Comic Book Review The Spirit — Book One
Writers: Darwyn Cooke, Jeph Loeb
Artists: Darwyn Cooke (Penciller), J. Bone (Inker), Dave Stewart (Colorist), Jared K. Fletcher (Letterer)
On paper bringing back The Spirit is a terrible idea. Among the writers and artists who make comic books, the character is an icon on par with Superman or Spider-Man. His adventures from the 1940s and ‘50s are some of the most renowned work of the Golden Age of American comics. And, unlike Superman or Spider-Man, or most other well-known superhero characters, The Spirit has not been in continuous publication for the last sixty years. He was revived here and there after his initial run ended in 1952, but only fleetingly and always while the man who created him, Will Eisner, was still around to see he was done right. Trying to produce a Spirit series without Eisner is like trying to do The Twilight Zone without Rod Serling (and we all know how well that’s worked out in the past).
Or, if classic TV isn’t your thing, try this instead: imagine if, instead of immediately bringing in John Romita as a replacement, Marvel had simply ended The Amazing Spider-Man after Steve Ditko left; then imagine, decades later, Marvel announcing a revival of Spidey with an all-new creative team. How easy would it be to meet those expectations?
So yeah, sounds like a shitty idea. But DC Comics, who owns the Spirit library and publication rights, has had an infinite supply of shitty ideas the last few years, so they went ahead and did it anyway. And unlike most of DC’s shitty ideas of late, this one worked out a lot better than it should have (judging by the first paperback collection, anyway). The new version of The Spirit is actually pretty good.
The credit for this belongs with writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. If the present generation of comic book creators has an Eisner, that person is Cooke, whose work the last few years with Batman, the Catwoman monthly series, and the outstanding two-part New Frontier miniseries has been some of the finest in the field. Cooke’s style, visually and as a writer, is a far cry from Eisner’s, but Cooke shows an understanding of what makes The Spirit an intriguing character, and knows how to use him. It’s a delicate balance that is required; he isn’t as brutal as Frank Miller’s Batman, but he isn’t a Disney character, either. Most of his adventures are essentially light-hearted fantasies with outlandish villains, improbable situations, and only one foot in the real world. Still, people do die, and actions do have consequences. The Spirit is what pulp heroes would have been had more pulp fiction writers had something important to say.
Cooke draws The Spirit as Eisner did, though not in precisely the same style. His costume is the same — the blue suit, tie, fedora, with gloves and a mask to remind us we aren’t reading about Sam Spade here. His origin is unchanged — a cop who survived death thanks to an accident that placed him in suspended animation, who decides he can do more good for his city by remaining dead to everyone except his closest allies. He still lives in quarters hidden beneath Wildwood Cemetery, and he’s still the ultimate everyman — no superpowers, no advanced martial arts training, just wits and grit to carry him through. The pages he inhabits aren’t as excitingly laid-out as they were when Eisner was alive, but that seems to be a conscious choice on Cooke’s part, to keep away from the sort of eye-popping layouts that Eisner frequently employed and which the rest of the industry subsequently copied ad nauseum. This new Spirit isn’t about pushing the envelope; it’s meat and potatoes. And I like that. There’s something refreshing about a comic book that isn’t trying to astound you or shock you or impress you with wild layouts and splashes of computer-generated color. The stories — they’re the main thing.
That’s another thing Cooke demonstrates a knack for — telling a good Spirit story. If you’ve read what he’s done with Batman in the past, or his run on Catwoman, you know the guy has a talent for crime fiction with a touch of the fantastic thrown in. The stories collected in The Spirit – Book One, from Cooke’s first six issues, have enough echoes of Eisner’s original to feel familiar, with enough new stuff not to feel stale. There are old characters presented here much as they were fifty years ago, like P’Gell and archvillain The Octopus, and old characters given modern makeovers, like Ellen Dolan, Silk Satin, and, thankfully, Ebony White, who has jettisoned his wide eyes, big lips and bellhop’s uniform for a less outrageously racist design.
The stories here are all stand-alones, played out originally in single issues of the series. That in itself is somewhat revolutionary, especially at DC, which has spent the last fifteen years running every massive crossover and desperate tie-in gimmick it could think of in order to boost sales. There is an appearance from Batman and Robin (and, ever so briefly, Superman) in the last story reprinted here, a Spirit/Batman crossover Cooke co-wrote with Jeph Loeb, but other than that things stay far removed from the rest of the DC Universe. That’s good. It’s hard enough to reconcile Batman with a world that also includes regular alien visitations and whole armies of interstellar cops waving nigh omnipotent power rings around; The Spirit just doesn’t fit in there. He’s got a touch of weird, but it’s Dick Tracy weird, not “Darkseid’s troops have arrived in Metropolis via boom tube from Apokolips” weird.
Also not forgotten is Eisner’s tendency to push The Spirit himself aside from time to time to tell stories about ordinary people. One of the entries here is in that tradition, “Almost Blue,” about a sheltered musical prodigy who discovers punk rock only to run afoul of an unscrupulous night club owner. The Spirit’s role is peripheral; as in many of Eisner’s stories, he’s only there as a witness, an interlocutor who doesn’t step into the action until the very end, by which point he can’t do much good anyway. It’s a good story, the best of an excellent bunch.
I hadn’t read any of the new Spirit series until I picked this up at Borders a few weeks ago. I know the series has continued, and that Darwyn Cooke left after issue # 13. That’s too bad, for me and for The Spirit. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing this material this well. Of course, it was hard to imagine anyone but Eisner doing it before Cooke did, so who knows? Maybe under the new creative team, this revival of The Spirit is still something special. I wouldn’t bet on it, though; Darwyn Cooke is a miracle worker. They should let him have a crack at The Twilight Zone.