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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 4 (Review/Retrospective)

As with the previous collection, the War looms large in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 4. While Eisner had been keenly following events in Europe from the start of the strip, things really come to a head here. These are the strips for the six months following the attack on Pearl Harbour, and – understandable – there’s a strong patriot undertone to everything here. Eisner would eventually put his patriotism into action when he was drafted, leaving his character in the hands of his staff – who dutifully kept the comic warm for him during his term of service. While Eisner’s early work on the strip isn’t quite as good as the work that would follow, and the shadow of the Second World War dominates, these are still fascinating stories told by a master storyteller.

Carrying on, naturally…

Even though the event was still fresh in the American consciousness, Eisner even retroactively inserts the Spirit into the events of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in The Devil’s Shoes. It feels almost weird to see a national tragedy played as the climax to an adventure story like that, especially in a strip that is (generally) relatively light-hearted. It would, for instance, be incredibly awkward to insert a modern comic book character into the events of September 11th, inviting claims of insensitivity.

However, even in the adventures that don’t feature the Spirit’s adventures in international espionage, the spectre of the war looms large. In Cybil, Cecil & Callous Joe, Ellen takes in two kids from“the British Relief Society.” Although she mentions their parents are in Washington, it seems like a nod to many of the British children sent out of London and major population centres during the Blitz. Goobleclutch & Mickleholler centres around Ebony’s attempts to do his own patriotic duty.

What a Minx!

I’ve always thought Eisner did a fairly good job using The Spirit as an American tool of propaganda. The notion of using the titled character as an Allied spy isn’t the most original twist, as it’s something that a lot of comic book heroes were doing at the time – an attempt by writers and artists to engage their readers with the conflict. However, Eisner did an exceptional job staying true to the themes he developed during his run on The Spirit, especially the technicolour noir vibe that defined a lot of these early adventures.

He was exceptionally good at presenting the Nazis as equivalent to mobsters or gangsters – which, to be fair, isn’t a bad comparison to make. After all, Hitler’s movement had its roots in thuggish brutality, just becoming increasingly organised as its reach extended. Eisner seems to suggest that the Nazis never really moved too far from those roots – and The Spiritfrequently uses them as heavy-handed thugs and criminals rather than as enemy combatants.

If the shoe fits…

In The Man Who Lost His Face, for example, Eisner has the Nazis running what amounts to an extortion racket among the German-Americans, “selling” special currency in exchange for real currency, but in such a way that the German-Americans have no choice but to pay. One dismisses the sales talk, conceding, “I buy these because you have my father in a concentration camp.” Written before the true horrors of the camps could be known, it reads downright chilling today.

To be fair to Eisner, his propaganda mostly avoids the crass racism that defines a lot of contemporary media – consider the Looney Tunes shorts, for example. Still, there are a few moments that read rather painfully. In The Devil’s Shoes, for example, features some less-than-sensitive portrayals of Japanese operatives working in Hawaii before Pearl Harbour – complete with the cringeworthy “r as l” pronounciation. Indeed, the strip thinks it’s such good fun that we even get to see the Spirit doing “slanty eyes” and mocking his captor’s broken English. “So solly.”

Getting into his head…

Of course, such insensitivity isn’t reserved for the enemy. The first story in the collection, Gorilla Gage, features a healthy dose good old fashion sexism. Ellen Dolan is stating that she and her lady friends will take care of the eponymous mobster. “We’ll crack down on him hard!!” she vows. This is followed by three panels of characters (including the police and the Spirit) reading the news and laughing heartily. In His Majesty King Zenix II, while changing a baby, Spirit comments that it shouldn’t be too difficult. “Women can do it… even simple-minded women!” This is, of course, set-up to a gag about how the Spirit can’t, but it’s still pretty badly.

As with early collections, there’s also a large amount of racism around the portrayal of Ebony. To be entirely fair, I think the portrayal is getting slightly better, but he’s still painful to look at – illustrated in the most patronising and condescending of fashions, playing to racist stereotypes. Eisner always portrayed Ebony as good-natured, but he had an unfortuntate tendency to treat him as stupid. In Gorilla Gage, Ebony is desperately trying to grab the Spirit’s attention, prompting our hero to remark, “Now, Ebony!! Stop jabbering!! Talk coherently!!” Ebony responds, “Ah kin only talk English!”Ugh.

The writing’s on the floor…

While the stories collected here are very much anchored in the Second World War, that’s not to suggest that there aren’t hints of what’s to come. Eisner would leave the strip towards the end of this collection, but one can see several ideas gestating here, emerging almost unfinished only to develop into more refined concepts upon his return. In particular, consider the character of the Squid, the master Geman spy who locks wits with the Spirit repeatedly in the stories collected here.

Eisner would take care to finish off the Squid once and for all when he returned to the comic in The Return of the Villains of ’42. It represented a metaphorical closing of the book on Eisner’s pre-War work, allowing him a clean slate going forward. However, it’s hard not to look at the Squid and imagine that he was a significant influence on the creation of the Octopus, the Spirit’s post-War arch-enemy. Indeed, even aside from their names, both characters spend the vast majority of their on-panel time with their faces masked and hidden from view. We would finally see the Squid’s face before he dies, but the Octopus remains unknown to the Spirit to the present day. (It’s even explicitly acknowledged in Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke’s Spirit/Batman.)

Sweet music…

Still, the Squid is an interesting creation on his own terms. I like the idea of an Aryan who has to conceal his face. Despite his protestations to the contrary, it implies that he has something to hide. “The master race is superior in every way!!” he repeatedly boasts, and yet he seems almost afraid to show his face – even to his allies. While anonymity is undoubtedly a nice asset in his line of work, it does create the impression that perhaps he looks quite monstrous under there – that his face reflects his inner ugliness.

Eisner’s patriotism is in full swing here – in For Mayor Dolan, he even seems to take a swing at the politicians for allowing party politics to get in the way of the greater good. In that story, Dolan protests when the “Good Old Days Party” (clearly the Republicans) struggle to find a candidate to run against the successful “Happy Times Party” (obviously the Democrats) incumbent. It seems like a rather obvious commentary on successful President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was preparing to face his third election as President, something that was generally frowned upon since Washington only served two terms. (And expressly prohibited after Roosevelt won.)

It’s absurd(ist)!

Dolan, ever the voice of common sense, can’t seem to understand the reason for this politicking. The solution, as he sees it is obvious. He challenges the Grand Good Old Days Party, “Why not just let the Happy Timers put Nero Blast in? He’s very capable!!” He gets answer, “Dat don’t cut no ice in politics!! We gotta have one of our own men in — Now, Dolan, you’re a very popular man!!” Dolan protests in what was likely an author filibuster:

Why you tin-horn politicians!! Do you realise that this country is at war?!! There’s no sense in wasting time or energy in political ‘log-rolling’!! If you can’t get up a better man, let the best feller get in and run the office!! Shame on ya — playing politics — in national emergency!!

Interestingly, the Republicans would actually make major gains in the 1942 Senate and House of Representative elections, despite it being wartime and the serving President being a Democrat.

Smashing…

Outside of the Second World War stories, the rest of the book here is fairly solid if uninspiring stuff. There is, as usual, a nice blend of genres, with mystery stories like The Ghost of Post 13. or ghost stories like The Return of the S.S. Raven 121, although even those stories overlap with the War effort in some way. There is the occasionally clunker to be found, though, with Aunt Mathilda resorting to a tired sit-com premise – Ellen Dolan’s aunt comes to visit, sorting everything out.

In a scene that was trite when it was written, but is offensive now, she persuades Ellen to used “drugged lipstick” to knock the Spirit out so she can marry him. “Every man that was ever married was duped into it… they love it… the beasts… Now do as I told you!” Apparently date-rape is perfectly acceptable (and funny) if you’re a woman. However, the problem isn’t that it’s sexist, it’s just that it’s tired and cringeworthy on its own terms, an example of the worst of the strip’s occasional pandering to the lowest common denominator. Luckily, it is the exception rather than than the rule.

All good in the hood?

Eisner continues to experiment with meta-fictional story-telling devices here, particularly the logo. The logo would be the series’ defining iconic piece of work, and Eisner had been turning out memorable introductory panels since the start of the strip. Here, however, he seems to be getting a little bit more playful. The introduction to Mr. Hush features a sequence of panels with the eponymous character actually climbing over the logo, and speaking to us as he does so.

“Wait… don’t go away!! Wait!! Ugh… just a second… ugh… while I… climb down!” In fact, his narration of the story is set around the logo, with Ebony and the Spirit stalking him through the scene. It’s very clear that the letters making up the title seem to have an actual physical presence. They aren’t just visible to the audience reading the story, suggesting some strange architecture in Central City itself. For Mayor Dolanopens with Commissioner Dolan swiping at the logo as it pops up on one of his campaign posters.

Hush now…

There are other meta-fictional touches and references, drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that this is a newspaper comic strip. Eisner frequently uses the device of stories-within-stories to heighten the reader’s awareness of the nature of the strip. The Return of the S.S. Raven 121 is told  directly to the reader as a story. In The Bloody Fang, Dolan is reading a mystery that inspires him in dealing with his own case. (“If Sylvester can do it, so can I…”) Emil Gosk narrates his own story in The Man Who Lost His Face.

Even Will Eisner himself is a character here. The stories run on the logic that Eisner is the Spirit’s agent. Despite the fact that the Spirit operates in a city that doesn’t exist, Will Eisner suggests that he merely publishes the accounts given to him by the masked crime-fighter. Recounting The Men Whom Time Forgot, the Spirit acknowledges, “Not even Will Eisner would believe this story!!” In many ways, it seems to foreshadow the way that Stan Lee would write himself into his own Marvel Comics, as something of a literary agent to his famous creations.

Drawing on years of experience…

Self-Portrait gets a little extra meta. Notes are scrawled on the floor of Eisner’s studio, and they seem like the kind of notes that Eisner might receive on a week where inspiration was slow. Seen from the back, hunched over his desk, Eisner finds himself stressed over the demands of a weekly strip. “Deadline, Spirit story due—“ “Eisner, you are late!! The Editor” In a nice twist, a villain breaks into the office to steal the Spirit’s origin story. “Boy, the underworld would pay a fortune for dis!!” One must assume that not every strip we see gets published by this in-universe version of Will Eisner. Still, it’s quite a fascinating, if slightly mind-bending concept, and it seems quite a bit ahead of its time.

Eisner’s work on The Spirit in the early years is often overlooked or dismissed in favour of the work that would follow the outbreak of war. However, I think there’s enough goodness to make it worthwhile. I won’t argue that it’s as good, but I think it’s clear where the ingenuity and creativity of those later strips came from. Sure, they’re honed by years of experience, but they’re all rooted here.

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