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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 16 (Review/Retrospective)

We’re more than half-way through Will Eisner’s tenure on The Spirit, and I find myself struggling, just a bit, to come up with something novel to say about it. After all, I’ve gone on and on (and on and on) about how Eisner has handled the weekly strip for the bones of about 10,000 words at this point. As much as I like to examine each six-month period on its own terms and merits, there comes a point where I have to concede that this is just one giant project, and a lot of what I can say about it I have already said. Sure, there are some new themes and ideas, and Eisner always enjoys putting a new slant on old concepts, but I can’t help but feel that this extended bunch of reviews and retrospectives will wind up tripping over each other. (I say that as if they haven’t already.)

With that in mind, just because I might have a bit less to say about The Spirit Archives, Vol. 16 doesn’t mean that it isn’t a great collection of stories. We are, after all, in the middle of the most celebrated part of Eisner’s run. This collection is pretty consistently smart, funny and moving. Just because this reviewer is struggling not to cover old ground doesn’t mean that Eisner is any less of a master.

A web of deceit...

A web of deceit…

There are ideas that are pushed to the fore in this run of stories. Given that Eisner was consistently pushing out seven-page strips on a weekly basis, it’s inevitable that they’d capture some aspect of his opinions or thoughts and – as such – taken together the stories in a particular six-month block might hit on familiar themes or ideas. Eisner’s Spirit has always toyed with noir sensibilities, informed as the writer and artist was by the visual language of contemporary cinema. However, the influence of noir reached a little deeper than that. While Eisner never fully embraced the cynicism of noir, there are shadings of it in his plotting and stories as much as there are familiar visual cues in his illustrations. Fatalism has been a recurring theme throughout the strip’s already impressive history, and it is pushed very much to the fore here.

The very first story here, with its striking opening splash page (yeah, that narrows it down), is The Name is Powder and it indulges Eisner’s fatalism. The narration follows the reformed teenager Bleak as he gets caught up in the sinister plots of the eponymous femme fatale. The narration suggests that Bleak’s fate is all but certain, and the character seems to accept this. He doesn’t ever seem to resist the situation he finds himself in, playing along in the hopes of easing through the mess. As the comic states, “Once in the web, what can one do? Get panicky? Nah! The net only draws tighter…”

What a dyce-y fellow...

What a dyce-y fellow…

The idea recurs throughout the stories here. Gambling has always been a handy storytelling device to embrace the idea of fate and destiny – after all, it involves the complete surrender of one’s future to fate, luck and destiny. The character might work hard to earn the money, but the fate of that money is entirely out of their hands once they gamble it. Nothing they can do will change the result of their gambit. No action or moral decision can assure a particular outcome. Gambling, nobody can promise that good things will happen to good people or bad things will happen to bad people. What happens happens, and there’s nothing a character can do to alter the outcome. That’s what is so fascinating about Fleming’s James Bond, the way that he embraces the luck and chaos instead of dynamically resisting.

In The Last Hand, Eisner allows The Spirit to explore a the last few days of J. Rollo Dyce. Dyce is a man who surrenders his fate entirely, refusing to make decisions one way or the other and instead embracing whatever the world might offer. Of course, this initially seems to reward him – a good Spirit story needs suspense, and a criminal getting away with a crime generates suspense. However, as with any noir story, it seems like fate is the most fickle of mistresses, betraying Dyce rather quickly. In an ironic twist, it waits until after his murderer is in custody to kill him. The Spirit offers a rather fatalistic moral to the audience, “I guess it’s like he said… his number was up…”

We'll always have Central City...

We’ll always have Central City…

Although Eisner never completely embraces the rather bleak underlying philosophy of noir, there are some remarkably tragic stories here. Indeed, it seems like attempting to resist the inevitability of fate only leads to one outcome, and the bitter irony is that those help captive to the demands of circumstance might finally find some long-sought freedom in death’s cool embrace. The protagonist in Wild Rice finds herself  shot dead, after she tries to escape the life her family planned for her. Dying, she finds some small measure of comfort, “Free… yes. Now I know… Now I know I’ll be free…” The oldest man in the world is kept in a trap in The Job, suggesting that sometimes the price of life (even eternal life), might be too high. Once again, he embraces death, suggesting that it brings freedom with it. “Old Jack wants to die… to be free of a life that should have ended long ago.”

Eisner had a knack for cruel twists, but a lot of his work on The Spirit pulls back just a bit from that cynical extreme. This volume contains more than its fair share of tragic endings, but Eisner also seems to relent at times – to accept that the world is not always cynical, pessimism and sad. The story of Bleak in The Name is Powder offers a happy ending, proposing that sometimes – if we try hard enough – we can escape from the sinister trappings of fate. “Sometimes… quite unexpectedly… a strand is broken… and the victim has a slim chance… if he is quick and sure…”

Eisner never really seemed to embrace the inevitable tragedy of noir, and that is a good thing. After all, reading twelve years’ worth of depressing downbeat endings would be pretty soul destroying. The idea that Eisner peppers the strip with happy endings and near-misses gives the stories about those characters who can’t escape a bit more weight and meaning. After all, if The Spirit were set in a world where everybody loses just by playing, what would be the point in reading? It’s a wonderful balancing act that Eisner keeps up throughout the strip’s extended history. A happy ending isn’t assured, but it’s not impossible. And there’s something almost endearing about that.

A point of intersection...

A point of intersection…

That’s not to suggest that Eisner’s pulpy charm is in any way dialed down over the course of the stories here. The Spirit had a wonderful versatility. It could be a commentary on humankind, a character study, technicolour noir or even just a good old-fashioned pulpy adventures. Although the pulpy stuff is hardly the most loved or respected of Eisner’s extensive work on the strip, they are generally delightfully entertaining and the seven pages fly by.

Here we get all manner of genre standards. The Guilty Gun is a murder mystery set in “a room completely locked from the inside.” (Like a few of Eisner’s story, it is narrated primarily through files and notes.) Montabaldo is a pulpy metaphorical adventure, with a volcano eruption in the tropics providing “a new island for men to fight over and destroy.” Naturally, the Spirit and the Octopus go head-to-head over it.

Keeping the Spirit in the dark...

Keeping the Spirit in the dark…

The sequel, El Spirito, is perhaps the most pulpy Spirit story in the history of pulpy Spirit stories. There are ghosts and treasure and gratuitous Spanish, with ancient curses, femme fatales and criminal masterminds thrown in to stir up flavour. There’s something quite charming about a pulpy adventure that manages to include the line, “So, Senor Crimefighter… the Octopus ees quite alive, and weeth the aid of modern machines ees salvaging the sonken treasure right now!” The Octopus! Sunken treasure! Modern machines! The line is spoken by a ghost! What’s not to love? (Except, perhaps, Eisner’s funky phonetic pronunciation?)

One of the stories here, Life Below, is especially interesting as it reverberates through a lot of Frank Miller’s work. Miller is an avowed fan of Eisner, his film adaptation of The Spirit not withstanding, and it’s clear he learned a lot from the master. You could argue, for example, that Miller’s take on the Kingpin evokes Eisner’s Octopus. Reading Eisner’s introduction to Life Below, it seems like Miller may have shared the creator’s view of urban living.

Trial and error...

Trial and error…

Here, Eisner argues, “A city is a living thing… it is a breathing, pulsating, man-made phenomenon whose foundations go deep into the Earth… There, in the wet catacombs of its roots, teems a life quite unknown to us in the forest of towers above…” What is Miller’s Kingpin by a by-product of that living city – an expression of the corruption and urban decay, the anomie, the waste? Miller’s New York reads a lot like Eisner’s Central City.

Indeed, Life Below even features a plot that Miller would recycle for his Daredevil run, with a secret society living forgotten in the tunnels beneath the streets of the City. The Sewer King always seemed like a surreal left-turn in Miller’s over-arching Daredevil plot, but now it seems almost like an affectionate homage. Indeed, the Worm seems quite like Miller’s Sewer King, boasting to his guests, “This is my world down here… Here in the pipes and the catacombs, we got only one law… survival!”

And I will run away...

And I will run away…

While the series continues to move out of the shadow of the Second World War, there’s still the occasional throwback. After all, the conflict was the largest the world had seen at that point, and left quite an impression – it’s more than reasonable that it would cast a shadow over popular culture. War Brides illustrates one particular legacy of the conflict, as the eponymous wives of enlisted men find themselves coming home. Eisner seems to concede that his storytelling has leaned, rather heavily, the conflict and that he might me returning to the well.

“And still they come!” a headline reads, and it could just as easily be talking about Eisner’s stories centred around the war. The narration itself seems to acknowledge that time has passed and that perhaps it seems like Eisner keeps bringing the war back into his stories – as if to concede that soon there might be children reading the strip who had not been alive during (or, at least, old enough to remember) the conflict. “It’s been a long, long time now since World War II uprooted American men — dashed them against enemy beach-heads — and then left them lying tired and dazed on the heaps of economic debris…”

I'd love to get my hands on that...

I’d love to get my hands on that…

There are signs of emerging societal changes, though. The emerging medium of television is portrayed as a corrupting influence in Cheap is Cheap. Given that many commentators would suggest that television contributed to the decline and death of the strip, Eisner’s initial insecurity feels somewhat justified. There’s a social conscience to be found in The Job, which – beneath a story about immortality and life in captivity – seems uncomfortable with the medical ethics of paid clinical drug trials.

The villain of the piece is Dr. Ramadan, who – as the Spirit notes – “has a habit of using human beings for experimental purposes.” Ramadan recuits volunteers for his sinister experiments by promising to pay them. In return, they agree to allow him to experiment upon them. While there is an immortal test subject and a creepy underground lair, it’s interesting that Eisner makes a point to emphasis the economically exploitative aspect of the relationship. He offers money to people who need it so that he can purchase their consent. It’s a thorny issue even today, and it’s always interesting to read some of Eisner’s stories that still have relevance.

Rice to meet you...

Rice to meet you…

Speaking of experimenting, Eisner continues to demonstrate a willingness to play with the form and structure of his stories. Blackmail sees the Spirit finds himself framed for murder, but the events are told from the perspective of multiple characters, rather than simply offering us the definitive objective account. This type of storytelling is par for the course today, and most people would suggest that it owes a debt to the Japanese classic Rashomon, but Blackmail was written years before Rashomon would popularise the style. To be fair, Eisner doesn’t exploit the idea to its maximum effectiveness, and there’s no real suggestion that any characters are distorting events or perceiving them differently. Still, it’s interesting to see the style used so early.

Merry Andrew is told in the style of an illustrated poem. Stories like The Strange Case of Mrs. Paraffin and The Guilty Gun are narrated primarily in the style of file extracts, implying that the Spirit keeps a complex account of his adventures on hand, and to lend the mysteries just a hint more credibility. After all, an official report is an official report, even if it is a cartoon official report. Perhaps the smartest storytelling device is used in Tunnel, where a scientific advance allows us to see a character’s final memories laid out like comic book panels.

That's his name...

That’s his name…

“Like a phonograph record!” Professor Medulla boasts, perhaps because like a comic strip would be too on-the-nose. The majority of the strip finds Dolan and Medulla discussing the scenes depicted, turning Tunnel into a comic about a comic. Indeed, there’s something quite wonderful about the fact that Dolan finds himself stunned in suspense when the inevitable cliffhanger appears. Like a reader turning the final page only to realise that there’s no resolution, he gasps, “But… there’s no more pictures…”

Of course, Eisner had a charming tendency to lean on the fourth wall a bit, as if to suggest that the characters were aware of the fictitious nature of their existence. Well, of course they are. Eisner has already explained that the characters provide him with their stories, opening up a weird moebius-type effect of fictionalised fiction within fiction. Okay, it’s never that intentionally opaque, but it can be a bit fun to think about. For example, in The Inheritance, Ebony seems aware that he is a character in a weekly comic strip. As the Spirit manages to avoid a proposal from Ellen, Ebony shrewdly advises his mentor, “Leap Year ain’t over fo’ 34 weeks. And that’s exak’ly 34 adventures yet!”

Treading lightly...

Treading lightly…

One of the best strips in the collection, The Torch, plays with the notion of corporate sponsorship as the strip is forced to sell out “because of the greatly increased cost of drawing materials.” (Even the Spirit protests, “How cheap can a cartoonist get?”) The result is clearly a parody of television and radio advertising, as the sponsors intrude on the strip at the worst possible moments to extol the virtues of their miracle product. Ironically the strip ends with “Goople’s Cream” objecting that they’re under exposed. “We regret we must cancel our sponsorship of your comic strip as the time allotted for commercials does not seem to adequately sell our product.”

It’s interesting that The Spirit seems to be making some small nods towards serialisation. Characters have always overlapped, but there there’s the faint sense of stories bleeding into one another. Bleak’s story is told in two consecutive strips, The Name is Powder and The Fallen Sparrow. (And then picked up again in The Job.) Similarly, Tunnel drops a line that sets up Ward Healy. Ellen’s house in The Inheritance leads into The O’Dolan. El Spirito builds on Montabaldo.

Proudly supported by...

Proudly supported by…

To be fair, it’s not really true serialisation. Plot elements are used for two weeks on the trot, and the status quo at the end of one story leads into the next. However, nobody would be confused on reading the second part. Of course, this is due to Eisner’s skill as a storyteller, but it is also because – these elements aside – The Spirit remains mostly episodic. An element may recur from one week to the next, but it hardly reflects an ever-evolving status quo. The core cast never fundamentally change, and while you might recognise the background from the previous week’s sprint, it’s hardly essential. Both stories read fine in isolation and neither radically alters what the read thinks that they know about the character or his world.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 16 continues a strong run of Will Eisner’s Spirit. Long may it continue.

 

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