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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 3 (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.

At this point The Spirit had survived a year. That first year had seen Eisner establish the strip, lay down many of the rules that would define the comic for the rest of its impressive twelve-year run as a regular fixture in the Sunday papers. This third volume is hardly the most essential in the twenty-six volume set, but there’s a sense of confidence in the stories the Eisner is telling and how he is telling them. The strip arguably wouldn’t hit its stride until after Eisner left for the war, and came back with a broader range of experience, but one can see the roots of that later success even in these (relatively) early adventures.

We'll always have Damascus...

We’ll always have Damascus…

I think it’s fair to say that The Spirit was heavily influenced by film noir. Eisner himself acknowledged and conceded the influence of cinema on his work. However, I think it’s fascinating that Eisner was able to produce a rather strange hybrid of noir with a far more optimistic and cartoon-y style of storytelling. After all, noir is fatalist and cynical, grim and depressing. Eisner’s work on The Spirit tended to celebrate life – in all its forms. Sometimes it was dark, but it could also be funny or happy or tragic or all at the same time.

Sometimes Eisner would channel the grimness of film noir. Indeed, The Jewel of Death was years ahead of Casablanca, but evoked much of the same mood and feeling. It might have swapped Damascus for Morocco, but it’s still a story of exiles living far from home in a strange land. It’s a story story full of people dying, sometimes with cause and sometimes without, all in the framework of some grander purpose that could only really be seen from outside the narrative itself.

I am sceptical of the science, to say the least.

I am sceptical of the science, to say the least.

And yet, despite the noir influence, Eisner’s world is not quite so random and arbitrary – evil seldom wins a true victory, even if good doesn’t necessarily triumph. There’s a grim morality running through these stories. In Barton Heartsell (mistakenly titled Barton Heartsell in these archives), the killer winds up dying by own poison. “Killed by his own dirty weapon!” the Spirit observes, with some sense.

The Spirit outlines his own sense of harsh morality when Ronald dies for planning a murder. “A man’s a murderer as soon as he contemplates it,” the Spirit insists. Even if innocents die, their deaths rarely go completely unpunished. In The Jewel of Death, a woman is murdered – but her killer dies shortly afterwards, swallowed up by an earthquake. The elements themselves will conspire to see some measure of justice is done.

A face you can trust...

A face you can trust…

Eisner was never too preoccupied with the practicalities of the title character and how he worked with the system to see justice done. In fact, one could argue that Eisner was never too concerned with his lead character at all. That said, we do get a few hints of how the the Spirit’s freedom to work outside institutional constraints give him more liberty to distill what he considers to be justice. “I ain’t actually broke no laws!!” Joe Frisk confidently declares, and he’s safely out of reach of the law. The Spirit’s code of honour seems to almost condone the murder of Joe Frisk by Frankie Slade, the boy he always bullied.

In The Jewel of Death, the Spirit exploits his extra-legal status to threaten Doctor Gregg. “Remember, I’m no police man bound by regulations!” The threat (or boast) recurs in this volume. The introduction to Sphinx and Satin warns the reader that the Spirit is “unhampered by regulations.” Eisner isn’t too concerned about the implications of a vigilante running around, deciding who deserves punishment for what, but – then again – that’s not really what The Spirit is about. No comic book at the time was exploring those ideas, but it’s odd to see a comic strip so clearly endorsing the fact that the Spirit isn’t tied down by regulations.

Take the Spirit home with you...

Take the Spirit home with you…

Then again, you could argue that Eisner isn’t too concerned about the finer points of the legal system either. Certainly, Eisner lacks a blind faith in the system. In Goll Girder, the Spirit jumps to the defence of a suspect, warning the judge, “The law only punishes — it does not reform!!” Eisner had a very strong social conscience, and his concerns are legitimate – even today the difference between punitive and rehabilitative justice is an on-going concern.

Perhaps because the strip was aimed at families, Eisner seems to focus on the idea of putting kids in prison, and why that isn’t necessarily the best thing from a criminal justice system to be doing. The theme surfaces in both Goll Girder and in Army Operas No. 1: Chuck Magoo. The Spirit notes, rather earnestly, that sending a kid to prison can have unintended side effects, and only cause greater problems for the system down the line. “You’re really a good kid!! This is your first mistake and if they jail you now… you’ll only become a greater criminal!!!”

I hope they throw the book at him!

I hope they throw the book at him!

That said, Eisner does seem a little bit confused about how the court system works – and not in a “he’s not a lawyer” sort of way. “This man was beaten up — coercion,” the judge states at the climax of Goll Girder. “But… since he confesses… I have no choice but to see he’s sent to jail!!” So, we can determine that sending children to prison is a bad thing, but confessions extracted through physical force are perfectly admissible in the world of The Spirit. That is a little bleak.

Still, there’s more here than Will Eisner’s meditations on crime and punishment. There’s a wealth of meta-fiction, the kind of stuff that Eisner does remarkably well – and would continue doing well throughout the extended lifetime of The Spirit. In Pink Perkins, a kid is inspired by the newspaper strip Gumshoe Gus to save his father’s business. The Oldest Man in the World is about archaeologists reading this week’s strip. The Killer Ghost opens with a letter from the Spirit to Will Eisner.

It's good to be wanted...

It’s good to be wanted…

There’s also a variety of highly-enjoyable one-shot stories that demonstrate Eisner’s willingness to experiment with the form and contents of his stories. The Element of Time is an enjoyable high concept adventure narrated in washed-out dream sequences (or visions of the future). Of course, these high concepts don’t always have the best results – some are merely conventional stories that tease something a bit out of the ordinary.

The Biography of a Big Shot Joe Frisk by the Spirit and Will Eisner: A Short Story Complete in One Volume is just a whimsical title on a solid character-centred story. The Last of the Minstrels is structured into one-page acts. It ultimately makes little difference to the narrative, but it’s still a novel approach. Then again, who cares about the novelty of the format as long as the stories are good? Eisner’s stories are – excepting the Ebony-centred adventures – generally relatively consistent in quality, so it’s fun to read them.

Putting a spotlight on the Spirit...

Putting a spotlight on the Spirit…

The strip’s iconic logo gags continue in this volume. I actually think that some of the more innovative logo designs actually date from these pre-War strips. Indeed, in the stories collected here, Ellen Dolan, Fullback has a fantastic opening splash page. Even the Spirit himself gets in on the act, smashing some poor goon through the middle of the logo on the opening page of Goll Girder. I can understand why the newspapers were occasionally frustrated by Eisner’s refusal to adhere to a standard logo, but they looked so great that it’s hard not to like them.

A year in, and The Spirit is still going strong. I actually really like these early adventures, even if they are just a bit rougher around the edges than some of the more famous stories that followed. Still, Eisner’s departure from the strip grows closer and closer, so let’s enjoy it while we can.


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