The Spirit

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The Spirit #48 © 1988 Will Eisner. (Cover art by Will Eisner.)

The Spirit

(pop culture)

In the early days of comic books, aspiring artists could look to Lou Fine’s work on the Black Condor for tips on anatomy, to Jack Kirby’s Captain America for excitement, and to Bob Kane’s Batman for mood. For storytelling, drama, inventiveness, characterization, and pacing, they turned to one of the medium’s true innovators, Will Eisner, and his legendary newspaper feature, The Spirit. Eisner came into comic books in the mid-1930s, and together with Jerry Iger, created one of the first packaging firms—the Eisner/Iger studio—producing comics for the many companies entering the nascent field. Along with Fiction House and Fox, one of the studio’s clients was Quality Comics, and it was Quality owner Everett “Busy” Arnold and the Register and Tribune Syndicate, who offered Eisner a partnership to produce for syndication a sixteen-page comic book insert for Sunday newspapers, which would compete with the increasingly popular superhero comics springing up in the wake of Superman. Eisner sold his half of Eisner and Iger, and from early 1940 to 1942 Eisner and his new studio created a host of features for such Quality titles as National, Smash, Blackhawk, Uncle Sam, and Military Comics, as well as the ground-breaking newspaper section, The Spirit.

The Spirit was marketed through the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate, and the feature was eventually sold to approximately twenty newspapers, reaching a readership of 5 million. The Spirit section itself was a separate, sixteen-page, coverless insert, consisting of a lead seven- or eight-page Spirit strip by Eisner, and two backup strips: Lady Luck (a detective feature by Chuck Mazoujian) and Mr. Mystic (a magician created by Bob Powell). The Spirit himself appeared in a daily newspaper strip from 1941 to 1944, and on-air in a short-lived radio show.

Appearing in June 1940, the first Spirit section introduced readers to the dashing private detective and criminologist Denny Colt, who is given a tip-off about mad scientist and all-round bad guy, Dr. Cobra, by his curmudgeonly friend, Central City Police Commissioner Eustace Dolan. Colt tracks down Cobra to catacombs beneath Chinatown but is accidentally drenched by a strange chemical. When Dolan and the police find him later, he is pronounced dead at the scene and buried in Wildwood Cemetery. However, when Colt shows up two days later at Dolan’s police headquarters office, Colt reveals that the liquid had merely induced a temporary state of suspended animation. The newly resurrected Colt decides to let the world carry on believing in his demise as a cover for his pursuit of the mad doctor, under the guise of “The Spirit.” With Dolan in tow, and donning a blue business suit, gloves, hat, and domino mask as a “costume,” the Spirit finally tracks down Cobra, who dies in a hail of bullets. Afterward, the hero decides to stay “dead,” declaring, “There are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but the Spirit can reach them.”

Arnold and the Syndicate had wanted a superhero to rival Superman, but Eisner had dreams of creating a more complex strip for the older, sophisticated newspaper readership, one that was not cut from the same superhero cloth as the Man of Steel. Eisner’s compromise was to give the Spirit a small mask, covering his eyes, and a uniform (of sorts)—a white, long-sleeved shirt, blue suit, fedora hat, and gloves—which was (almost) ever-present over the feature’s twelve-year existence. With his de facto costume and dual identity, though no superpowers of which to speak, the Spirit became one of the first detective heroes to stick with audiences. Over the strip’s first few weeks, Eisner introduced the hero’s slightly macabre hideout—a well-appointed laboratory (for his clever inventions, such as smoke pellets and the short-lived car and plane) underneath Wildwood Cemetery—and the strip’s colorful supporting cast. Principal among these were Commissioner Dolan’s beautiful, blonde daughter Ellen, whose main goal in life appeared to be to marry the Spirit, and Ebony White, a plucky, young black cabbie, who soon became the hero’s driver, comic foil, and de facto sidekick.

In its first few years, the feature was a more or less a traditional detective comic, albeit one laced with humor and the sort of energy found only in the comic books, but what set it apart from its rivals were Eisner’s sophisticated storytelling, his inventiveness, and his ability to cram a witty, intelligent whodunit into seven pages. A lifelong fan of the movies (counting the films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Man Ray among his influences), Eisner played around with “camera angles,” page layouts and pacing, and changing panel shapes, sizes, and viewpoints to affect how his audience read the strip. If he wanted to slow a sequence down or speed it up, he had the visual tricks to do it; to a large extent he was inventing the visual language of the medium as he drew, and inspiring generations to come in the process. Eisner’s 1985 book, Comics and Sequential Art, is still the definitive word on how to draw comics. An example of his playful inventiveness was the way in which, on his splash pages, he would spell out the word “Spirit” on bits of paper blowing in the breeze, on shop signs, in puddles, on the bars of a window, on steps, or in countless other ways.

Soon after America entered World War II, Eisner was drafted, and for the duration of the war the strip was handled by Quality staffers such as William Woolfolk, Manly Wade Wellman, and Bill Millard on scripts, and Jack Cole and Lou Fine on artwork. It was still immaculately crafted but lacked the spark of genius that Eisner brought with him, a spark that was resolutely rekindled on his return in late 1945. After a couple of episodes that employed penciler John Spranger, Eisner really hit his stride in the late 1940s, fashioning a succession of dazzlingly witty and creative stories. His years in the army had matured him as an artist, revealing a more fluid, cartoon-influenced style that delighted in creating memorable characters and atmospheric action sequences. Where the prewar episodes had starred a succession of matinée villains, such as the Black Bow and Mr. Midnight, the later Spirit stories featured a more picaresque array of protagonists. Together with his increasingly influential new assistant Jules Feiffer (later a legendary cartoonist for The Village Voice and The New Yorker), Eisner explored the lives of Central City’s losers, con-men, petty criminals, weirdoes, outsiders, and corrupt officials, who rejoiced in such names as Bottles McTopp, Stuffer Balot, Snagg Debbin, P. T. Bumble, Tempus J. Fujit, Sven Galli, Stud Sharpe, and Rattsy Trapp. That is not to say that Eisner had abandoned arch-villains entirely, however; two recurring foes were the eccentric Mr. Carrion (with his pet buzzard Julia), and the mysterious Octopus, whose face was never seen but whose identifying trademark was his two purple gloves with three white stripes.

More often than not, the Spirit’s most memorable opponents were women—femmes fatales of the deadliest, most seductive variety. Inspired by such movie sirens as Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, and Bette Davis, Eisner fashioned a wildly entertaining parade of pouting assassins, including Nylon Rose, Dulcet Tone, Sparrow Fallon, Powder Pouf, Plaster of Paris, Autumn Mews, Thorne Strand, Flaxen Weaver, and Sand Saref. The Spirit’s female foes were as likely to kiss him as try to kill him and, indeed, his first significant foe—Silk Satin—had been his childhood friend when they ran together in Central City’s Slum Gulley. Satin eventually renounced her life as a thief, but less repentant was the man-eating P’Gell. Named in honor of Paris’ notorious Pigalle district, P’Gell had left a string of wealthy and deceased husbands in her wake, and sported lips that would have been the envy of Jessica Rabbit. In one of the strip’s most memorable lines, she introduced herself with the immortal announcement: “I am P’Gell and this is not a story for little boys.”

Another example of Eisner’s postwar creativity was the expansion and development of the series’ supporting cast. Commissioner Dolan, Ebony White, and Ellen became integral, witty elements of the feature, rather than mere plot devices to rescue, or be rescued by, its hero. Indeed, in many stories Eisner used the “crime of the week” as a hook on which to hang the exploration of his characters’ personalities, rather than as the stories’ focal point. Ellen became more than just a would-be spouse and ultimately became Central City’s mayor, while Dolan softened to become the Spirit’s friend and confidant. For contemporary readers, White was more problematical. While he was a brave and fearless companion for the Spirit, he was also rather too broadly caricatured; his Southern black dialogue (“Yassuh, Mr. Spirit Boss!”) and stereotyped features became decidedly un-politically correct. Although he was always well intentioned, Eisner eventually bowed to the trend and replaced Ebony with the less controversial—and Anglo—Sammy, Willum, and PS (three kids straight out of the popular kid group, the Little Rascals).

Eisner had always prided himself on being as much a businessman as an artist (his studio had already made him financially secure by the age of twenty-five), and by the early 1950s, his outside interests had largely curtailed his involvement in the Spirit, leaving it in the hands of his studio. During these years, Eisner was aided by such notable artists and writers as Jules Feiffer, Wally Wood, and Tex Blaisdell. In late 1952, the feature was finally abandoned. But that was not to be the last anyone saw of the character. Busy Arnold had begun reprinting Spirit stories in Police Comics as early as 1942, and added a regular Spirit title in 1944. Both of these titles disseminated Spirit stories to comics fans for the rest of that decade. Despite the feature’s newspaper demise, Fiction House reprinted vintage tales in their own Spirit comic from 1952 to 1954, and IW Comics released its own title a few years later. Harvey Comics introduced a new generation of fans to the Spirit in 1966, but its revival only lasted two issues despite some new Spirit additions from Eisner himself. However, the 1970s proved to be more receptive to the character, as first Kitchen Sink Press and then Warren Publishing Company revived him.

The Warren magazines reprinted up to ten classic adventures from the postwar period in each issue, topping them off with lavishly painted covers. After sixteen issues, Kitchen Sink once again took over the title, going on to print Spirit stories for the next sixteen years. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Spirit stories could be found in black-and-white magazines, lavish hardbacks, and a regular, full-color comic that ran for almost 100 issues. In addition, the masked hero entered into television, for the first time, when a pilot telefilm was produced and aired on ABC in July 1986, starring Sam Jones in the title role. By the time of Kitchen Sink’s collapse in the late 1990s, almost every Spirit story had been reprinted—some many times—and Eisner had assumed the role of comics’ great genius. After more than twenty years of publishing instructional comics for industry, schools, and the military, Eisner introduced a succession of well-received graphic novels, none of which starred the Spirit, but all of which intended to develop comic books as a mature medium.

For the many reprint series, Eisner drew literally hundreds of new covers but always resisted the temptation of drawing new Spirit stories, preferring to concentrate on his graphic novels. However, in 1997 Kitchen Sink finally persuaded him to let other, contemporary creators produce new Spirit tales—the first in decades. With such talents as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Dave Gibbons, the series promised much, but despite the high level of craft on show, the results lacked the spark of the originals. In the 2000s, DC Comics has taken up Kitchen Sink’s mantle as Spirit publisher, releasing a series of hardback “archives” volumes, reprinting in series the entire run of stories.

Will Eisner’s final work was writing and drawing a story in which the Spirit met novelist Michael Chabon’s superhero creation, the Escapist, published in Dark Horse’s Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #6 (April 2005). Will Eisner passed away on January 3, 2005, at the age of 87.

DC Comics published the one-shot comic book Batman/The Spirit (January 2007), written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, in which the two iconic heroes met. In the following month, DC began publishing a monthly The Spirit comic book series, set in the present day, initially written and drawn by Cooke. The team of Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier took over as writers in 2008, with art by Mike Ploog, Paul Smith, and others. This series came to an end in 2009.

Frank Miller, the renowned comics writer and artist (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil, Sin City), directed and wrote The Spirit live action movie that Lionsgate released in 2008. Gabriel Macht starred in the title role, and the cast included Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus (whose face was shown in the film), Scarlett Johansson as Silken Floss, Eva Mendes as Sand Saref, and Sarah Paulson as Ellen Dolan. Reflecting Miller’s sensibility far more than Eisner’s, the film was a critical and commercial disappointment.

However, Eisner’s Spirit comics retain their influence and artistic power. In spite of its origins in the transient world of newspapers, the Spirit has become one of the most reprinted series in comics history and has secured its place as one of the medium’s cornerstones. —DAR