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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 12 (Review/Retrospective)

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 12 marks Will Eisner’s return to the strip. To be fair, the writer and artist had returned for the last two entries in the previous volume, but this is the first book entirely composed of Eisner’s post-war Spirit stories. While I don’t think Eisner had quite found his groove yet – the best was still yet to come – it’s amazing how dynamic the comic feels after reading the non-Eisner material. It’s easy enough to point to the Eisner-esque tropes and tricks, the techniques and the plot devices and the philosophy that faded from the strip in has absence, but there’s also something much less tangible here. There’s certain energy, a je ne sais que, that had been absent for the previous couple of years, returning in force.

Eisner is back. And, in a way, so is The Spirit.

It’s like he was never gone…

There’s a sense, early in the collected strips here, that Eisner is looking for something of a fresh start. The last story of 1945, The Return of the Villains of ’42, had gone out of its way to take several of the older Eisner villains off the table – killing the Nazi spy the Squid especially ignomously. The trend continues here, with Satin Returns bringing back the eponymous femme fatale only to tidy up loose ends and send her off with her new daughter. (Demonstrating a degree of forethought, Eisner takes time to set up the revelation in the opening strip, Hildie and the Kid Gang.)

The second strip here, Dolan’s Origin of the Spirit is set up as another perspective on the character’s first story, but it also reads as an excuse to tell the story again. It marks a clear “jumping on” or entry point – as much as The Spirit needs one. Denny Colt is hardly the most continuity-heavy of characters, but explicitly returning to his six-year-old origin is a clear invitation to new readers to join up. Indeed, perhaps it’s an acknowledgment of how rocky some of the past few years had been, an attempt at a “do over”and to set things straight. Although Eisner could not have been thinking of collected editions at the time of publication, it suggests that this volume would make as good a point as any for a new reader.

Back to the beginning…

There’s also the very slight sense that Eisner might want to revisit the origin story, to add a bit more detail and colour. After all, he could always have just reprinted the original story. Or, if he felt obligated to contribute something, simply re-draw the same script. Instead, Eisner opts to make several revisions and clarifications to his original story – leading to the strange situation where this story feels considerably larger than the original, despite being one page shorter.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the fact that the Spirit’s origin seems to have been retroactively affected by what was going on in Europe. Dr. Cobra isn’t just a mad scientist, he’s explicitly linked to mass-murder overseas. “I’ve killed over ten thousand people in Europe with my death water!”he boasts. Eisner doesn’t clarify whether Dr. Cobra was working as a terrorist or in some official capacity – some sort of prelude to the destruction to come – but it’s hard to read that line in light of the end of the Second World War (and the revelations that the end of the war about the Holocaust) without shuddering just a bit. It seems like the war was such a profound influence on Eisner that it reached backwards to impact the hero’s origin.

Smashing reads…

Indeed, the war casts a large shadow over this whole collection, perhaps lending Eisner’s work a strange bit of symmetry. Arguably The Spirit seemed least concerned with the war while it was going on, with Eisner charting the lead-up and exploring the aftermath of it during his work on the strip. The most obvious influence is the impact that the war had on the writer himself. Many commentators, and even Eisner himself, suggest that his experiences played a large part in the shifting style and the expanding outlook of the strip following his return.

Writing in Comics Between the Panels, writers Steve Duin and Mike Richardson suggest:

Fifty years ago, just about every young man in the comics industry went off to war and came back with a different view of the world. Before he enlisted, Will Eisner once said, “I was living a very cloistered existence, as most cartoonists do … I spent a lot of time reading, I lived within the frame of the art, I had a very narrow social life … Up to that point, most of my life was spent on the drawing board, fabricating experiences that I either borrowed or imagined.” The war smacked him in the face with the real and the unfabricated.

There’s a definite sense that The Spiritis, as a strip, broader than it has been before. Eisner was always adventurous and experimental, but there are some wonderful gems to be found in this collection, the kinds of stories that the strip would come to be known and loved for, even more than half-a-century after they were originally published. But we’ll come to those in time.

Off the charts…

The war also informs various plot points, and it’s amazing how many stories in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 12 are deeply rooted in the conflict that just ended. You would imagine that Eisner might want to escape all that death and violence, but he acknowledges that the war has left its mark on the American psyche and the world. Although the stories collected here are something of a fresh start for the character, most are anchored in the Second World War.

Indeed, Eisner’s first story here, Hildie and the Kid Gang, seems a little bit ahead of the curve – faintly foreshadowing the generational conflict between an older generation who fought for freedom and the kids growing up in the wake of the great war. The story itself (German kids sneak into the US and instigate a wave of petty crime) is light enough, but Eisner makes the decision to close the story with a meaningful discussion between these young rascal kids and the survivors of the recent global conflict.

No barrier to entry…

Looking back, it’s hard not to believe that the kids featured in this story might have grown up to become the radicals and activists of the sixties, or even the rebellious greasers of the fifties. In this short seven-page story, Eisner hints – whether through luck or by design – at a generational conflict that would emerge from the Second World War, with many of the older veterans discovering their children becoming far more radical and uncontrollable than they would have imagined. Ironcially, Hildie and the Kid Gang ends with a discussion between the kids and the veterans, the type of discourse that was needed (but largely absent) in the post-War era.

However, other stories merely use the conflict for backdrop, or to provide a handy back story. In Introducing Blubber, Captain Batt explains that his sinister plan was opportunistic, spurred on by wartime restrictions on whaling, “Whilst the world was killin’ each other, they called off whaling — but me and a crew quietly spent a whole year catchin’ the best and storin’ it till we could git back again!” Introducing Mr. Carrion features a post-War profitteer in the eponymous character, keen to exploit families coping with loss following conflict. As Blubber explains, “They promise to locate missin’ soldiers and shake down trustin’ folks!”

Getting The Spirit back on track…

Max Scarr’s Map is arguably the most pulpy of the stories rooted in the conflict, suggesting that a lot of the storytelling devices we associate with the aftermath from World War II established themselves fairly rapidly in the wake of the war. Here’s it’s the “hidden gold” cliché. It’s a plot device familiar to any fan of pulp fiction, playing on the notion that the Nazis left valuable treasures scattered throughout Europe, waiting for discovery. In this case, it isn’t literally Nazi treasure. It’s just gold hidden from the Nazis.

Minter explains the set-up to Dolan, one that would pop up quite frequently in adventure stories over the years to come. The bank witness the rise of the Nazis, and decided to protect their assets. “So our Italian and German branches buried our wealth in the form of gold bars, keeping our wealth from fascist hands! Now that the war is over, we are revealing the hoards to our agents…”

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it…

That isn’t the plot’s only reference to the war. Max Scarr himself is revealed survived a Concentration Camp, looking so gaunt and skeletal that his old colleague doesn’t even figure out his involvement in the plot. Minter gasps, “And to think I never recognised you! Y-you’ve changed!” (It’s hardly the most nuanced exploration of the horrors of the Nazi regime, but a weekend somic strip probably isn’t the best vehicle for such things – but it’s nice of Eisner to acknowledge the consequences of the conflict.)

Even the otherwise fairly banal Magnifying Glasses hints at post-War political confusion in Europe. It’s really just set up for a pleasant enough gag, but the strip’s back story has the Spirit hunting down an escaped fugitive from a (formerly, it seems) occupied county. One official laments trusting the Spirit, “We shouldn’t have trusted him when he so blithely promised to find and contact Moxel, the Rebel! Why, he’s been hiding for years during our country’s occupation!”

A sign of things to come…

Interestingly, the date 1918 also recurs through the volume. The significance of the year is not lost on Eisner – “The War Ends” reads a note in Dolan’s old desk in The Head in the Desk. Eisner establishes that Dolan’s career began around then – with his “first pinch” in 1918. It’s a neat way for Eisner to establish the generational gap between Dolan and the Spirit. If the Spirit is shaped and informed by the Second World War, then Dolan was influenced by the First World War. It all comes around. Indeed, Dolan’s Origin of the Spirit emphasises that Dolan was something of a father-figure to Denny Colt, and Eisner’s work on The Spirit seems to fixate on generational divide and gap.

There are other changes taking place, with a sense that Eisner has grown quite a bit in his absence. In As Ever Orange, Eisner confronts his racist portrayal of Ebony Black. While he refuses to admit his portayal of Ebony is offensive, he at least acknowledges that there is some question of insensitivity in the handling of the Spirit’s sidekick. Eisner was always somewhat skittish on the issue, refusing to apologise for the character. Asked in a 2003 Time interview whether his graphic novel Fagin could be read as an admission of guilt, the artist danced around the question:

I suppose if I denied it nobody would believe me. But I if you go back and examine how I handled Ebony, I was aware that I was dealing with something that was volatile and had I a responsibility. The only excuse I have for [that portrayal] is that at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity. Later I attempted to depart from it by having a black character, a detective, who spoke proper English and I had an airplane pilot that was black.

It always seemed, in what I’ve read that Eisner was more preoccupied with justifying the racism rather than admitting it and trying to move past it. To a certain extent, As Ever Orangereads like an attempt to acknowledge his insensitivity, without conceding any culpability about it.

The writing’s on the wall for Ebony…

In the story, Ebony is heartbroken when his crush derides his accent and manner of speaking – making him a bit sensitive about those quirks. “Do ah soun’ like a– a– minstrel?” he asks Scarlett. She counters with a defense, “Why, no… you have a charmin’ Southern accent!” The seemingly well-educated (and non-caricatured) Major Jones even sticks up for him, and it seems like Eisner is trying to deflect criticism, “It’s no disgrace to talk with a Southern drawl! What’s more, my grandfather was a minstrel during the Civil War and I’m proud of him…”

It seems almost as if Eisner is accusing his critics of being racist and condescending towards what he sees as a valuable part of African American cultural heritage. I am not convinced, and I’m not sure that Eisner is convinced either. From this point on, Eisner’s African American characters look a lot less like racial caricatures, suggesting that he was moving away from his earlier portrayals. African American characters like Major Jones are shown to speak proper and articulate English, suggesting that Eisner didn’t think it appropriate any longer to portray African American characters as the subject of mockery.

What’s the buzz about…?

All of this represents progress and evolution in the racial politics of The Spirit, but it’s handicapped somewhat by Eisner’s steadfast refusal to revise and update Ebony himself. It seems, to Eisner, that changing Ebony would be an admission of culpability and a confession of guilt. Despite the fact other black characters are no longer illustrated with those offensive exaggerated characteristics, Ebony’s appearance doesn’t change. As Ever Orange ends with Ebony going to school “t’ git ejakated so’s ah c’n speak wif a No’thern drawl!” However, when he returns inWelcome Home, Ebony!, he still speaks in the same “fonetik” manner, and shows no sign of any increased intelligence or awareness.

The fact of the matter is that Ebony is still offensively stupid, despite the fact that he has now received an education – there’s no longer a story-driven excuse for Ebony’s complete lack of intelligence, arguably rendering the portrayal even more offensive. In The Lost Fortnight, even after his time in school, he locks himself win a room with only salted peanuts and pickled herring to eat, and laments, “Ah can’t understand it! Ah keep gettin’ thirstier all th’ time!”

This is not what sensitivity looks like.

It is possible to strip Ebony of these racist attributes. Darwyn Cooke did it during his time writing The Spirit. Eisner had – at this point – demonstrated he could write black characters who weren’t offensive stereotypes. And yet he refused to update Ebony, despite having a vehicle to do so. It doesn’t help that literally the next strip includes another ethnic stereotype kid sidekick, Blubber the Eskimo. Introducing Blubber even opens with the character eating raw fish, in case we didn’t get that he was an eskimo.

To be fair, Blubber at least doesn’t talk with one of Einser’s trademark ethnic stereotype accents, so he probably represents a huge improvement from Ebony. Still, it seems that Eisner (and readers) never warmed to the character and he was promptly removed from the strip. An indication of how disposable Blubber was, he disappears when Ebony returns in Welcome Home, Ebony!

He’ll have to use his kisser to solve this one…

While Eisner’s portrayal of minorities (outside of Ebony) seems to take huge strides in the stories collected here, there are still a few cringeworthy strips to be found here. In Tidal Wave, Eisner falls back on the old mystical voodoo savages stereotype, as a native island population struggle to make sense of a plane landing on their island. “Oh, Witch Doctor, your magic is great! You bring Um from sky to avenge us!” This would feel insensitive enough if it weren’t all a transparent set up to a lame “mighty spirit from sky” pun.

There are other hints that Eisner is tidying up various loose ends. For one thing, he firmly establishes the Spirit and Ellen Dolan as the strip’s official flagship couple, despite the Spirit’s flirtations with other women. In Satin Returns, he stirs to consciousness muttering Ellen’s name, not Satin’s. In The Siberian Dagger, she confesses to him, “I– I love you — you big dope!” In Pool’s Toadstool Facial Cream, Spirit plans to propose to Ellen, admitting that he has really just been putting it off.

Night of Satin…

“Well, I might as well face it — a man’s got to get married sometime!” he concedes to Ebony. “After all, there aren’t many girls like Ellen! She’s one in a million — yes, sir! ” Of course, they don’t actually get married, but the relationship is at least cemented. I also like that Eisner even concedes how much punishment the Spirit takes in those wonderfully dynamic physical confrontations. “Can a human being take all this punishment and come back for more?” Cooler demands in The Bucket of Blood. We’ve been wondering that for years.

Eisner’s technique also continues to develop here. Indeed, a lot of commentators, including Michael Barrier make comparisons between what Eisner was doing in The Spirit and the work of Orson Welles:

Eisner was in those years the comic-book equivalent of Orson Welles: he was the first complete master of a young and heretofore unformed medium. And, like Welles, he devoted his energies not so much to telling compelling stories as to showing us how comely his Cinderella was, now that he had waved his wand over it. We should not regret that Welles did not make something more “serious” than, say, The Lady From Shanghai, an endlessly fascinating film whose tangled script would have been a stupefying bore in anyone else’s hands. If he had, his subject matter could have restrained him from showing us all the tricks in his magician’s bag. Likewise, if Eisner had tried to do more with The Spirit—if he had tried to tell stories with greater moral and emotional weight—he probably would have done less. By concentrating on what is so often dismissed as superficial—as “style” or “technique”—he revealed his medium’s unsuspected capacity for expression.

Indeed, Bob Andelman suggests that the influence between the pair might have worked both ways. It has been suggested that Welles was inspired by the lighting design of Bob Kane’s Batman when it came to making Citizen Kane. Certainly Welles was working on adapting the Caped Crusader to film. However, influence is circular, as Bob Kane’s staging choices were very clearly influenced by German expressionist cinema.

Making a splash…

Eisner is famous for his argument that comic books really need to be their own medium. The fourth set of these archives includes an introduction from Frank Miller devoted to such a topic:

I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will ripped me to pieces. … What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies.

And yet, despite that, The Spirit was undeniably influenced by outside media, with Eisner drawing on cinema and short stories to inform or inspire his work on the strip. With The Lost Fortnight, Eisner literally structures the story like a film. It’s a very obvious parody of the previous year’s Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend. Eisner even acknowledges as much when the Dolan critiques Ebony’s film, “Yeah! Except that the Academy Award for 1946 was given to a movie just like it!”

Stretching it out…

I can’t help but wonder if the fact that The Spirit drew from so many pulpy stories in so many other media – in both form and substance – is part of the reason why Eisner (and his enthusiasts) are relatively quick to brush past The Spirit when exploring the creator’s contributions to the medium. Discussing his decision to work on PS: The Preventative Maintenance Monthly for the United States army, Eisner himself states that he reached a point where The Spirit simply wasn’t fulfilling to him and what he wanted to do with comics:

By then, by the way, parallel that was that The Spirit was becoming burdensome to me. I was looking for ways out of it. I became far more interested in the use of comics as an instructional medium than I was as an entertainment medium. I felt that was a new channel for the use of comics. All my life, professionally, I’ve been really obsessed with the idea of trying something new. I’m in love with innovation and experimentation. It’s risky, but it’s really very exhilarating.

Eisner himself has been dismissive of The Spirit‘s use of cinematic visual technique:

When people talked about the cinematic quality of The Spirit, that was because I realised when I was doing The Spirit that movies were creating a visual language and I had to use the same language, because when you are writing to an audience that is speaking Swahili, you’d better write in Swahili.

He almost seems ashamed of the strip’s use of these dynamic visual cues. I’ll probably dig a bit further into this towards the end of Eisner’s run, but I tend to agree with the rather wonderful Colin Smith when he argues that The Spirit has a dynamism that is just lacking from Eisner’s more celebrated and applauded later works. (That’s not to dismiss their value to the medium, or even the quality of the work itself. I just don’t enjoy them as much as his work on The Spirit.

The wheels never come off…

That has nothing to do with the originality or lack there of of the technique, or the fact that it may have been influenced by another medium. After all, it has been argued that Orson Welles was influenced by comics in filming Citizen Kane, and that doesn’t dismiss the value of the finished product. Stanley Kubrick consciously filmed Barry Lyndon in such a way that it evoked classical paintings, and the films cache has increased dramatically in recent years. Eisner’s approach to The Spirit isn’t great because it borrow from cinema. It’s great because it creates an immediate and visceral sense of dynamism.

This volume offers a bit of a teaser of what’s to come. It has been argued that The Spirit was most interesting when it took the focus off the title character and focused on teh world around him – reflecting Eisner’s own broadened perspectives following the Second World War. Eisner himself has conceded that Denny Colt himself was really just a vehicle to explore the world of Central City:

“I was merely trying to develop or expand the human realistic quality of the Spirit for the most part,” Eisner pointed out. “I was dealing in realism. The Spirit himself, as a super hero character was not terribly important to me. Many people don’t understand that The Spirit character was a peg on which to hang the whole thing.”

So we get some nice philosophical strips from Eisner here. The End of the World is preoccupied with perhaps the most destructive legacy of the Second World War, the creation of the atomic bomb. A mad man carrying a plackard boasts, “At this very moment, three scientists who have independently created an atomic bomb are planning to use it — test it on this city!”The strip ends not with the destruction of the city by sinister terrorists, but with the end of the world by a curious young science whizz.

… and I feel fine…

In seven wonderful pages, Eisner hits upon some fascinating ideas. He seems relatively understanding about the destructive capacity of man – suggesting that the atom bomb is just the extension of an ancient concept. The End of the World traces this concept back to the very discovery of fire. As the world goes up, another world across the cosmos is discovering how to burn wood. “Zogk has just discovered the secret of making fire! The medicine men say that it will enable us to rule supreme over all the other animals on our Earth! They are now deciding whether to share the secret with the other tribes in our valley or keep it until we can work out a lasting peace.”

The strip even ends with a nice mindbending epilogue as a person reads the same strip we are reading and have just read (to the point where this character is featured in the bottom three panels of his out newspaper). It’s more than a clever nod towards the audience though, it’s a suggestion that perhaps fiction allows us to explore these possibilities and ideas and high concepts in a way that isn’t threatening. The End of the Worldexploits the newspaper strip concept to allow Eisner to destroy the world without destroying the world.

Dolan was never suited to a desk job…

There are other nice meta-fictional moments, though none quite as clever or as insightful. In Rockhead Stone, Blubber’s dialogue is turned upside down when he’s hung upside down from the ceiling. The Kissing Caper has a title page… containing a title page. Pool’s Toadstool Facial Cream positions its opening page like an advertisement for the fictional beauty product. The Rubber Band even sees Dolan playing with the strips logo, stretching and distorting it.

The other best strips in the collection focus on the world outside the Spirit, reflecting Eisner’s admittedly increased awareness of the world outside himself. The Fly tells the strangely tragic tale of Guthrie Bendbagel, trying to deliver a package when the addressee has disappeared. He wanders in and out of a conventional Spirit narrative – interrupting Dolan and the Spirit in their separate inquiries. Like the fly swatted for landing on Dolan’s head, Bendbagel winds up trapped in something bigger than he is aware of.  The Last Trolleyis essentially, Crauley’s story. A long and atmospheric train ride with ghosts and skeletons, in which the character’s shady deed come back to haunt him.

Excuse my friend, he’s dead tired…

Dig a Hole allows Eisner to wander into full-scale allegory. Centring on Fiduciary P. Smith, “banker and philosopher”, it is story about dealing with a cruel world. Times are, as the strip concedes, bad. However, things have always been bad. When Smith tries to dig a hole to hide from the world, he finds somebody beat him too it. He stumbles across Pewter, who did the same when the colonies were “in one heck of a mess.”

It’s a thoughtful, optimistic piece about two men who swore to abandon a cruel and uncaring world. “I’ll never go back to the cruel world! Here I stay till I die!” Pewter vows. Ironically, the ancient Pewter winds up teaches Smith to appreciate life. While Pewter eventually retreats back from the outside world, he has imparted an important lesson to his fellow would-be shut-away. “There’s too much to live for!”Smith concedes, deciding to stick with it.

Picture perfect…

There are other gimmicky stories. The Kissing Caper sees the Spirit solving crime over the phone. (While Ellen has him tied up.) However, The Spirit is at its very best when it’s about human drama – when it manages to be thoughtful, sincere, tragic, funny and moving in the space of seven pages. The track record isn’t quite as consistent here as it would be in the months and years to come, but it’s certainly getting there.

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