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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 14 (Review/Retrospective)

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 14 finds Will Eisner back in full swing. The Spirit is truly firing on all cylinders, after taking about a year just to get everything lined up after the creator returned from military service. The success of this volume isn’t so much that Eisner is doing anything especially new or innovative. Rather, it seems like The Spirit has made a note of the aspects of the strip that work and has decided to concentrate on those stronger elements. This six-month stretch on newspaper strips doesn’t necessarily contain a record-breaking number of stand-out stories, but there are far fewer duds that we’ve seen before. There’s still a couple of Ebony-centred stories, but they’re few and far between. The other annoying kid sidekicks are mostly demoted to black-and-white one-line “P.S.” strips at the bottom of the page, and don’t intrude on the narrative.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 14 isn’t so much about doing things better, as doing them more consistently.

Getting into the Spirit of things…

It’s worth noting that The Spirit Archives, Vol. 14 is currently the most expensive book in the collection, judging by the secondary market. I understand the costs of keeping books in print – let alone the costs involved in keeping a twenty-six volume series in print – but I’d argue that when a book is selling for up to four times its original cost on the second-hand market, it’s worth considering a reprint. Indeed, even if DC ordered a print-to-order service it would be a lot cheaper than buying these books off opportunistic scalpers hiking up the cost once a particular volume falls out of print.

However, I suspect that part of the reason that The Spirit Archives, Vol. 14fell out of print so easily – and why it costs so much to buy from other sources – is because of the quality on display here. Both previous volumes were solid examples of Eisner’s body of work, but here it seems to really come together quite well. I’m hard pressed to point to a particular classic story collected here, but I enjoyed reading through the volume a bit – there were relatively few lulls or moments of hesitation when a story wore out its welcome or a slight premise was asked to carry seven pages.

A shot in the dark…

Indeed, what’s quite striking on reading through this collection is how dense some of the opening pages are. The Spirit is known for its gimmick opening panels, in which the name of the strip (and the character) is printed as part of the scenery in some interesting (and physically improbable) manner. Often, the entire front page of the strip (which was also the front page of the comic section) would be devoted to the logo or a similar gag. Sometimes it would look like a magazine cover, sometimes it would pose as an advertising insert. Eisner and his staff liked to play with the space and layout they had available.

So it seems like quite a surprise when many of the opening pages of this volume are laid out like conventional comic strip pages. Most of the time the logo panel is noticeably larger than those around it, to catch the eye of the reader, but it still feels rather consciously hemmed in. It seems like the stories collected here are so densely and richly packed with story that Eisner found himself forced to use the title page as part of that story, rather than using it to tease or entice the reader. Even some of the more stylish opening pages (Mad Moes, for example) are careful to densely pack the information and back story.

The writing’s on the wall…

There are still classic Eisner-esque splash pages. The opening to Escape comes to mind, with the space evoking an appropriate sense of claustrophobia for a short anthology of prison-break stories. However, these seem relatively rare throughout the volume. The emphasis seems to have been on using all of the space available to tell the story. While I do miss the space afforded to the opening logo design, I appreciate that the extra space allows Eisner to weave narratives that are just a bit more heavily plotted than usual.

The stories collected here are hardly the most experimental of Eisner’s work with the strip, but there’s some great artistic choices to be found. Part of the joy of reading The Spirit is watching Eisner effectively spearhead many of the tricks and techniques that modern comic books take for granted. The School for Girlsfeatures one such memorable layout, with a house cut open and each of the rooms acting as a panel. The reader goes from left to right and top to bottom, only to find a murder victim waiting for them in the bottom right-hand corner of the house.

Everything burns…

No Spirit Story Today is one of Eisner’s best meta-gags. The strip had a tendency to play with the fourth wall, with Eisner frequently interacting with his characters, and the strip capable of covering the writing and illustration of the strip. Eisner’s writing of such plot devices is cheeky and playful, but I think it’s often overlooked – it’s hardly Six Characters in Search of an Author, but it demonstrates Eisner’s charm and wit remarkably well. I wonder how many kids were introduced to concepts like the relationship between reality and fiction by strips like that one.

No Spirit Story Today sees the Spirit and company literally serving as a bunch of characters in search of their author. “Any word from Eisner yet?” Dolan asks, as if he’s desperately awaiting direction. Apparently Eisner was a victim of his own story. Illustrating a monster to attack another character, he turns around to find “… there at the other end of the studio in real life was the monster himself!” The Spirit suggests Eisner might have been “killed by one of his own characters”, which is a massive mind-screw for a weekend comic strip. Comic books tend to play with meta-fiction quite a bit – to the point where there seem to be as many comics aboutcomics as not – and I can’t help but wonder if Eisner’s work was a massive influence on a generation of writers who would play with and tease the form in similar manners.

Famous Femme…

However, despite the innovation of No Spirit Story Today, most of the stories collected here simply work because they strike a nice balance between the elements of the comic that work. The first story, Perfect Crime, is effectively a superbly executed noir short story. Having pulled off the eponymous offense, the criminal Baxter is slowly driven insane by his irrational the fear of the Spirit, suggesting that he could never be secure in the wealth that he has improperly acquired. In a delightfully ironic twist, he dies due his fear of the Spirit – but the Spirit himself remains blissfully unaware. This leaves Dolan to comment, obliviously, “O, well, you can’t catch ’em all the time!!” Similarly, Escape is a series of short stories about a bunch of prison escapees who find themselves trapped in increasingly ironic ways.

However, The Spirit is often quite playful in its application of noir, with the tone of the story often matching the style of the artwork, creating a surreal cartoonish neo-noir, where the world isn’t just cruel – it’s darkly hilarious. In April Fool, for example, a prank gone horrible wrong leads to murder. Saree and The School for Girls have a playful time with noir. The target, Mr. Raymond finds a knife in the shoulder of his jacket, only to protest, “This is the fourth time today this has happened! I’m beginning to suspect foul play—“ The narration is sure to ham it up a great deal, “… and so, darkness settles on P’Gell’s quiet little school for girls… a hotbed of hate… a pen of passion… a villa of venom… a– (oh, well, you get the idea)!!”

Operating at peak efficiency…

Indeed, Saree itself reads almost as a hyperactive parody of noir conventions, with the title character reading “Murder in 6 Easy Lessons.” Inevitably, there are shown to be wheels within wheels and plots within plots. Everybody has an angle on everybody else. Not only is Miss Vitriola blackmailing Mister Raymond about his past as a convict, but his daughter is Saree blackmailing Miss Vitriola using her family’s wealth. “You wouldn’t dare — as long as my papa is endowing this Bastille!” It’s heightened and ridiculous and crazy and fun. It is, for lack of a better description, playful.

That said, there’s some rather ominous undertones to be found in The Spirit‘s unique take on noir. Despite its bright colours and wry sense of humour, the book is surprisingly fatalistic. It seems to suggest that the world is one big cosmic joke, and you’ll likely end up being the punchline. Eisner was generally a remarkable humanist, capable of seeing the good in life – but there’s a great deal here that suggests he was also a cynic. In April Fool, after he killed Avery, as prophesised, Roger explains the forces of fate that he felt driving him to do it. “It… was… like… standing… on… top… of… a tall building… looking down… down… an… invisible force… making you want to jump…”

Out with the old…

Perfect Crime suggests that it’s impossible to outrun the force of fate, even if you make it to some remote and forgotten island somewhere. In Escape, the Spirit explains his own theory of determinism to a confused Ebony, “And you are a prisoner of your own jail.” The Fortune sees Miss Eden racing against prophecy in a case of mistaken identity in an old gothic mansion. Of these stories, only The Fortune has a happy ending and – even then – it ends with the Spirit taking quite a beating.

Benjamin Franklin once argued that the only certainties were death and taxes. Eisner’s noir fables have plenty of death, and it’s no surprise that the IRS inevitably gets involved as well. The Spirit finds himself dealing with the inevitability of taxes in Ev’ery Little Bug, to the point where he needs to get a legitimate job. “So begins my ‘struggle for existence’ in a capitalist society!” he laments.

The matter in hand…

In Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer commented that Denny Colt had always been a “lower middle-class” character:

Just as Milton Canniff’s characters were identifiable by their perennial WASPish, upper middle-class look, so were Eisner’s identifiable by that look of just having got off the boat. The Spirit reeked of lower middle-class: his nose may have turned up, but we all knew he was Jewish.

I’d argue that this wasn’t always the case. After all, his early adventures say the character establish a superhero lair in the middle of a cemetery, and even featured a flying car. However, over time, as the strip was allowed to develop its own identity and to drift away from the conventional moorings of the superhero genre, Eisner’s interest in the middle-class shone through.

Boy, is Dolan’s face red!

While Superman might have had decidedly working class sympathies in his earliest appearances, most comic book icons came from a world of wealth and privilege justifying – if not excusing – their somewhat colonial attitudes. Batman could do what he wanted because he was heir to the Wayne fortune, with Jim Gordon inviting him along on police investigations because he was such an upstanding pillar of the community. Attempts to add diversity to these iconic comic book properties (in terms of ethnicity, orientation, class background) only really emerged in the seventies and beyond. (Many would argue that enough isn’t even being done today.)

As such, the Spirit’s decidedly middle-class background is one of many things that allowed him to stand out against the wealth of other characters exploding on to the scene. While Batman could write off the expense of building a bat-themed arsenal of life-sized playthings, the Spirit had to worry – in some strange way – about the real world. I’m not sure why Denny is still paying taxes if he’s legally dead, but it’s an interesting way of allowing mundane reality to intrude on the adventures, in a style that was one of the calling cards of The Spirit. As Dolan asks at one point, “Did it ever occur to you that being a masked hero is an expensive pastime?”

Shooting for the moon…

On top of the extended use of space on the opening page, the stories here carry a bit more weight than usual because they contain some measure of shared continuity. Discounting the two-part Hoagy the Yogi, many weekly strips lead directly into one another. While storylines aren’t necessarily continued from one week to the next, they are built upon. Saree leads directly into The School for Girls. Silken Floss appears in A Granule of Time before getting a character-focused story in Silken Floss, M.D. The crime from April Fool bleeds over into Pinhead.

To be fair, it’s not really long-form storytelling. Even the two-part Hoagy the Yogi story is effectively two short stories anchored by a similar concept. (The second part uses the rather clever device of postcards narrating otherwise silent pages.) Eisner prevents the continuity from ever getting too heavy, and makes sure that the reader knows everything they might need to on getting into the story at hand. The intro page to The School for Girls is effectively a recap page, with P’Gell and the Spirit interacting playfully. (“You? Ha, ha, ha! P’Gell!!! A headmistress of an exclusive girl’s school — haw, haw!”)

Talking heads…

While the politics of the Second World War still play a part (most obviously in Il Duce’s Locket), the stories collected here seem much more forward-thinking than a lot of Eisner’s earlier work. The Spirit isn’t just concerned with the legacy of global conflict, but in dealing with the new status quo. The Cosmic Answer features a small Balkans state discovering “a formula they called the answer to the Atomic Bomb!” The Cold War is already in full swing, with nuclear proliferation on everybody’s mind. After the answer fails to materialise, a reporter suggests this is just a ploy, “Well, Mr. Dyspepsia, where is your cosmic answer? Or is that a ruse to scare the U.S. into sharing its atom bomb secret with you?”

(In a delightfully Eisner-esque touch, the solution is an alcoholic beverage. After all, who could worry about the implications of the existence of a nuclear bomb when they are drunk off their face? It’s quite a sad joke, suggesting the only sane response to the political climate is to disconnect from reality, but it’s an astute observation from a writer and artist who had a knack for these canny takes on the realities of the day.)

We went down to the river…

With the Second World War, it seems time for America to consolidate. Mad Moes tells story of how “the law conquered the great renegade river, Mad Moes”, as they conspire to stop the eponymous river, despite the water’s natural temperament and the wishes of the old man who lives on its banks. Mr. Lizard claims, “me and him is boss in this territory!!” He seems to suggest that the government has no jurisdiction, but Mad Moes is the story of how that last wilderness was brought under control by the government. “Yep,” one surveyor explains, “we’re gonna dam up Ol’ Man Moes! Ya might say law an’ order is movin’ in, Mr. Lizard!”

Eisner was typically quite in tune with the times, but there are points where his writing actually seems quite a bit ahead of the curve – particularly when writing about politics. In a year where Mitt Romney’s appeal to the Republican base alienated 47% of all voters, Heel Scallopini feels more relevent than ever. A short story about the politics of pragmatism, it sees the elected official Julius Caesar afraid to go against the party base. Of course, in Eisner’s Central City, it’s a bunch of hoodlums and gangsters who have murdered a man, but the argument seems quite universal.

Keeping us posted…

“In my district, they’re the ones who work hardest at getting out the vote,” he tells the Spirit, “and unless I want to be thrown out at the next election, I’ve got to be nice to them!!” I wonder if that’s how “maverick” John McCain and “liberal” Governor Mitt Romney felt when forced through the Republican primaries, forced to pander to their base in such a way that they alienated the political centre that made them so appealing as candidates in the first place. It’s one of the unfortunate disadvantages of the two-party system that candidates inevitably find themselves appealing to the extreme elements rather than the common people. 

Black Gold also has one eye pointedly on the future, as Eisner writes about the political realities of the post-War Middle East. A great deal of what he writes is still a bone of contention today, as he writes about how “the tribes, ignorant and poor, work for the Western men who suck the black liquid from the marrow of the Earth… a liquid far inferior to water, and which they call oil…” It’s another fable that has aged surprisingly well, and the set-up even allows Eisner a suitably ironic close to the tale, as he relates the story of Ali, who “crawled many miles in frantic search of water… found, at last, a tiny hole from which bubbled a liquid. He scrabbled frantically to drink, only to find… it… was… oil… and so there he died…”

Whatever Eisner’s got in store, I’m game…

There’s also some hints of a developing feminism within The Spirit. To be fair, none of the female characters have ever had difficulty holding their own against the male lead, who was often on the backfoot when dealing with their intentions, but the presence of P’Gell and Silken Floss suggests that the Spirit is living in an age of equality and female empowerment. An educated career woman, he describes Silken Floss as a “triple-threat player.” The Spirit seems quite threatened by this. When she’s introduced firing a compulsively unreliable gambler, he chastises her, “Oh, you’re a hard woman, Doc Floss!” Of course, her instincts turn out to be entirely correct and she spotted quite the bad apple.

She seems far too modern for the Spirit. When he tries to overt his eyes while she changes, she mocks his outdated moors, “Ah, yes… I forgot you’re the conventional, shy type!” Similarly, in Il Duce’s Locket, P’Gell feigns the type of weakness one might expect from a damsel in distress, only to all-but-single-handedly foil the villains. She half-heartedly protests fduring the confrontation, “… Oh dear me… I’m just a woman… helpless… caught in the maelstrom of international intrigue!” She says this while clubbing the Spirit.

The body politic…

Apropos of nothing, it’s also fun to have a look at Eisner’s none-too-subtle dig at other popular comics in Pinhead, where the monstrous lead character finds a career in that medium following his arrest:

And as for ‘self-expression’, why, he cranks out a tolerable income drawing them there comic magazines that ain’t comical… you know, ‘The Drooperman’, and the ‘Beastman’, etc…. Bought a couple the other day and they’re enough to scare the beezlebub outa the little brats… But his stuff sells so y’must allow he’s got something there.

It’s hardly subtle, but it seems relatively good-natured – if a little pointed at both Superman and Batman.

The Spirit’s been waiting for a break…

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 14 is a wonderfully solid collection of stories, executed with typical Eisner flair. I think it’s tough to argue that Eisner is reinventing the character or redefining the strip. Instead, this period of the comic finds Eisner playing to the strengths of the comic. The result really is quite superb, and a firm indication that the character’s finest hour has finally arrived. And, to be fair, it winds up lasting a very long time.

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