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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 11 (Review/Retrospective)

I have to admit that I feel a bit guilty for glossing over the World War II era of The Spirit. The era tends to get ignored because Will Eisner effectively handed over control of the strip to a variety of writers and artists while serving in the Armed Forces. The talent involved professionals like Jack Cole and Lou Fine, so it’s hardly as if it was neglected. Still, without Eisner’s passion driving the strip, it seemed to lose its way slightly. The aesthetic shifted even further the longer Eisner was away. Fans skipping from the first collection of post-Eisner work (The Spirit Archives, Vol. 5) to the work included here will see a radical change in style. While there was still a strong influence from Eisner, the comic simply didn’t look right. However, the differences extended deeper as well. On some primal level, The Spirit of the World War II era didn’t really feel right either.

Hounded by the Spirit of Will Eisner…

With Eisner gone for several years, the strip had developed on its own path. It’s not unfair to suggest the work doesn’t measure up to Eisner’s take on the comic, but – to be fair – what would? These strips are often ignored or overlooked simply because they don’t match the general high quality of Eisner’s output. While that’s undoubtedly a legitimate criticism, it should be noted that the comic was always an enjoyable read, one of the top-tier Golden Age comic strips. That said, I do find myself struggling to find that much to talk about when it comes to these stories, even struggling to remember than much from the notes I jotted down while reading through them.

To be fair to DC, I respect the fact that they acknowledge that these are, in essence, lesser stories featuring The Spirit. I also admire the restraint it took for them to hold back on the “Will Eisner Returns!” banner until the next volume. Eisner contributes two stories out of the two-odd-dozen collected here, so branding it as his triumphant return would seem a bit disingenuous, even if it would undoubtedly boost the sales of the valume. I admire the fact that the volume acknowledges that most of the stories are somewhat forgettable little vignettes, with Will Eisner returning almost at the end of the collection, before taking over fully for the subsequent volume.

Grave danger…

Even in the introduction, Michael T. Gilbert acknowledges the fact that this isn’t the best of The Spirit. Introductions for books like this tend to rush to the defence of the work in question, even if it has received a lukewarm reception. However, Gilbert opens his foreword with a rather candid admission that the work collected here isn’t really what the title promises, even suggesting that it’s something of a knock-off, despite being the work of Eisner’s studio:

The shambling thing lurched forward, propelled by its own momentum. Stumbling, faltering, it bore an uncanny resemblance to what it pretended to be. But it wasn’t not really.

True, the blue suit and mask resembled the original. The hat and gloves were convincing, too. But the cold, humorless eyes gave it away. Yes, the soulless thing looked like The Spirit – only something was missing.

And that something was Will Eisner.

Indeed, his foreword ends with the promise that the best is yet to come. While it’s certainly a fair accessment given the esteem than many people have for Eisner’s later work of the strip, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for artists like Lou Fine and Jack Cole who were tasked with keeping the strip alive in Eisner’s absence.

Keeping the strip bubbling over…

Both artists would leave a massive impression on generations of future talent, but filling in for one of the most highly regarded masters of the craft is a thankless endeavour. To be entirely fair, both artists did make their own massive contributions to the history of comic books. Fine was a massive influence on artists like Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. Jack Cole created Plastic Man, often housed within the same comic section as The Spirit. In his introduction to The Spirit Archives, Volume 25, Tom Spurgeon argues that they were great creators whose only crime was that they weren’t Will Eisner.

And, looking through the stories collected here, there’s a collection of solid-enough adventures. They certainly compare quite favourably to those told using other Golden Age characters at the same time. However, The Spirit isn’t measured against Detective Comics or Batman. The Spirit exists in a class all its own, measured against itself – and these strips suffer when measured against the work of the strip’s creator – lacking the wit and creativity Eisner brought to his work. Examining the page composition, the use of space or even the incorporation of the logo in the opening page, The Spirit didn’t seem quite as ambitious as it once did. The stories seem slighter here as well.

Still a towering accomplishment?

Perhaps it’s not just a metaphorical slightness we’re describing here. Most of the pre-War Spirit stories were eight pages in length. By the time of the adventures collected here, the strip had been condensed to seven pages. There’s only a page in difference, but – given the already compressed nature of the strip – that’s a significant decrease. That’s not to suggest that all of the plotting or pacing problems here can be reduced to the decision to cut a page from the feature. Eisner could, of course, tell great stories in the space of seven pages, as he would demonstrate on his return.

We get a variety of efficient, if forgettable, tales featuring the eponymous character as he makes Central City a safer place to live. Some of these strips almost seem like throw-away concepts Eisner might have used to break-up a more exciting adventure. The Kuttup Shop, for example, features a criminal bar pretending to be a joke shop – it’s an entertaining concept for a page or two, but it can’t sustain eve seven full pages. The Millionth Customer is a fairly conventional murder mystery with an semi-interesting hook that might make a nice background detail, but isn’t enough to support a story.

Blithe Spirit…

The Vickram Forgery is, as the title implies, about art forgery. Given Eisner’s tendency to have fun with the fourth wall, one might expect a knowing wing – the entire strip, after all, is something of a forgery with Will Eisner’s signature on it. Instead, it’s just a conventional mystery told in seven efficient pages. The Spirit foils a fake film school racket in Spelvin’s School for Actors, which is another concept that should be more entertaining than the workman-like story we get. These are not inherently bad ideas, but it just seems sort of light. Of course, Eisner’s Spirit was always light, but it also had a substance missing here.

That’s not to suggest that every story in this collection is at least passable. There are a few tales that inspire a healthy eye-roll, and makes me wonder how close the deadline must have been. Soapy Keeps It Clean, for example, features a soap-themed villain. I am actually, not making that up. Given that DC owns the Spirit, I can’t help but think that “Soapy” deserves at least a place on the Suicide Squad, if not a reinvention from Grant Morrison. You can tell that the team were running out of ideas as the Spirit desperately tries to play up the bad guy’s appeal. “A cake of soap’s a peculiar murder weapon, Dolan!” he concedes. “Yet Soapy knows every possible use for such things!”

Window of opportunity…

That said, there is some interesting stuff to be found here, on its own merits. There’s some nice early use of forensics by the title character, playing up the notion of the Spirit as a sort of detective character – a side that works quite well. In Mr. Martin’s Pistols, the Spirit uses his expertise to determine that the suspected weapon hasn’t been fired. Later on, he uses chemicals to detect the use of sleeping gas in Jason Ghor is Innocent.

In keeping with the theme, Jonas Dubrick’s Plan even features a self-confessed “eccentric millionaire” funding a “master crime laboratory!” in  Central City. It’s a nice reflection of the increasing fascination with forensics following the FBI’s pioneering use of them, and it seems quite ahead of the curve – reading it now it’s almost a distant ancestor of CSIor some other television shows in the wave of procedural forensics cop shows we’ve seen in the past few years.

All at sea…

Indeed, there seems to be a consistent shift toward making the strip itself something of a procedural, perhaps to the expense of some of the more creative and engaging tales that Eisner would craft. In Nitro, Dolan has to tell a concerned Mr. Trovell that his hands are tied by the procedural rules. “You don’t understand! Your estate’s outside the city limits! This police force only has authority inside Central City.” (Okay, it is clearly just a twist to involve the Spirit – and even if Dolan is correct, surely Trovell must be in somebody’s jurisdiction? He can’t just exist in a legal no man’s land, can he?)

Perhaps I am being too harsh, though. There are some very occasional Eisner-esque touches and stories included here, including Mobar’s Comet. It reminds me of an early Eisner story, with an eye on a supernatural occurrence blended with a decidedly noiroutlook. Sadly, it’s really the only story that feels like it could blend in effortlessly with Eisner’s work on the character. Everything else just has a decidedly different aesthetic. That is, of course, entirely understandable, as the strip had been running for years while Eisner was in the armed services.

The strip itself was on the line…

Eisner does return for the final two stories of the volume, and there’s an immediate sense that the writer and artist hasn’t lost his touch. Neither story is essential Eisner, and they both stand in the shadow of the stories he would shortly tell, but they represent a dramatic improvement over the vast majority of stories told here. I can’t help but wonder if readers at the time picked up on the obvious increase in quality and the return of the master. After all, Eisner’s name was branded across every strip in his absence.

The Christmas Spirit of 1945 is a nice note for the creator to return to his work – it is precisely as touching as you might expect, given the time of year and the subject matter. Indeed, it still reads quite well today, with a clear (but not overstated) commentary on the commercialisation of Christmas, with a department store hiring twenty-five santas for the holidays and shattering any illusion of magic and mystery. (“What a racket!”one of the employees comments, reducing the bringing of joy to a mere payslip.)

Still around…

However, Return of the Villains of ’42 is slightly more interesting. After all, 1942 was the year that Eisner departed the strip. It provides Eisner with an opportunity to “clear the deck” at the end of 1945, to give himself a clean slate to work with going forward. Eisner draws in all manner of recurring foes from early in the strip’s life –  Mr. Fly, Hush, Gooplefuss and Mickelholler all play a part in the story, which almost seems like an incredibly compressed crossover.

Still, the focal point of Return of the Villains of ’42 is the Squid. An obvious forerunner to the Octopus, right down to the fact that his face was never seen, the Squid is a former Nazi super agent. Here, he’s deprived of his mask and his cause, homeless and powerless. He’s just a pathetic homeless beggar on the street. “What a sad day,” he observes, “when the Squid, Europe’s foremost criminal, must struggle with two bums for a cigarette!”

What’s on the cards?

In making a point to finish off a villain he established at the start of the Second World War, Eisner seems to be drawing something of a line in the sand. The war is over. The Squid is finished stripped of his dignity as easily as he is stripped of his mask. It’s a new world out there, with new possibilities and new opportunities. The Spirit has survived and endured, much like America itself. It’s time to push forward into the second-half of the twentieth-century.

After a book of mediocre strips, Eisner seems to assuring us that the past is merely prologue. The best is yet to come.

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