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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 5 (Review/Retrospective)

With The Spirit Archives, Vol. 5, we get our first real taste of what The Spirit looks like without Will Eisner. I’ve always felt like The Spirit belonged to Eisner in a way that very few iconic American comic book characters belong to a particular creator. The Spirit belonged to Eisner in the same way that The Adventures of Tintin belonged to Hergé. I am fond of Darwyn Cooke’s revival of the character, and there’s something interesting about the Kitchen Sink anthology series, but those exist mainly as curiosities or companion pieces to Eisner’s work on the character.

In many ways, this stretch of strips, published by Eisner’s staff and colleagues during his army service, feels the same sort of way. It’s more of a historical curiosity than an end to itself.

Lighten up…

That’s not to denigrate the work done by Lou Fine or Jack Cole. Both artists acquitted themselves very well, in light of the situation. However, both would go on to massively influence generations of artists, but not for their work here. Here, Fine and Cole were cast in the role of caretakers rather than trailblazers. In fact, that’s a pretty accurate way to describe the way that these stories feel. They seem relative safe and much less adventurous than some of Eisner’s early work. It seems like Fine and Cole are more concerned with keeping the character in working order than with pushing him outside his comfort zone.

And, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Spirit was Eisner’s baby. The creator was off doing his bit for the war effort, so it seems appropriate that his successors would want to make sure that the strip was in fine condition when Eisner returned. To make the title their own would have been disrespectful. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to take creative risks with a strip they’d been asked to safeguard. While I will freely admit that the work during Eisner’s service didn’t meet his high standards of creativity and ingenuity, I do respect the way it was treated.

You know his name…

That said, perhaps there were other reasons the strip didn’t fare as well in Eisner’s absence. In his foreword, Ron Goulart notes of Manly Wade Wellman, one of the writers who took over for Eisner, “Wellman never considered writing comics a noble calling. It was simply a way to add to his income. He called scripts “squinkas”, turning out quantities of them from the ’30s to the ’50s.” Unlike Wellman, Eisner loved comics.

The introduction to The Spirit Archives, Vol. 4, features Frank Miller telling that famous story about how Eisner dismissed Miller’s idea that comics existed as storyboards for movies. To Eisner, comics existed as comics. They were an end unto themselves. That’s why the artist played such a massive role in elevating the artform, and that’s where all his passion and enthusiasm came from. He wasn’t treating the medium as a stepping stone to something greater, he was celebrating it and defining it as its own medium.

Still on the fence about non-Eisner Spirit?

During his first few months of service, Eisner would “smuggle” out story ideas and concepts for the team to work on. While he would eventually be unable to contribute even those small personal touches, it does mean that the transition from Eisner to his successors is actually relatively smooth. The strip doesn’t suddenly stop being a Will Eisner creation, and it doesn’t radically shift focus or tone between two stories. It’s more of a gradual shift that occurs, perhaps an unconscious one. It’s quite noticeable if – for example – the reader skips from the stories collected here to the last of the work before Eisner’s return in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 11.

Indeed, as far as the public is concerned, Eisner was still drafting the stories himself, even though he was always ably assisted by his studios even when he wasn’t away. His name still appears on every title page. When things get a little bit “meta” in Hallowe’en Spirit of ’42, with a visit to the Spirit’s art studio, it’s still very clearly meant to Will Eisner who is slaving away over the drawing board, trying to get the story finished in time.

They’d still capture that Eisner feeling, once in a blue moon…

There are still decidedly Eisner-esque stories. M-U-R-D-E-R comes to mind, with the middle six pages of the story each themed along one of the letters of the word. It lends itself to some fairly awesome alliteration, a rather neat (if light) storytelling tool. There’s a lot more energy and originality here than there would be in some of the later stuff during Eisner’s forced absence from the script, and the stories still hit on some of those familiar Eisner themes.

The Shadow of Dusk features Eisner’s recurring devilish bad guy with some nice macabre goings-on. The Return of Scar Cainam is a “going straight” story featuring a recently-released gangster in a world that has changed significantly since he went away – an “ex-big shot” all but forgotten by a new generation of mobsters. It’s hard not to feel a faint sense of foreboding as the Warden advises him, “Times have changed, Cainam! You couldn’t be a big shot mobster today if you tried! You’ll find some twenty-a-week job and…” It’s hardly the most moving story ever told, but it has a nice amount of that Eisner pathosabout it.

What’s in your head? … in your he-ad? Zombie! Zombie! Zomb-ee-ee-ee!

On the other hand, there are already signs of change to be found here. The last two volumes were filled with stories about the inevitable coming war, offering a form of patriotism from Eisner as he reacted to various goings-on in Europe and around the world. By the time of the stories featured here, the United States was at war, and perhaps the taste for war stories had died down – the glorious fantasy replaced by the grim reality. Or perhaps Eisner’s absence accounted for the shift in tone, with the artist no longer there to steer the strip in that general direction.

There are a few patriotic stories here, but they are by no means as voluminous as the ones collected in the earlier books. Rejected is a story about patriotism among even the most disenfranchised members of society. The Mock Invasionis pretty much an extended advertisement for war bonds, with some nice scaremongering portraying a German invasion of America unless faithful citizens open their wallets. Finding the local military base incomplete, one observer explains the practicalities of the war time economy.

Eisner certainly cast a shadow…

“They’d have built it if they had the money,” he tells his friend (and the audience), “that’s why I bought bonds!!” Standing in or the more naive members of the audience, his colleague seems a bit slow on the uptake, asking, “Y’mean they need our dough to buy things with?” Cue patriotism, stage left. You see, his partner explains, they need money because they’re the good guys. “Of course, under our democratic system, the government pays as it goes for everything! Besides, we’re only lending!!”

It’s actually not as bad as it might have been – there’s no racism on display, and war bonds were a way of encouraging the populace to help finance an army fighting a necessary war overseas. As far as military propaganda goes, it’s actually not that bad. Certainly it holds up rather well compared with the stuff appearing in cartoons or other comic books at the time. (And, to be fair, there are also quite a few racially insensitive portrayals in other Spirit scripts.)

Trapped by Eisner’s legacy?

Still, the war seems a lot further away here than it has in a while, despite the fact that it was on-going as these scripts were published. In its place, there was more generic globe-trotting adventure. While the past few collections sent the Spirit around the world as an Allied spy, here he seems to travel of his own accord. Wanted for Murder takes him to South America, while The Royal Flush Gang sends him to New Orleans.

There’s also a bit more noir than we’ve seen in a while. In particularly, there’s that curious sort of fantastical noir that Eisner did so well reflected in these pages – that strange intersection of gangsters and mysticism that always worked a lot better than one might suspect that it would. One noir-ish highlight is Death is my Destiny, a short story told from the point of view of the gun itself. Despite its gangster trappings, it’s almost gothic in a way. “That gun!!!” the gunsmith begs, as if speaking of some cursed item. “I made it… conceived it in hatred… dedicated it to murder!!”

A Spirited confrontation…

Another interesting story here – and another point where noir intersects with the surreal – is A Zombie. In many ways, A Zombie feels quite a bit ahead of its time, as zombies weren’t really popular monster movie subjects until the sixties. Naturally, as Night of the Living Dead was quite a while away, the story focuses on Haitian zombies rather than the flesh-eating kind. In a strange way, the script seems to almost foreshadow later discoveries about voodoo.

Dolan, naturally, dismisses the idea of zombies. Spirit is less convinced, and counters, “Oh, I don’t know! I remember a certain Denny Colt, criminologist, who came back from the grave… a lonely spirit.” Dolan responds, “That’s different, Spirit! You weren’t really dead… only in a coma!” It’s hard to believe this was written before the well-documented case of Clairvius Narcisse in Haiti, buried and resurrected in 1962.

Not washed up yet…

Investigations into the Narcisse case discovered that the process was quite similar – victims would be put into a coma, buried and dug up. They would be controlled through the application of drugs after that point. Nobody knew this when A Zombie was written, so it feels almost prescient in the way that it alludes to the practice. In Narcisse’s case, the victim was drugged with pufferfish and toad venom.

Horror is something of a recurring theme through this collection, perhaps as a way of expressing unconscious concerns and fears about the war at home and abroad. It is, after all, so much easier to gasp and scream at some imaginary evil rather than a more tangible ill. The collection definitely includes more Halloween-themed stories than usual, with ghouls and spirits a-plenty. Suicide Balcony, A Zombie, Ebony Meets Frankenstein and Hallowe’en Spirit of ’42. are all horror or ghost stories after a fashion, even if they do generally have a sense of humour or adventure about them, rather than dwelling on the darkness.

Crushed by the weight of expectations?

On the other hand, there is a sense of change here – a sense that the book isn’t quite as comfortable as it had been during Eisner’s tenure. Indeed, the first story here almost betrays a slight sense of insecurity – with the Spirit returning to his Denny Colt persona. The Spirit has always been something of a blank slate, a vehicle to allow Eisner to experiment with form or to tell interesting stories. Despite a lengthy existence, the character has never been too rigidly defined. Much like Hergé’s Tintin, it’s his relative lack of a personality (or complex back story) that makes him so accessible and so useful as a central character to a series like this.

As such, it feels a little weird that the first story in this collection,  Wanted for Murder opens the Spirit reflecting on his former identity. The character’s far more introspective than usual, talking to himself in the mirror. “Well, at last!” he declares. “I’ve been waiting for you to catch up with me, Denny Colt… You couldn’t be content to rest in peace, could you?”It’s weird that a character-centric adventure could feel so out of place, but it does seem a little weird. Haunted by an event in a past that has always been hazily defined, the Spirit travels to South America to confess murder.

A spotlight on the lesser creators…

This jars rather strikingly with the blank slate that Eisner delighted in writing. Indeed, Wanted for Murder seems to acknowledge this when the Spirit travels to South America under his old name. Even when venturing into his past life, the strip makes sure that the Spirit never removes his little domino mask – a nod to the fact that the Spirit really doesn’t have a costumed alter ego or even a personal life.

This leads to a delightfully absurd moment when the character hands himself over to police custody, confessing his name and his crime, but refusing to take off the mask. “You’ll have to take my word for it… my mask stays on!!” When the Spirit is sentenced to hard labour, he is allowed to retain his domino mask. I can’t help but imagine how much wrangling that took. (Still, true to Eisner’s artistic vision, even while giving the character back story, the adventure even takes pains to conceal his face in flashback.)

Cop on to yourselves…

I find myself getting a bit less upset by the casual racism and sexism displayed in these early books – and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps I have learned to embrace these stories as products of their time. Perhaps I am just making excuses. Still, even as I read through this fifth collection of stories featuring the character, there were still some especially unfortunate moments that stood out. Once again, while I understand that The Spirit is the product of a different time, it’s hard to believe that nobody found of this even a little… insensitive.

In Pink Elephants, the Spirit treats Ellen in a paternal way that’s entirely fitting with the times. Much like Bruce threatening Catwoman with “papa spank”, the Spirit admonishes his would-be lover, “There are times, young lady, where I could cheerfully spank you…” That isn’t necessarily an ideal threat, either. He actually spanks the villainess Diana in Diana the Huntress. Like quite a few Golden Age heroes, the Spirit seems to consider a firm pat across the bottom to be enough to scare any female villain straight. “… And get out of town.. if you show up in Central City again you’ll land in a padded cell!!” All that’s missing is the “young lady”from his dialogue with Ellen.

The devil went down to Central City…

There’s some uncomfortable racial stuff in Diana the Huntress with her two African henchmen who are pretty much forties stereotypes, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been. At least the Spirit himself doesn’t indulge his own racism. On the other hand, some of the Ebony-centric stories are still cringeworthy. In particular, Ebony narrates the story Lucifer T. Mephisto, in a manner that portrays him as both illiterate and excessively superstitious – certainly none of the main white characters would be so easily convinced that there wasn’t a rational explanation.

The Spirit would survive in Eisner’s absence. I don’t think that the staff get as much credit as they deserve for keeping the book afloat. Certainly it wasn’t nearly as good as it would be under Eisner, and the book wouldn’t thrive until he returned, but keeping the strip going was a considerable accomplishment. The stories did drift away from Eisner’s style as the years went on, but I think The Spirit was – even at its weakest – one of the stronger Golden Age comics. And I think that is too easily overlooked because it wasn’t quite as good as it had been.

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