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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 26 (Review/Retrospective)

It’s strange reading The Spirit Archives, Vol. 26. Not just because it’s a collection of absolutely everything (from stories to pin-ups to posters to sketches) rather than a set of comic strips. Also because of the scope of this final hardcover collection in DC’s Spirit Archives programme. While, with the exception of the last volume, each book collected six months of the weekly strip, this final book collects pretty-much everything Will Eisner did with the character from the time that the weekly strip ended through to his death in 2005.  I’m a bit surprised that there’s only one book of this material, although it does allow the reader to flick through the decades following the end of the strip as if examining a family photo albums – watching the subtle changes as time marches on.

Despite the fact that he was cancelled, The Spirit never seemed to quite go away. There was a lot of work featuring the character by other writers and artists, but most of that isn’t collected here. Instead, this admittedly disjointed collection reads best as a sort of a documentary charting the on-going relationship between Will Eisner and arguably his most popular creation.

Still making waves…

There have been times when Eisner has seemed, perhaps, a little uncomfortable with placing The Spirit at the centre of his contributions to comics as a storytelling medium. He has, at times, seemed a little dismissive of his use of cinematic technique in the strip. He also concedes that, towards the end of the strip’s life, he lost a lot of interest in using sequential storytelling as a tool for crafting light entertainment.

That’s not to dismiss his other work. Eisner’s accomplishments after the end of the strip were somewhat legendary. He might not have coined the term “graphic novel”, but he made sustained attempts to establish the medium as one worth of discussion and criticism. A Contract With Godis seen as one of the forerunners of the modern graphic novel, and his work from the mid-seventies focused around telling sophisticated and emotionally engaging stories exploring the realities of modern life.

“My city screams…”

Even his most speculative story – Life on Another Planet – was more focused on what such possibilities said about the human race. Eisner’s work continued right until his death. The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a work completed shortly before his death, and published posthumously, exploring the history of the infamous Anti-Semitic text. However, one can see a very clear shift in his style and technique from his work on The Spirit and his later stories.

In a way, part of what is fascinating about this collection is seeing Eisner re-visit his iconic creation while his own art and sensibilities were evolving. With the work here spaced over four decades, you can see Eisner’s shift in style, and it’s very interesting to see The Spirit channelled through those. Eisner’s work retained its cartoonish quality, but a lot of the later stuff collected here seems a lot more washed out, and a lot less elastic than the goofy exaggerated style of The Spirit at its peaked.

Keeping it on track…

The coloured pieces are illustrated in more washed out shades, evoking more atmospheric watercolours than bright Sunday morning cartoons. Even the black and white one-page pieces that Eisner did for Kitchen Sink Press eschew the cinematic angles one associates with Eisner’s forties and fifties work. Instead, it’s presented more head-on, more in the style of theatre, avoiding the “camera angle” panels that defined a lot of Eisner’s Spirit work. Panel borders become less common than they used to be.

In an interview with Marilyn Mercer for The New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine in 1966, Eisner is asked if he might return to The Spirit and possibly resurrect the strip. Eisner’s answer suggests that he has somewhat complicated feelings towards the character and the strip. “It would be fun,” he said. “The Spirit to me is like an old mistress – you hate her, but you still have a yen for her.” As this collection demonstrates, Eisner’s relationship with The Spirit following the ending of the newspaper strip would be an on-and-off sporadic affair scattered across the decades.

Oh, shoot…

In the first story collected here, a piece for the same magazine mentioned above, Eisner flirts with the idea that the world is moving on. Written as a satire of New York politics, Eisner still takes the time to revisit each of his characters. Ellen Dolan never married the Spirit. Instead, she moved on with her life and left Central City to go to New York. Denny Colt himself, however, finds himself looking as young as ever, still hanging around Wildwood Cemetery.

“Ellen,” he greets her, “wow, I haven’t seen you in years!” It seems that they are as happy to see each other as the readers would be to see them. Ellen immediately acknowledges that Denny himself hasn’t really changed. “Spirit… darling you haven’t changed a bit… it’s… it’s uncanny!” Of course he hasn’t changed. He’s an icon, an institution. He is a legend, a myth, immortal. Unfortunately, but perfectly in keeping with the style of the strip, the other characters are far more human.

Forget about underground, the Spirit went underwater!

“You… er haven’t changed either… much!” the Spirit responds, with enough hesitation and qualification to suggest that Ellen is getting older, he just doesn’t want to tell her. We catch up with her father, Commissioner Dolan. He looks more frail than usual, and he too has moved on from Central City. He is applying for the post of commissioner in New York. There’s a sense that his clock is ticking in a way that it isn’t for Denny. “This is my last chance! I am 87 years old now… I may never get another!”

That said, 87 does seem a little too old for the good Commissioner. After all, Dolan’s first arrest was in 1918. Still, The Spirit wisely never got too caught up in continuity. It does demonstrate that Eisner has refused the temptation to keep the characters in some form of perpetual present, like Marvel and DC do with their iconic comic book characters. (For example, the war that wounded Iron Man has been prone to revision from decade to decade.)

It’s a brave new world…

Still, perhaps this ageing is the exception, rather than the rule. For later stories written and illustrated by Eisner, Commissioner Dolan and his daughter appear about the same ages that they did during the weekly strip. Dolan is presented as the police commissioner of Central City in stories that are very anchored in the political sensibilities of the times in which they first appeared. Perhaps that New York Herald Tribune Sunday story was just intended as a final farewell before the character’s popularity prompted an unforeseen revival a decade later.

Either way, it’s clear that Eisner views the Spirit as somewhat distinct and different from Commissioner Dolan and the other supporting cast members. While they are very clearly intended to be human characters, the Spirit is something else. He’s always been a fairly simple character, a vehicle for telling whatever story Eisner wanted to tell, and I think that lends him a sort of immortality. He isn’t as human or as “real” as the rest of the cast, so he’s more susceptible to weird comic book metaphysics. If that makes sense.

The more things change…

This is evident if, in nothing else, the fact that Eisner keeps tweaking the character’s origin story. The first origin looked like it was just a handy little story to set everything up so Eisner could get to the stories that he wanted to tell. However, he has returned to it multiple times, tweaking each time – and, at each point, making slight adjustments to root the story in the popular culture of the time in question. For example, after the Second World War, it’s revealed that Doctor Cobra honed his mass murdering technique in Europe.

The trend continues with The Harvey Comics Spirit, which once again shifts Doctor Cobra in a slightly different direction – I can’t help but wonder if Eisner’s multiple takes on Cobra inspired Alan Moore’s use of the character during his Spirit stories. Here, he is no longer the sinister mass-murderer that Eisner portrayed in the immediate aftermath of the war. Instead, he’s presented as a sort of generic evil supervillain, and given ties to the relatively cartoonish Octopus as if to establish that he’s firmly a figure of fantasy, rather than some genocidal maniac who practised his skill in Europe.

It all begins again…

Even his scheme seems much less threatening than it did in other retellings. Other versions of the story have Cobra boasting about the lethality of his “death water.” Here, instead, he cackles about how it is just knock-out gas, that will allow him to enact a rather mundane and simplistic evil plan. He explains, “Everyone will appear dead!! Then… during the next 24 hours I will join with the world’s greatest criminal, the Octopus, to take over control of the city…”

And yet, despite the fact that Eisner plays up the stereotypical supervillain aspects of Doctor Cobra, one point that Eisner returns to – time and again – is that the Spirit is not a superhero. Just in case you thought he might be one, Will Eisner wants you to know that you are wrong. Eisner makes the point known repeatedly, with varying degrees of subtlety and good-natured fun, over the course of the stories scattered throughout this volume.

He always was a grave fellow…

In The Spirit Lab, Eisner is careful to compare the character to spy icons rather than well-known superheroes. Trying to convince the Spirit to up-scale, a gadgeteer explains, “Spirit, you’re behind the times. Every modern crime fighter has scientific devices he uses to fight crooks. James Bond has bombs… Our Man Fink has cigar lighter… you, the coolest of them all, have nothing.” There’s no mention of Batman’s utility belt. This character winds up selling his gimmicks to “UNK”, an obvious homage to “U.N.C.L.E.” (They have a Kotchiturian instead of a Kuryakin.)

During one of the new one-page stories Eisner wrote for Kitchen Sink Press, a generic muscle-bound superhero butts into one of the Spirit’s case. Dynamically charging the villain, he insists, “Stop Spirit! I am taking over now!” However, confronted with the complexity of social factors that build to crime, the would-be costumed adventurer can only sulk. “I’m going back to professional football!” he vows. It’s hardly the most complementary view of superheroes, and it exists to define the Spirit as something entirely different.

He’s a little tied up in crossovers…

In another one-page story, Eisner makes his jabs at conventional superhero comics just a little more overt, in case his readers might have missed the subtext:

Mr. Spirit, on behalf of your fans who have been following your adventures all these years… may I interview you? In view of the fact that you have never worn a super hero costume… nor have you fought the type of supercriminals comic book readers normally see… indeed, you seem to have concentrated on the crook who has been caught up in the struggle for socio-survival typical of the materialistic ethic that identifies the middle class… Indeed you have been called a middle class crimefighter… hardly satisfying the dream wish of the little man who wants his hero to exhibit super powers that crushes all before him!

That seems like an especially pointed dig at anyone who would accuse Eisner’s work of “not being superhero-y enough”, suggesting that that type of fan is just a “little man”nursing some seriously messed-up power fantasies.

Closing in to seal his tomb…

To be fair, while Eisner can be a bit harsh in his efforts to distinguish the Spirit from other costumed crimefighters, he also demonstrates a hint or two of sly affection. In pieces collected here, the Spirit celebrated important milestones with both Batman and Superman. The last Eisner-written story here, The Escapist & The Spirit, sees the character teaming up with a decidedly more high-brow costumed adventurer – the fictional Escapist from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Hinting at some good-natured self-awareness, Eisner allows the Spirit to crack a joke about the writer’s obvious disdain for conventional superheroes. After the Escapist helps the Spirit break free, Denny Colt jokes, “And I was saved by a superhero!!! Wow, Eisner will have an ulcer if he ever hears about it!” It’s a sweet little moment, and it’s nice to see Eisner acknowledge a large part of the comic book industry. While he demonstrated that comics weren’t justsuperhero stories, he also had a major influence on how those superhero stories were told.

A towering accomplishment…

The volume also demonstrates that Eisner was able to keep remarkably relevant and to move with the times. In the 1970s, Eisner even illustrates a cover acknowledging that times are changing, as Dolan and the Spirit find themselves confronted with the next generation of comic book artists. Like Eisner, the cover suggests a hint of insecurity. “I have just discovered a horrible thing — we are the establishment!” one character draws, and you can’t help but wonder if Eisner feels something similar. As one character notes, “… after Crumb what is there left to say?”

One of the wrap-around covers Eisner produced even features a drug dealer removing a woman’s breasts. He proudly boasts to his lackeys, “He’s a female impersonator with hallow breasts… carries two pounds of pure horse in ‘em!” That seems like a wonderfully surreal image to draw, even in the seventies. Another story features P’Gell and her lesbian lover. Eisner’s work outside The Spirit demonstrated that the artist was keen to keep up with the times, but it’s interesting to see The Spirit pulled firmly into the second half of the twentieth century. “Victims of AIDS need help not rejection!” Eisner proudly declares on the back cover to the charity comic Strip AIDS USA.

A smashing return…

Still, there is the odd moment where Eisner seems stuck in the past. In The Invader, he makes one of the same scientific mistakes that he made in Life on Another Planet, treating a light year as a unit of distance rather than time. More seriously, however, Eisner still stubbornly refuses to concede that his portrayal of Ebony was racist and insensitive. One could read a tacit apology in the way that Eisner consciously avoided rendering other characters like that, but he still insisted on staunchly defending Ebony against charges of racism.

Here, for example, Eisner allows an interviewer to voice criticism of Ebony as a character. The interviewer inquires, “How can you have found pride in a secondary role… in an era of black identity that was emerging during those years!?” Of course, Eisner fudges the issue a bit. The issue with Ebony was never that he was a “secondary”character. The issue was that he was an offensive racial caricature, and a collection of crude stereotypes portraying African Americans as idiotic comic relief for white audiences to laugh at.

Interview with a sidekick…

Eisner also takes care to position the writer in several lounging and pseudo-intellectual poses, as if to suggest that he’s not really too bothered – he’s just making the argument to either cause trouble or seem smart, not because it actually bothers him.  As he rambles on about race relations, he’s leaning back puffing on a cigarette. When he finally asks a question, after spending one large speech bubble posturing, he has his hands brought together as if to suggest that he’s really being quite pensive, or trying to trip up Ebony. It seems just a little bit disingenuous.

Eisner’s response also somewhat sidesteps the issue. Before Ebony can answer, the Spirit pops by to ask about the morning’s case. Ebony explains:

Well, Spirit… I took about 15 photos of this rat makin’ a big buy… Then I took 9 shots of him selling the stuff in a school yard!! Then, he spotted me! So, I hadda ack fast… he chased me up an alley… I rolled a trash can at him… he tripped, knocked hisself out on a fire escape ladder, then I jes’ dragged him in… You can book him with all the evidence!

Then Ebony snarkily asks the reporter, “Sorry, now would you mind repeating that question?”

Not at all watered down…

There are two things that feel vaguely dishonest about that answer. The first is that this answer portrays Ebony as far more competent than he was in a regular Spirit adventure. There’s no hint of the character who used to eat pickled haddock and wonder why he kept getting thirstier. If Ebony had been portrayed as this competent consistently throughout the run of the strip, he would not have been as offensive. His appearance would still feel like a crude racist stereotype, but at least his character would have been less than a collection of racist stereotypes.

It’s also worth noting that Eisner tidies up Ebony’s drawl quite a but. Sure, there’s an “I hadda ack fast” or a “jes” or a “hisself”, but these are only the faintest of nods to the way that Eisner used to write Ebony’s dialogue. Granted, they’re hardly perfectly English, but they represent a pretty significant improvement from most of Ebony’s speech. It might not seem important, but it feels like Eisner is cheating by bringing up criticism (and cleverly constructing a strawman argument to avoid the issue itself), only to subvert over a decade of behaviour in order to undermine legitimate discomfort about the character in question.

I can honestly say I never saw this coming…

It’s nice to see Eisner encouraging and supporting (and engaging with) fans and writers who followed him. There are lots pieces of Comic Con artwork from Eisner that demonstrate a good-natured self-mockery, and there are also two crossovers with characters not created by Eisner. (Discounting the milestone celebrations with Batman and Superman.) Eisner’s last Spirit work was The Escapist & The Spirit, a crossover with a character created in Michael Chabon’s fictional Golden Age comic book novel. However, there’s also a nice Cerebus crossover as well from The Spirit Jam.

If there’s one thing this nice collection is really missing, it’s the complete version of The Spirit Jam. Although it is work from creators other than Eisner, it would have been a fitting conclusion to the run of archives, an illustration of just how much love Eisner’s work on the character had engendered. Of course, I can understand why it isn’t there. I imagine the royalties would be a nightmare. Still, it feels like something substantial is missing.

Super best friends…

There are short introductory notes on various pieces, but I can’t help but feel the book would be a bit more complete with some more in-depth explorations of the character at particular points. There’s not expansive introduction, unlike the previous twenty-five volumes in this hardcover set. Again, I can understand why. There’s no really cohesive theme to all this, it’s just a collection of odds and ends. Still, it might have been nice to get a short two-page essay on each decade, or even to dig up the occasionally interview from Eisner to include.

Still, it’s a fitting conclusion to a spectacular collection. It’s arguably the edition that stands least well on its own among the set, but that’s part of the reason it feels like a definite ending to a rather impressive saga. It’s really just one gigantic extended afterword from Will Eisner, tying up loose ends and acknowledging his own spectacular influence on other writers and artists, while indulging a slightly more artistic side to the character and his world.

The eternal Spirit…

My personal highlight of the collection is The Spirit Portfolio, a collection of several stunning full-page illustrations beautifully rendered that capture a particular moment in the Spirit’s day or life. With more time and more experience than he had putting the strip together, they feel like stunning snapshots of a life less ordinary, one in a world that is quite similar to our own, but just a little more colourful.

It feels perfectly appropriate, then.

 

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