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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

Join us the December as we take a dive into the weird and wonderful Will Eisner Spirit Archives, the DC collections of the comic strip that helped define the medium.

With this second collection of six months worth of strips, we can see Eisner’s vision of The Spirit really cement itself, as well as the true beginnings of the more experimental work that the writer and artist would do with the newspaper strip. While a lot of people would argue that Eisner truly hit his stride in the postwar era of The Spirit, I think we can see him beginning to truly hone his craft here, and can get a sense of an artist slowly testing the horizons of an eight-page newspaper comic strip. It might not be his best work on the title, but it’s still fascinating stuff.

Accept no substitutes…

Admittedly, I actually think that this six-month stretch probably contains a weaker selection of Eisner’s work than the first collection. I think there are better stories here than in the earlier set of archives, but there are even more random and forgettable little stories. The mad science and bizarre genre-shifting that Eisner seemed to embrace in the first few strips – with killer robots and intelligent ape-men – seems very toned-down here. Instead, we get a bunch of noir tinged stories with the shadow of the Second World War looming large. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a sense that Eisner is beginning to pin down the strip’s identity, but the content seems relatively subdued. However, some would argue that just allows the artwork to stand out all the more.

From the very first strip collected here, The Black Bow, you can see Eisner truly defining the world the strip inherits. Earlier stories explicitly placed The Spirit in New York City, hardly a surprising choice given Eisner’s familiarity with the city. (He grew up in New York.) However, here we get the name “Central City”, which would become associated with the character from here on out. There are strange moments where the geography seems to blend effortlessly into New York surroundings (with the Statue of Liberty even appearing in The S.S. Raven), and the city might as well be New York with another name, but it’s clear that Eisner is carving a mythos for the character.

The Spirit watches over us…

Indeed, in this collection one can see the familiar tropes come into play. Ellen finally dumps Homer Creep once and for all, leaving her free to pine for Denny Colt. “Say, Ellen… whatever became of Homer… your boy friend?” Commissioner Dolan asks, as if illustrating how much of a second thought the character is, a footnote in the grand scheme of things. “Oh, him,” she replies, absent-mindedly. “Last time I saw him he was making love to a nurse in the hospital… and I never want to see him again.” He does get to feature in one last strip, but Eisner seems to have settled on the dynamic he wants between Ellen Dolan and Denny Colt, with both available, but the Spirit fleeing her advances.

This collection introduces one of the most enduring supporting characters in the strip, in Introducing Silk Satin. The presence of the shady femme fatale with an obvious attraction to our hero illustrates Eisner spreading out beyond the core cast of Ebony, Dolan and Ellen. In fact, Satin proves such a success that she reappears only a few weeks later in Five Passengers in Search of an Author. In what seems to be an affectionate homage to the sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman in Batman #1, Eisner initially casts her as a female thief.

Take a bow!

Unlike Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, however, the two do get to somewhat release that pent-up tension – wrestling with one another and fumbling on the couch. “I hate you!” she declares, melodramatically. “Hated you ever since you kissed me!!” Eisner would always prove a bit more deft at handling romantic chemistry than any superhero writer, so it’s fitting that the relationship between the Spirit and Silk Satin feels more developed and more complex and more satisfying than the somewhat perennial foreplay between Batman and Catwoman.

Eisner took a great deal of pleasure in playing The Spirit like a screwball romantic comedy, and even the character seems acutely aware of that. “Why do women always want to beat me up??”he asks, neglecting to ponder why so many end up wanting to kiss him. Maybe he’s just a lovable sort of guy, underneath that sharp blue suit.

Not watered down…

Eisner notoriously created the character as a costumed vigilante under pressure from his business partner, reluctant to shamelessly cash in on the superhero craze. The small blue eye mask and gloves serve as a polite tip-of-the-hat towards the genre, but it’s very clear that Eisner didn’t want his creation pigeon-holed. The collection opens with The Black Bow, which feels like a parody of the sort of costumed characters that populated other strips, impossibly skilled with an archaic piece of technology and given a silly-sounding name. Naturally, the foul fiend is easily defeated by our crime-fighter.

Eisner even seems to take a bit of time to mock the idea of Clark Kent, the secret identity that Superman assumes by putting on a pair of glasses. In Marta & The Renaissance Primitive, the Spirit wears a pair of glasses over his domino mask to allow him to wander around undiscovered. In the next story, Thomas Hawkins, Dolan comments on the character walking around in broad daylight like that. The Spirit retorts, “So what…? I’m wearing a disguise…” Dolan responds, “But it’s just a pair of glasses…” It seems like Eisner might have been very lightly teasing the conventional superhero.

Eisner’s style here is bright and beautiful. There’s a wonderful technicolour trip inside the Spirit’s underground layer in The Balkan Ball, and it seems like Eisner was especially fond of using bright colours on his work here. It’s fascinating, because the content of these stories is quite dark, tonally. While Eisner borrowed some of his angles and shots (and even some set-ups) from classic noir cinema, his colour scheme was always too bright. However, here it seems like Eisner is able to craft a very dark and sinister set of stories that stand in contrast to the brightness of the artwork.

The S.S. Raven is about a killer ship. Croaky Andrews’ Perfect Crime feels like a variation on Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, where a killer is driven insane by his own guilt and subconscious. It’s so bleak that – even though the killer winds up dead – the Spirit still thinks that he’s failed. Marta & The Renaissance Primitive sees a museum curator driven to suicide, just barely off the panel. While there are stories with uplifting endings, like Thomas Hawkins, the tone seems quite dark. Davey Jones’ Locker opens with a splash page of a drowned corpse, after all.

I suspect that the Second World War loomed large in Eisner’s mind. The conflict looms large, even though we’re still months away from direct American involvement. You can sense Eisner’s palpable unease with American complacency. He broaches the topic of a “fifth column” in Radio Station WLXK, suggesting that the media needs to stand guard against the propaganda coming out of Germany. Fear about media attitudes towards the conflict even feed into stories rather disconnected from the events overseas.

In Dusk & Twilight, Eisner uses Ebony to accuse the media of “missing white woman syndrome” on a global scale, where the suffering of Europeans is of no interest to the media because they are foreigners. “But one thing sho’ seem funny,” Ebony remarks, “thousands an’ thousands o’ people bein’ killed in europe… an’ nothin’ bein’ done to stop it. But here in America efn’ one man is killed, the papers done have screamin’ headlines about it!!!”

The Tale of the Dictator’s Reform even allows the Spirit to interact with a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, albeit in a way that seems somewhat harsher given what we now know about Hitler’s genocidal plans. Confronted with the idea that people will not surrender so easily, the dictator stutters, “I… I never thought of it in that way… I… I would have to kill all the free people in the world before I can be absolute master!!” In the story, this prompts the character to mend his ways. Read through hindsight, it probably is quite a bit closer to the actual Nazi outlook than Eisner ever intended.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s quite a bit of room for farce and other stuff. More than in the previous volume, we can see Eisner growing more and more comfortable with the idea of making the Spirit a supporting character in his own strip. He only appears towards the end of Invasion from Argos, and Dead Duck Dolan. Indeed, the lead character in the former story only bumps into the Spirit when the hero nearly runs him over. (“Hey! Careful! You almost ran into my car!”) At the same time, the writer is experimenting with form. The S.S. Raven is related as a folktale, while Killer McNobby is presented as an eight-page illustrated poem.

Meanwhile, Eisner indulges a thirst for social commentary. Thomas Hawkins allows the author to explore the life of a former criminal after they’ve served their time, a sad story of social exclusion with a note of hope. “You see, Dolan,” the Spirit explains, “I’ve spent most of my time catching crooks… tracking down killers… smashing rackets and all that… and somehow I forgot that crooks are human beings like you and me… I forget about them after they pay their penalty…” The murderer’s former associate, Jake, warns him, “Besides, the whole city’s against ya now… You’re a marked man! A crook! Honest people don’t wantcha… you ain’t got a chance!!”

The opening panels of Davy Jones’ Locker suggest concern about exploitation of the working class, while The Tale of the Dictator’s Reform acknowledges the social inequalities in American society, especially after the Great Depression. While Eisner might not have tackled these hefty subjects head-on, he was acutely aware of them, and I think that it’s to his credit that he did dare to deal with them.

At the same time, Eisner seemed to be getting a little bit more experimental, at least with his story-telling. We can see him toying with the fourth wall, as the Spirit closes Invaders from Argos by addressing the audience. The S.S. Raven is a story narrated by the latest captain of the ill-fated vessel. In Dull Week, the narrative bends and contorts around the characters in order to tell a story despite the fact that nothing is happening. The Spirit seems astute enough to realise that his adventures unfold on a weekly basis. “No adventure for a week,” he laments, “I’ll get stale!” Five Passengers in Search of an Author implies a level of meta-fiction inherent in its premise.

It’s worth noting that Eisner is still doing a tremendous job with the eight pages afforded him by the newspaper. It’s amazing how much he can cram in there, with the action and the mystery and the suspense. Each tale is practically stand-alone, and none feel too large or too small for the space afforded them. It’s quite impressive that Eisner could do this week-in and week-out for so long, and I think it’s quite an accomplishment. It’s also worth noting that, along with Jack Cole, Eisner remains the most accessible of the Golden Age writers to modern readers. Unfortunate racial stereotypes about African Americans and Mexicans give away the age of the material, but most of the rest of the stuff is so vital that it could have been written only a few years ago.

Okay, there are moments of awkward contrivance. In order to set up Dead Duck Dolan, we need to believe that Commissioner Dolan has a sheriff as a father he has never mentioned before. And, in fairness to Eisner, he concedes how awkward the set-up is as Dolan tells his daughter, “Ellen… I want you to meet my…  your grandfather… Through a trick of fate you’ve never met him!” What a trick of fate, indeed!

In the same strip, he tends to get a bit muddled up, with the Spirit, of all people, condemning vigilantism “You’re right, Dolan!!” the Spirit declares after Dolan reprimands his father. “Citizens should not take the law into their own hands… but you can’t blame pappy either… where he comes from, if a man commits a crime, he’s a polecat, and no one ever objected to shooting polecats!” It seems just a little bit hypocritical for the Spirit to uphold the virtue of law enforcement agencies. He was a police officer himself, but he’s still an urban vigilante operating outside the system. Still, the stories are entertaining, so we’ll forgive the odd awkward moment like that, where Eisner seems to undermine his own point.

The Spirit is still developing here, but Eisner’s vision is gradually becoming more fully realised and more completely formed. A lot of writers cite Eisner’s post-War work as his most creative period, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree, but I still think it’s great to watch the artist and writer develop over the opening years of the strip, before his time in the U.S. Army. The stories here might be a bit weaker, overall, than in the first collection, but there are still some wonderful examples of Eisner testing the water and trying to see what he can and can’t get away with. The answer, it seems, is that he could do pretty much anything he set his mind to.

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