paid for my time. I was paid only once by Will, who kind of reimbursed me for some expenses that I had, and he gave me a $1,000 check, which was very nice. But that was kind of a token payment, let’s say. I had expenses a bit in researching some of the material and buying books and all that, but I never asked any reimbursement from him, and I never asked any payment from him. He sent the check to Sarajevo, and it was misplaced by our cleaning lady, so I actually lost it, so Will cancelled it and sent me another one. So although I got a thousand bucks out of it, I actually received two $1000 checks!!
ANDELMAN: You didn’t receive any royalties on the books?
HERZBERG: No, and I don’t think I should. It’s his book, and I helped him out a little bit, but really, it’s his work, and he was at the origin and at the end of it, and I am just somewhere a little bit in the middle. I was very happy to help. It was more of a great adventure for me. We had discussed a commercial project together, which was going to come out, one of the books after The Plot, which was a pictorial biography of Will. First, we started being actually the two joint authors on that book, and then he asked me to be the sole author of the book. We had drawn up a contract, but we actually never signed the contract, and he passed away just before I was to go down to Florida to interview him on the series of pictures that we had selected to go into some type of a coffee table book that would show beautiful, full color pictures of plenty of his work and associated documents from his early works. It’s a very interesting documenting the way of working at the Eisner/Iger shop and the way he was working at American Visuals. Even in his very, very early work, he already sowed the seed of the mastery of the art in terms of conveying stories, conveying emotion. So this was a commercial project, and there were definitively money to be made there. But that’s different. I always had a good daytime career, so working with Will on Fagin and The Plot was really not a commercial venture from my end.
ANDELMAN: Will that project ever go forward?
HERZBERG: Well, the project was stopped when he passed away, and we had even together actually put a hold on it before that because W.W. Norton wanted to have a blank field in order to publish a number of works by Will. They published The Plot, the Contract With God Trilogy and Will Eisner’s New York, and there will be more. So they did a major investment in Will, and I think it was fair not to interfere with that from Will’s thought and mine by putting other of Will’s books in the market. So we were working on it but with a plan to publish it once we had the green light from Norton. But all that is kind of on the shelf right now. I still have all the pictures with me, and I have been discussing maybe with his wife to interview her and other people. I’m not sure what to do, and I’m really deferring to Denis Kitchen on that. He’s very trustworthy and a great professional.
ANDELMAN: That might be the most effective way to do it.
HERZBERG: Yes, especially since I have seen some of the comments on your blog. I have to say something about your blog. I find the atmosphere right now extremely Oedipal. You know of Oedipus, right? To be be short, it was the guy who slept with his mother and killed his father. Well, I find the atmosphere right now very Oedipal because several people now are raising their voices and calling Will names. He was a liar, he was a bad person, he wanted people to genuflect in front of him, he would not bear anybody not liking him, and so on and so forth. I find all this very Oedipal because number one, when he was alive, Will was not someone who was secretive about his work; you can find so many transcripts of his interviews everywhere, so where were all the people, who today spit on him, when he was alive? I think it is kind of a natural process that people need to kill the father figure. And you have here someone who contributed so much, to the medium,, and so many people say that they kind of found inspiration in Will’s work. I think it is somehow somewhat of a natural process for people to actually destroy that, you know, so they can reconstruct it on their own, maybe.
ANDELMAN: There has been some criticism, but in the nature of the thing, I don’t know, I don’t think that the criticism is so bad.
HERZBERG: I think it is very healthy, and I think the man wasn’t perfect, and I am sure he pissed people off, stepped on a few toes, and I think that is very legitimate. But it’s just, in view of all that, I was thinking the best I could do is do the book that I wanted to do, which is to put out the pictures of his work, his art, and have them speak for themselves.
ANDELMAN: I think it’s a great idea.
HERZBERG: Speak for themselves to tell what kind of a man he was, because the pictures really show how warm he was, the intent he had when he was drawing, the quality of the work, but also the way he was interacting with people at work and how he was respectful of them, trying to manage commercial interests and artistic interests at the same time.
Will was a good man, and so I think a book with pictures like that would show that. Will was very dear to my heart, and I was very sad to see him go. He was just a great guy, so I liked him very much for being a great guy, and for being a good artist.