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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 15 (Review/Retrospective)

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 15, finds Will Eisner in the middle of a very strong run on his most iconic creation. While this collection of stories doesn’t necessarily do anything new or radical, it does offer an example of a master storyteller at the height of his powers, crafting entertaining and exciting pulpy adventures on a weekly basis. Indeed, this run of stories offers a fairly efficient cross-section of what the strip was capable of at its best, perhaps more than any of the volumes surrounding it. While it might not be the very best collection of Spirit stories written, it is a pretty handy introduction to the character and his world.

Doesn't somebody want to be wanted?

Doesn’t somebody want to be wanted?

It’s a bit unfair to suggest that Eisner was no longer innovating as a creator. Indeed, he would still go on to help cement the notion of the “graphic novel” in popular consciousness, and help set the standard by which comics would be judged as a legitimate medium with his Contract With God trilogy and other work. Indeed, The Spirit remained boldly energetic throughout its run. So when I argue that The Spirit Archives, Vol. 15 isn’t necessarily the most radical or dynamic collection of Eisner’s work, I don’t mean to dismiss the artist’s career, to diminish his work, or even to slight the quality of the material here.

Instead, I’d argue that this is actually a pretty decent point for anybody interested in The Spirit to take a look at the newspaper strip. There’s enough variety here that Eisner covers a lot of the themes and ideas that made the strip such a fascinating read. There are stories centred around the eponymous characters, those built around charming supporting cast members, insights into the lives of random people, coupled with comedy and tragedy and morality plays in one remarkably enjoyable stew. I’d argue that the work here is perhaps the most representative of Eisner’s time on The Spirit.

It's a kind of magic...

It’s a kind of magic…

Indeed, the collection opens with Wanted, one of those stories that focuses on a random denizen of Central City in the style of so many great Spirit stories. Here it is Mortimer J. Titmouse, who is introduced as a nobody of zero importance. We’re warned, “Nothing he ever did was of any importance to anyone… and… he knew it!” As tends to be the case in Eisner’s stories about these sorts of characters, Titmouse wanders into a situation outside his own control, and crosses path with forces that are almost beyond his comprehension.

There’s also a sense of Eisner’s humour in these stories. Most famously (or infamously), this run of weekly strips features L’il Adam, where Eisner was “tricked” into starting a spoof “feud” with cartoonist Al Capp. Featuring fictional cartoonist “Al Slapp”, the whole thing turned out to be a measure of self-promotion for Capp, who never reciprocated. Still, the appearance of detective “Nick Stacy” is effective enough to work regardless.

Cartooning can be murder...

Cartooning can be murder…

That isn’t the only parody on display here. U.F.O. features “Awsome Bells'” and his “famous radio dramatisation of the invasion from the planet Mars” in a delightfully engaging comic fantasy featuring a foiled martian invasion of the planet Earth. In one of the strip’s strongest moments, the prima donna Bells vows, “I’ll make Cecil B. Cemeel look like a piker…” It’s a spoof that works even better when you consider how frequently Orson Wells and Eisner are compared as masters of their chosen media.

We get a taste of Eisner’s own wonderfully acerbic humour as he reimagines various fairy tales through a sort of noir filter with The Spirit’s Favourite Fairy Tales for Juvenile Delinquents: Hansel & Gretel, and The Spirit’s Favourite Fairy Tales for Juvenile Delinquents: Cinderella. Both stories are offered with the tongue planted firmly in their cheek, and work quite well as modern re-tellings of familiar myths and legends.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

That’s not to suggest that there isn’t also a healthy mix of Eisner’s trademark social justice subtext to be found here. The Criminal opens with a stern warning about how society ultimately creates its own criminals, a warning reiterated on the opening page of Slipper Eall. The latter advises us that “crime is a man-made stream”, while the former observes that harsh punitive justice is not the only response to crime. Set on the night of an execution, the splash page warns us, “But just a second ago, too… the very same authority which had protected us from Killer Mike began the creation of another crook.”

In The Criminal, for example, we’re shown how indifferent city planning demolishes an area used by children in order to renovate and update the city. The vacuum creates a situation that leads one young child to a life of crime. As Ebony appeals to Dolan at one point early in the story, “But kids hafta play somewhere…” Eisner has always been mindful of society’s obligation to its youngest members, and his work here seems almost a bit ahead of his time.

The Spirit's latest source just went dry...

The Spirit’s latest source just went dry…

This volume also spends some time in the shadow of the Second World War, although there are signs that Eisner is drifting a bit beyond it. The conflict defined American pop consciousness for a considerable period of time, and cast a long shadow over The Spirit as a newspaper strip. Certainly, Eisner isn’t ready to completely close that chapter of the strip’s life, but there’s signs that times are changing and perhaps those spectres can be released into the past.

End of the S.S. Raven, for example, features the last refuge of Nazi-ism with the sinister Dr. Muller conducting “experiments” on “a new type of warfare” on a host ship, while hoping that the “underground leaders” of his cause might survive. Gradually, he realises that he is entirely alone and that the world has moved on. The Spirit advises him, “The day of world conquest by a fanatical few is a dream that died in Berlin…” At the end of the story, the harbour patrol find the ghost ship drifting, suggesting it is a relic, “The days of omens and Flying Dutchmen are gone…” So too, it seems, are the days of its passengers.

It's a fairy good tale...

It’s a fairy good tale…

A later story, Umbrella Handles features the villain Baron Von Shlozz who was “acquitted at the Nuremberg Trials for War Crimes” – although, one might legitimately suspect, on a technicality. Although he is the primary villain of the story, Umbrella Handles seems to exist so that Von Shlozz can pass the torch to a newer apolitical breed of threat. At the climax of the story, he meets a newer villain, stating, “The Octopus again… I’m fed up with your living off me…” It appears that the Octopus has developed and grown. There’s no need to spoil the ending of the story, as it should be obvious. A new threat replaces the old one.

The Spirit also seems to be emerging from the shadow of the Second World War in other ways as well. There’s a strong sense of patriotism here, perhaps reflecting the strengthened American self-confidence of the post-war era, leading to the boom in the fifties. In a strange segue in Mr. McDool, Satin observes, “American citizenship is a precious thing… it is one thing that cannot be bought!”

I can't imagine how difficult this was to pitch...

I can’t imagine how difficult this was to pitch…

The Christmas Spirit of 1947: Joy, exists as an ode to America. It is the story of a boy named Joy from “a land far away and across the sea” who experiences a “Merry Christmas” in America, the land of opportunity. Eisner seems to believe the end of the conflict promises a new era of global peace and stability, with the martian in U.F.O. observing, “Now before a world organisation is built, we must strike!”

There is another side to that coin, though. Although the post-war era would bring stability and peace, it would also offer an even greater threat. The atomic bomb doesn’t cast too large a shadow in this collection, but it is certainly felt in the opening story, Wanted, when Eisner teases readers that the story might distress readers who will either believe that it is “another one of them ‘bomb’ warning stories” or that “the whole joint’s gonna blow up any minute anyhow.”

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

Foreshadowing decades of paranoia over nuclear proliferation, it sees a lone character accidentally allow nuclear secrets to fall into the hands of The Octopus. Although the example is cartoonish, there’s a very clear sense of paranoia behind the story as Titmouse laments,“I gave away America’s secret!” It’s an understandable fear, and it’s interesting to see Eisner deal with it – although it does feel a little bit fear-mongering. After all, the moral (“don’t share nuclear secrets”) hardly applies to most readers.

Still, beyond that, the collection offers a nice demonstration of Eisner’s technical skills as well. Indeed, the classic Showdown With the Octopus could be taught as a textbook example of comic book plotting, with Eisner demonstrating a mastery of panel construction, pacing, and tension – all with the handicap that he could not show the villain’s face. Indeed, and counter-intuitively, it features better use of darkness than the following week’s Blind. (Although Into the Light works much better at depicting blindness in a visual medium.)

A familiar ring to it...

A familiar ring to it…

Outside of that, there’s a healthy cross-section of Eisner’s preferred genres. There’s a couple of charming supernatural stories (like Doppelganger and Death of Hugo) and a healthy dose of cynical political satire thrown in as well (Mr. Bowser’s Election). Unfortunately, despite Eisner’s attempts to tone down the offensiveness of Ebony, there’s also some of the unfortunately representative racism and sexism as well. Money, Money still features some unfortunate stereotypes. The Middle-Eastern Ahmed threatens Saree, “Would you like me to carry you off and enslave you in my desert harem?!” Of course, Saree likes the idea, prompting Ahmed to respond, “American women… bah!”

I certainly don’t mean it as an insult when I suggest that The Spirit Archives, Vol. 15 is perhaps representative of Eisner’s best work on the character. Even if nothing here is the most essential Spirit story ever written, it does offer a representative examination of Eisner’s work on the character – both good and bad. If you were looking to dip your toe in the proverbial waters, you could do a lot worse than this collection.

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Whirlpools and Sparkles.

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