Comic Book ReviewThe Best of The Spirit
Writer/Artist: Will Eisner
The history of superhero comics is packed with legendary artists. Fans of the genre are a lot like baseball fans in that even the more casual among them will recognize names like Joe Shuster, who created Superman alongside writer Jerry Siegel; Steve Ditko, who created Spider-Man with Stan Lee, and John Romita, who took over after Ditko left; Jerry Robinson, who defined the classic Golden Age look of Batman and Robin, and created the Joker; and Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, who co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and more for Marvel Comics, and Challenger’s of the Unknown and the Fourth World for DC. These men, the characters they imagined, the work they produced, are justly legendary. But there’s one name missing from that list: Will Eisner, the man who did more than anyone else to elevate the comic book into a true artistic medium.
When the most prestigious award for creative achievement in comic books was named the Eisner twenty years ago, they weren’t just drawing a name out of a hat. Eisner coined the term “graphic novel,” spent the last thirty years of his life producing deeply personal, often autobiographical work, and redefined the way artists used the page and the panel. This later work, beginning with the publication of A Contract With God in 1978, is the most applauded, but by the time he started publishing graphic novels like Contract, The Dreamer, Life on Another Planet, and Invisible People, Eisner had already been revolutionizing comics for forty years.
The Spirit debuted in June, 1940. Superman had touched off the first comics craze two years earlier, followed up by Batman, Captain Marvel, the Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and countless others. Quality Comics publisher Everett Arnold wanted in, and approached Eisner, then just making his name drawing newspaper strips, to create a superhero character to anchor a new weekly comics section to be syndicated in Sunday newspapers throughout the country. Eisner came up with the character of Denny Colt, a criminologist on the Central City police force who is presumed dead after tangling with supervillain Dr. Cobra. Having secretly survived, Colt digs himself out of his own grave, defeats Cobra and decides to continue his fight against crime in disguise as The Spirit, setting up a secret lair in Wildwood Cemetery, where he was buried. He was not a hero in the mold of Superman; his costume consisted of a domino mask and a pair of gloves worn with an otherwise ordinary-looking blue suit, tie, and fedora. Despite miraculously surviving his death, he had no superpowers, though he was good in a scrap and rarely lost a fight the plot didn’t require him to.
Setting the Spirit feature apart from other comics was its tone. The first page of each Spirit story bears a box with the words ACTION MYSTERY ADVENTURE written inside, but Eisner’s best work with the character transcends all three of these categories. There is detective work being done, there is crime-busting, there is shooting and running, and globe-trotting, but Eisner also likes to use his hero as a observer, a witness to ordinary human lives. Eisner has The Spirit butt heads with a supervillain or an underworld kingpin here and there, but by and large those aren’t the stories collected by DC in The Best of The Spirit, a paperback collection from Eisner’s original 1940-1952 newspaper run. The bad guys here are desperate, unlucky, in over their heads — classic film noir types. The Spirit himself barely gets a cameo in many of the stories, as Eisner shows more interest in the regular people, good guys and bad, who cross his path.
Take for example “The Killer,” published in December 1946. The title character is a sad-sack packing clerk named Henry who finds momentary purpose as an accidental hero in World War II, only to return home to the same castrating wife and scheming hood brother-in-law he left behind. Reliving his glory days, feeling trapped by his job and his marriage, Henry returns home one day and murders his wife. He then tracks his brother-in-law to his criminal hideout, where his gang has captured The Spirit. Henry kills his brother-in-law, too, and surrenders to The Spirit. Pretty dark stuff, and this was decades before the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller would be credited with transforming comics into an adult medium.
The stories collected here aren’t all so pessimistic. There’s also “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble,” of which Eisner emphatically assures on the first page “THIS IS NOT A FUNNY STORY!!” And it isn’t. The hero is a funny looking little man (as were many of Eisner’s everyman creations), blessed with the ability to fly. Fired from his job as a night watchman for failing to stop a robbery, Shnobble leaps off a rooftop and takes a short flight over the city. He flies past The Spirit fighting with the robbers who got him fired, swoops in and takes a hail of bullets meant for The Spirit, and falls lifelessly to the ground. “But do not weep for Shnobble,” Eisner’s text admonishes us on the last page, “Rather shed a tear for all mankind . . . For not one person in the entire crowd that watched his body being carted away . . . knew or even suspected that on this day Gerhard Shnobble had flown.”
These are thoughtful and haunting tales, sad and strange, with an unmistakable point of view. There’s such sophistication and humanity in Eisner’s work that it’s easy to forget he was publishing these stories in the 1940s and ‘50s. Think of how ahead of his time this man was. Look at the image to the right, a scan from the first Spirit story. Eisner drew this in 1940. Look at that page layout; mainstream comics wouldn’t get to this point until the 1960s. Or check out the pic below to the left, where Eisner follows two characters on parallel paths by dividing his page in half and giving the left over to one character and the right over to the other. This is exciting, innovative, cutting-edge work.
A blurb on the cover of The Best of The Spirit quotes USA Today declaring this “The Citizen Kane of comics.” I think that’s about right. Eisner didn’t invent the form; he perfected it. The Spirit wasn’t the first superhero, but he was used to greater artistic effect in his day than any of his fellow costumed crimefighters. The Spirit was the comic book Citizen Kane, and Eisner was Orson Welles, the genius who took available pieces and put them together in ways never before imagined.
Unfortunately, Eisner had a little too much of D.W. Griffith in him, as well. While he is rightly remembered as a sensitive and insightful humanist, a peerless chronicler of the human (particularly the Jewish-American) experience, many of those early Spirit stories are marred by a character named Ebony White, a sidekick of The Spirit drawn as a typical darky caricature with bugged-out eyes and big lips, who spoke in a minstrel show dialect and referred to his employer as “Mist’ Spirit Boss.” Decades later, Eisner expressed regret over this portrayal, and tried to chalk it up to the prevailing prejudice of the time. Fortunately for us as readers, The Best of The Spirit only contains a brief glimpse of Ebony, at the very end of the second story, “Introducing Silk Satin.” It’s enough of a look to make me grateful there aren’t any more in this otherwise terrific volume.