I’ll draw your attention to this essay about stereotypes by Jeet Heer over at The Comics Journal. Thinking about Eisner’s female characters may take on fresh urgency once you get to page two. Heer writes,
Nineteenth- and early 20th-century comics dealt in caricature, not characters, and not just in ethnic and racial matters. Wives were almost always henpecking shrews (with a rolling pin in hand to bash hubby’s brains with) while their feckless mates loved to flee their family so they could go drinking with their buddies. Professors by definition were absent minded, farmers by their very nature naïve and easily fooled by city slickers. Racial and ethnic stereotypes grew out of this larger tendency to caricature. This is not to deny the racism or malevolence of the stereotype but rather to link it to the formal practices of the cartoonists. It’s not just that cartoonists lived in a racist time but also that the affinity of comics for caricature meant that the early comic strips took the existing racism of society and gave it vicious and virulent visual life. Form and content came together in an especially unfortunate way.
Almost inescapably, comics rely on shorthand (icon), deformation (caricature), and reduction (stereotype). Icon: smiley face. Caricature: politician with big ears. Stereotype: combines the deformation of caricature with an essentialist definition, such as Irish immigrants are hooligans.
In A Life Force, Aaron could have easily been a stereotype, but he is treated in a more literary and ambiguous way: he’s romanticized at times and undercut at others. I think he is given his due, despite his functionality. I’m not too sure about Rebecca. As for Rifka, Jacob’s wife, Eisner is capable of representing her with grace (fluid housework on page 13) and integrity (silent resolve on page 28). There’s a whole chapter devoted to her movements.
Just because a story is set in the past, or is “historical,” doesn’t mean it has to lack nuance. Read anything by Jane Austen: of course there are constraints to what a woman can do or be, but look at how her protagonists chafe against those constraints. They think and speak! I agree that we need to understand the importance of traditional Jewish roles, but we also need to consider the degree to which the role takes over. Rifka edges into caricature only too often, and there isn’t much self-reflexivity on Eisner’s part about how he chooses to represent her.
These choices are clearly foregrounded in Maus: on page 131, Art struggles with the question of how he is representing his father, and he is worried that he’s guilty of perpetuating the stereotype of the “miserly old Jew.” What happens, he wonders, if very particular circumstances end up confirming a stereotype? (If you’ve seen the film American History X, you’ll know that its ending does just that.)
This a complex subject, and I know that one post on the matter cannot exhaust all there is to say.