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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 13 (Review/Retrospective)

With Eisner now back on the strip for over half-a-year, The Spirit is forging ahead into the middle part of its run. Many commentators and pundits would argue that the few years following Eisner’s return from military service were among the best in the strip’s history, and it’s hard to disagree. While Eisner took the time in his first six months to tidy up loose ends – killing the Squid, sending Satin home with a daughter – here we see the creator building up the world he has created. This collection includes the strips introducing (and a number of subsequent appearances from) both P’Gell and the Octopus, arguably two of the most important characters introduced into the strip following the Second World War. There’s also a sign that Eisner is branching out a bit, and pushing the strip out from the shadow of the Second World War. After all, a new era of prosperity and a Cold War were both just around the corner, very fertile ground for the creator to explore.

A banner year?

Of all the Spirit’s myriad of memorable bad guys, the Octopus stands out. More than the Squid, more than Carrion, more than any other sinister force at work in the world, the Octopus is perennial associated with the strip and the character – to the point where one of Eisner’s stories after the end of the weekly strip even included an origin for the character, and he carried over to both the Kitchen Sink and Darwyn Cooke’s DC relaunches of The Spirit. Eisner has claimed that the octopus was always intended as a strong antagonist for our pulp hero, with the creator explaining, “He was meant to be permanent villain, like Holmes’s Moriarty, a villain who would return again and again.”

The Octopus appears very early in this collection, in The Postage Stamp, and he casts quite a shadow over the run of stories collected in this volume. He’d be allowed to rest for the first six months of 1947, before returning to the strip once again. He haunts The Spirit like an arch-enemy really should, to the point where his nefarious influence is even felt in The Christmas Spirit of 1946. I’ve remarked before that the Octopus seems quite familiar to the earlier Nazi spy, the Squid. Aside from the similarities of their names, both characters rely heavily on anonymity in order to carry out their sinister affairs. While Eisner eventually revealed the Squid’s face (right before killing him), the character was fond of disguises and masks to conceal his identity – quite similar to the Octopus.

Beware the Octopus…

“No one has ever seen the Octopus’ face!” we’re told – and nobody every would. Even into the recent Batman/Spirit crossover, Denny Colt is still waiting to examine the face of his mortal adversary. While, unlike the Squid, the Octopus is not a Nazi, Eisner makes sure to form connections that suggest some sordid and implicit link. Touring postwar Germany, the Spirit observes, “So this is the stronghold of the Octopus!” We never really find out why the Octopus has taken root in Germany. Was he associated with the Nazi government? Is he merely exploiting the chaos in the wake of a global conflict?

Certainly, the Octopus doesn’t share too many Nazi ideals. He’s not shown to be racist or genocidal. He craves power and wealth, but – then again – what villain doesn’t? In The Christmas Spirit of 1946, the Octopus claims to have been set back by the Allied victory, if only because they represent a force of basic human decency in the face of his more sinister machinations. “The recent Allied victory has momentarily halted our plans, but now, with your obstruction of  the Allied consolidation, we again have hope,” he explains to a diplomat in his custody, making it clear that even if the Octopus wasn’t an enemy during the war, he was an evil force the profited from the violence, confusion and chaos.

Keeping everything on file…

In the introduction to The Spirit Archives, Vol. 15, N. C. Christopher Couch argues that the Octopus represents a slightly more subtle form of evil:

The Octopus is one of the most elegant and symbolically resonant of Eisner’s postwar characters. Never seen except for his purple gloves, the Octopus is not an ex-Nazi, but an international criminal mastermind who flourished in the brutal and evil societies created in Europe under the Nazis. Popular fiction after World War II featured many ex-SS officers or Nazi officials as villains. Eisner’s Octopus was spawned by a pervasive but little-recognised Nazi evil, corruption of entire societies, and symbolises the persistence of that corruption after the war.

It’s not a bad interpretation, and it’s no coincidence that the Octopus flees to South America in Caramba. South America almost immediately took place in the American popular consciousness as a land without laws – the kind of place where even Nazis could live in comfort following the end of the Second World War. The entire continent must have seemed like a place not bound by rule of law. Making it the perfect place for the Octopus to hide.

Playing along…

There are other appeal aspects to the Octopus as a character. Eisner was often reluctant to concede that he was writing and drawing a superhero. After all, the Spirit’s iconic domino mask had only been added at the insistence of the newspaper syndicate. Throughout the strips (and afterwards), The Spirit would include various (often affectionate) mockery for the genre that was taking up an increasing amount of the medium. Even Eisner’s last story featuring the character, in The Escapist, featured a soft enough joke about Eisner’s dislike of superheroes. Still, while you can argue that the Spirit is a “crimefighter” rather than a “superhero” (a distinction, I’d argue, that is largely academic), the Octopus is very much a supervillain.

Silk Satin tells us that he is one of “ten important war criminals” who evaded justice following the conflict. She explains, “The Octopus is the head of a vast criminal ring that is forming again! Every criminal worth a lead bullet anywhere on the Earth operates with his consent… He is the king of crime!” Indeed, it seems like Frank Miller – an avowed fan of Eisner’s Spirit, regardless of what the movie might lead us to believe – borrowed this interpretation for his take on the Kingpin in Daredevil.

Talk about fast-paced!

The Octopus extends an invisible and impossible influence across the face of the planet, to the point where The Postage Stamp closes boasting, “And so the traffic continues on every waterfront from Timbuctoo to Shanghai, wherever men are robbed! Wherever black markets feed the rich and starve the poor! There you will find the controlling hand of the greatest criminal the world has ever seen!!!! The Octopus!” The character himself isn’t shy about his super-villain credentials, speaking as if he represents some cabal of organised international criminals. “I’m the Octopus! — the greatest criminal in the world! That may sound like a corny penny thriller to you — but I warn you — don’t under-estimate me! I represent every important criminal in the world!”

It’s also worth noting that the character has a rather wonderful visual design – to the point where I suspect that his appearance is a large part of what made him such an enduring facet of the Spirit’s world. In fact, his appearance is so iconic that Eisner’s able to clue the audience in on a big reveal in  The Portier Fortune through the character’s choice of gloves. (To be fair, he also hints very heavily, featuring one panel which features the gloves before the rest of the character appears.)

Ship shape…

The Octopus’ purple gloves make a nice contrast to the Spirit’s blue gloves – a villainous secondary colour to the heroic primary colour. Eisner might have been reluctant to put a mask on the Spirit, but it’s remarkable how little the domino mask affects the expressiveness of the character. Despite his mask, the Spirit’s expressions are very human and organic, his face is very trustworthy and the mask doesn’t really hide anything. In contrast, the Octopus conceals his own face, which is immediately unnerving and marks him as untrustworthy and almost inhuman.

The other major addition to the cast is P’Gell, perhaps the definitive femme fatale for this long-running comic strip. Given how fond Eisner was of the manipulative ladies, that’s quite a considerable accomplishment, and P’Gell establishes herself almost straight away, flirting seductively with the reader on the opening splash page of Meet P’Gell. Like the Octopus, P’Gell is a survivor of the Second World War. Like the villain, she’s also something of a survivor who took advantage of the situation rather than pinning her ideological colours to the mast.

Window of opportunity…

Making it clear that The Spirit is still a comic strip firmly anchored in that then-recent conflict, we get a quick recount of Turkey’s role in the the war and discover that P’Gell’s husband was “none other than Hans Dammit, top Nazi in the area…” Befiting this origin, Eisner originally cast P’Gell as a sort of Mata Hari figure, manipulating and controlling men who have been “softened by the moon and — ahem — romance.” She fits right in, and embodies a lot of the typical conventions we expect from a female Spirit character.

Naturally, P’Gell wasn’t anchored too firmly to the specifics of this origin. While bits and pieces would pop up time and again, the character had an abiltiy to shed her past like a snake shedding skin. Her former lovers and marriages became something of a recurring joke, and her later appearances never seemed as tense and mysterious as her debut. (Though she remained a playfully manipulative foil for the Spirit – and just as capable of bending men to her will.)

Ay, Caramba!

The legacy of the war still looms large in the pages of The Spirit, and Eisner uses the conflict to provide an interesting context or handy background for several pulpy adventures. In Caramba!, we discover that the Amazon remained dark and mysterious even as the armed forces might have attempted to tame it. “Een 1942 whan the Allies Army need much rubber, 18,000 workers from all over Brazil and South American went into the Amazon to increase the rubber collection — and that was the last hord of them I theenk — si, they never retorn!”

While not explicitly the Second World War, the back story for The Case of the Inner Voice is rooted in the Spanish Civil War. I’d argue, though, that Eisner isn’t necessarily too far wrong when he describes it as “just the first act in a new World War.” Though it’s really just an enjoyable run around, the Macguffin used for The Van Gaull Diamonds is “war loot” stolen by ex-Nazis. Even Smuggler’s Cove feels like it is written in the shadow of the resolved global conflict, with a radio announcer demanding, “Has this new generation so succumbed to the concussions of the last war that it lies inert? Where, indeed, is the spirit of adventure — the compulsion that drove Balboa, Leif Ericsson and Columbus to find new worlds?”

A Spirit stalks the night…

Although perhaps that suggests a cautious optimism about life in the wake of the Second World War, which has clearly been weighing on Eisner’s mind throughout the postwar volumes. The Christmas Spirit of 1946 is preoccupied with the legacy of the war, and the duty that the generation that won conflict owes to their children. It’s quite endearing, especially coming from a veteran himself. There’s something quite touching about a confused Santa worried about the impact of the war on a generation of kids. “Look at these presents I must give out this year… toy guns… V-2’s, rocket bombs, atom bombs!” Santa protests.“It’s up to the grown-ups! Kids always want to imitate their elders! If the older folks spent their time with good, honest, decent devices — then kids’ toys’d be the same!”

Perhaps, on some level, The Christmas Spirit of 1946 reads as an ultimately tragic tale, because it’s very clearly fantasy. Eisner imagines a world where human kind could get along, but it’s very clearly fictional. Without the petty politics, posturing and mindless bickering, the world presented by Eisner seems somehow less than real. In such a world, the tools developed by war can be harnessed for good – including that most enduring of legacies, the atomic bomb. A scientist vows, “Yeah, and since there’s no need for secrecy now, there’ll be a huge world atomic research centre for industrial and medicinal use!” If only.

The whole world is in the balance…

Eisner has always been quite keenly aware of social issues, and they typically permeate the comic to a certain degree. That’s certainly the case with the postwar comic. Perhaps as a veteran himself, Eisner is aware of the difficulties in coming home, and this volume of The Spirit very clearly pushes its readers to accept their returning soldiers with compassion, respect and affection. Like a lot of Eisner’s work, it’s depressing how a lot of this is still relevent and it doesn’t feel like a relic of a distant social past.

In The Haunt, Mr. Codger establishes himself as the bad guy by refusing to sell to the veterans. “All we want to do is buy the house on Cemetary Hill and we’ll fix it up so’s we can live in it!” they plead. He doesn’t listen. In Beagle’s Second Chance, the Spirit investigates the case of “sixteen veterans biled out of their G.I. savings and loans…” The villain is especially vile because he exploits those patriots who served their country during the war. Coot Gallus even uses the treatment of veterans as shorthand to establish the political characters are… compromised, at best. You know he’s a bad apple when Pilch protests the title character’s attempts to help veterans, pleading, “But if they transfer that federal loan to veteran housing my real estate operation will collapse!”

Eisner’s definitely put his stamp on the stories in this volume…

Indeed, one of the best stories of the collection centres around the experiences of a veteran returning home from the war. The Killer is the story of one returning soldier who became a murderer, but Eisner (and the Spirit) are somewhat sympathetic to the man’s plight. After leading the “partisans of zone 67” during the war, Henry doesn’t exactly get a hero’s welcome. His girlfriend is dismissive and his old boss is as condescending as ever. Indeed, his boss explicitly states, “Y’may have been a hot-shot soldier — but you’re just a punk shipping clerk to me…” One wonders if the man served his country during the conflict.

While Henry is arrested and punished for his transgression, the narrative and the title character aren’t dismissive. Our hero hopes that his cooperation might lead to some leniency, and Eisner even tells certain sections of the story through Henry’s own eyes. “For easier reading and better understanding, the reader is invited to view the rest of the story from the inside of Henry’s head looking through his eyes!!” As well as being a neat visual storytelling tool, and inviting up to empathise, the visual design also calls to mind the cave where Henry hid during the war – perhaps suggesting the he never reallycame home.

They don’t train you for this…

The Killer remains somewhat ambiguous even after Henry is taken away under arrest, with passers-by on the train debating his situation. “Now, why would a guy like that go wrong?” one particularly callous observer asks, rhetorically. “Y’d think he’d be so glad to be back home he wouldn’t have time t’get mixed up! Now, if y’ask me…” This blowhard is, thankfully, cut off by a serviceman sharing the train with him, “Well, no one’s asking you!!” Like the best Eisner stories, it’s easy enough to reimagine The Killer with a veteran of another conflict – Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq – and it still works. Arguably modern society has developed a better understanding of the difficulties of coming home, but it’s still far from perfect. Eisner’s best stories are timeless, and The Killer definitely fits the bill.

There are some other choice stories here. It’s frequently argued that the Spirit himself is little more than a guest star in the best of The Spirit, and a variety of stories here support that assumption. I like the cartoon noir aesthetic and the standard thrillers and adventures as much as anybody, but Eisner’s best work has a decidedly human angle to it. Distinguished Men Prefer Borschtbelt’s Buttermilkis a charming (if light) portrayal on how fortune tends to go around and come around on some grand cosmic wheel, with two individuals earning everything and losing everything and then… well, the wheel keeps turning.

When it rains…

Coot Gallus is something of a broad political satire. Eisner seems to have great fun mocking small-minded politicians – it’s a theme he returns to with relative regularity once every few months. Here we discover that a write-in campaign has elected the eponymous hobo. Apparently he was ” a friend of all the kids” – and those kids were apparently “dissatisfied with all parties running, they wrote his name in protest!” (To be fair, Eisner doesn’t allow Gallus to become disillusioned or corrupted, so maybe there’s a hint of optimism there.) And it’s hard not to smile as one politician reacts to his election, “Holy cow!! This is a crisis! He may be honest!”

To be fair, there’s also a reliable selection of old standards here as well. Eisner could write pulpy adventures like nobody’s business, and a lot of The Spirit reads quite pleasantly as a sort of a pulpy episodic adventure starring the masked mystery man. Smugglers Cove features an adventure on a pirate ship. Okay, it’s actually a themed gambling den. The Case of the Inner Voice dwells on the occult – we encounter two individuals “chained by blood” and a quest for hidden gold. Caramba features a secret society buried deep within the Amazon… of criminals! As the guide tells the Spirit on their way to “the new crime capital”, “The bad ones, it is said, built a city deep in the jungle called Villa Caramba!”

A photo finish…

Einser is also as charming as ever, using all manner of storytelling tricks to true and lure the reader in, and to help tell an efficient (yet engaging) story within only seven pages. Who Killed Cox Robin? teases the reader with an introductory note: “Reader please note! All the clues to the solution of this mystery appear throughout! Don’t overlook a thing!” That makes sure we’re paying attention. Smugglers Cove sees the action narrated by radio broadcast. Olga Bustle in ‘Outcast’ features a splash page designed like a movie poster.

Who Killed Cox Robin? also finds room for a relatively affectionate dig at superheroes, with the Spirit reminding Dolan, “My dear Dolan, one of the great incongruities in the common conception of the American crimefighter phenomenon is that he must be a muscle-bound fellow of fabulous luck! … Truth of the matter is, facts count most, and I have ’em!” That said, Artemus Peap demonstrates gratuitous violence is certainly nothing new in comic books – despite what modern commentators might suggest. At one point we’re told, “Officer Jones’ wife and children have just been brutally murdered!!”

All the key ingredients are here…

While Eisner’s work is never bloody, his fight sequences are brutal, and he does an excellent job catching characters in motion. I shudder to think of the eponymous character’s medical expenses. It seems that The Vortex gently mocks the trails that Eisner seems to relish inflicting on his title character. The criminal Actor Adam winds up impersonating the Spirit. As seems to be part of the job description, he takes a pretty severe beating. It doesn’t look any worse than anything the Spirit has gone through, but it doesn’t end well for Adam. “You’ve beaten this man to death!” the Spirit suggests the gang. In case we haven’t quite picked up on the Spirit’s unique gift for taking punishment, the rest of the story sees the character, who has been shot, incapacitating the group of crooks. “The whole mob’s been beaten to a pulp!”

(Also of note, Beagle’s Second Chance actually features a rare look at Spirit’s back story. Given that the character was more of a plot device than a driving character, it seems strange for Denny Colt to encounter a childhood friend. It’s the kind of crutch a police procedural might fall back on, and it feels a little surreal and awkward. I wonder if the decision to steer clear of the character’s past wasn’t so much a conscious choice as a recognition of the strengths of the strip. Still, there’s a novelty to it, as even Ebony remarks, “Golly, Mist’ Spirit Boss, I jes’ never imagined yo’ wuz once a kid like me…”)

It all goes down the drain…

Outside of that, Eisner is still struggling a bit with Ebony. He seems to at least be respecting the character’s intelligence a bit more – a few earlier strips were driven by the logic that Ebony was a moron, and his appearances here seem a conscious effort to tone that down. In The Haunt, it’s clear just how much times have changed. Far from being the superstitious idiot of the earliest adventures, Ebony is the voice of reason. He accuses the Spirit, “In this day an’ age, yo’ ack-chilly believe in ghosts?!!” That said, his dialogue is still painful to read and his appearance is still a racist caricature.

You can tell that Eisner’s heart was in the right place, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read. I’ve talked a lot about Ebony in these reviews, but you can clearly see Eisner trying to be a bit more open-minded about minorities in these stories. It doesn’t always work, and can seem condescending or patronising. A Legend, for example, deals with the plight of the Native Americans, and acknowledges that they suffered from the arrival of the Europeans. We’re introduced to “Manitou who is now but a tenant in the hills he once owned!”It seems relatively progressive for the late forties, when Native Americans were still just the go-to bad guys of various Western movies.

Keep me post(er)ed…

Unfortunately, this is somewhat undercut by Eisner’s reliance on stereotypes and a somewhat insensitive portrayal of the Native Americans. Of course, the characters all talk in the broken English that we associate with multimedia depictions of the time. There’s those short, clipped sentences and exclamations. “Manitou House there… beyond moat! Climb on back… We cross… No bridge!” And, of course, there’s also the requisite amount of magic and mysticism. One boasts, “Now I will halt the rain…” I can see that Eisner is trying to improve his portrayal of minorities, but it’s not enough to make it comfortable for modern readers.

Still, aside from that troublesome stuff, this is a solid collection, continuing the upward swing of the title in the postwar era. The pieces are all in place now, and there’s a clear enthusiasm for things to come. One can sense the palpable optimism in Artemus Peap, as it assures us that the development of mankind is only stronger for emerging from a global crisis like the Second World War. “Soon, soon, Earthpeople will travel to other planets — you can bet your shirt on it! First to leave, of course, will be the explorers, like Columbus, DeSoto and Magellan, in their era…”

I bet they do.

The best is yet to come, but we’re getting there very quickly.

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