Comic about Protocols the final work of a master

It takes an expert on fiction, a genius of spectacle, to get to the bottom of a cesspool of lies.

Will Eisner, one of the inventors of comic books and graphic novels, tackled superheroes and Jewish history alike with virtuosity and soul.

His last work, completed this year (a month before he died at 87) was “The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It vigorously plunges into one of the darkest holes of anti-Semitism and largely succeeds in explaining the how and why of “The Protocols.”

“The Plot” has a plot of its own beyond tearing down the Jewish conspiracy theories commonly associated with “The Protocols.” Eisner dramatizes the fabrication of the book, showing the young Russian anti-Communist Mathieu Golovinski as an opportunist employed by the czar’s secret police. Golovinski cribs most of “The Protocols” from a French political tract and shifts the content to suit the czar’s purpose — to scapegoat the Jews and distract others from the political struggles rocking pre-revolutionary Russia.

Eisner’s art uses a sophisticated mix of detailed characterization and impressionistic shading to dramatize to a complex story. This approach gets stretched in the next section of the narrative where Eisner has two fictitious characters, a reporter and his colleague, dissect “The Protocols” in relation to its French source material. The thoroughness is admirable, and leaves little room for even the most delusional denier or anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist to argue.

Here, the side-by-side comparisons become a little dry despite Eisner’s cinematic layout. But the author gets his due because of the nobility of the effort — summarizing convoluted, highly charged history into an easy-to-digest format.

How would Spielberg do if he had to make a film of talmudic commentaries? It’s hard to make textual analysis visually dynamic. An artist younger than Eisner couldn’t do any better.

This is clear because virtually every younger comic artist has learned something from Eisner, whether they know it or not. He created the first full-length hero comic. He rejected an early draft of “Super Man” when its creators were still in high school. He was one of the first artists to turn the comic book into the graphic novel, bringing the zing of comics to serious nonfiction subjects. Some of his Jewish-themed graphic novels include “A Contract with God Trilogy,” about life in the Bronx; “Fagin the Jew,” about Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” character; and “Minor Miracles,” another depiction of life among Jewish immigrants.”

The last section of “The Plot” is the most dramatic and the most disturbing. Eisner travels around the world conjuring up manifestations of “The Protocols” in multiple languages and at points in modern history. It’s uncomfortable to see dates and places like Louisiana, 2000, and San Diego, 2001, listed in his catalogue of places the “Protocols” have been reproduced and distributed.

As “The Plot” shows, Eisner lived till the end restlessly, keeping an awareness of the ugly aspects of the world always in sight — even when it was uncomfortable. The impact of this book is that Eisner could not be content while violence and ignorance persisted against his own people.

In a different way, Eisner always kept things exploding. Artistically, he kept trying new things at a point in life when most people would be napping in a deck chair.

“The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” by Will Eisner (148 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, $19.95).