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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 17 (Review/Retrospective)

The Spirit Archives, Volume 17 contains perhaps the best-loved Spirit story of all time. Indeed, you could make a compelling argument that The Story of Gerhard Schnobble represents perhaps the best seven pages that Will Eisner ever produced, beautifully encapsulating all the magic of the creator’s work, tempered with the same awareness of the harsh realities of life. This collection continues to offer The Spirit at the peak of its run, and The Story of Gerhard Schnobble simply sees all these elements that have been working so consistently for so long coalescing into something that is practically transcendental.

Beginning with a bang...

Beginning with a bang…

Like so many of Eisner’s great Spirit stories, The Story of Gerhard Schnobble is essentially a modern fairytale. It features a character able to do impossible things, briefly recapturing the wonder of his youth, and the implication that – if we are really lucky – some of the best of us might be able to stumble across our own innocence and childish optimism before the world completely stamps it out of us. It really encapsulates a lot of the themes we’ve seen a lot of in Eisner’s work – from the blending of the everyday and the sublime, through to the notion that childish innocence is something that should be protected in a harsh and cynical world.

Again, fitting with many of the best Spirit stories, The Story of Gerhard Schnobble fairly features the eponymous crimefighter at all. The character is present, and he is doing his own thing in the background, but he’s not the focus. There’s a sense that the character only appears here because his name on the header. I always liked the fact that Eisner was willing to acknowledge that perhaps a masked crimefighter raised from the dead was perhaps the least spectacular aspect of a given narrative.

The Spirit should be quite good at dealing with situations like this on the fly...

The Spirit should be quite good at dealing with situations like this on the fly…

Instead, as you might imagine, the story focuses on Mr. Schnobble. Apparently, during his childhood, Gerhard learned how to fly, but the world made him forget it – leading to an incredibly sad situation where a boy who could fly eventually grew up to be “a normal, sound, steady man.” And the world, of course, utters those adjectives like they are ideals to aspire to. The story of Schnobble is a beautiful, poetic, tragic yet uplifting one, but Eisner’s story isn’t really about the boy who could fly.

Rather, it’s a condemnation of the world that wouldn’t allow him to fly, to excel, to succeed. A world so scared of something different and magical that it effectively forced him to be “normal”, to conform to society’s expectations. Society says that people cannot fly, so those people who can fly must pretend that they can’t. The closing lines make Eisner’s strong condemnation of the modern world even more powerful. He advises us, “But do not weep for Shnobble… Rather, shed a tear for all mankind… For not one person in the entire crowd that watched his body being carted away… knew or even suspected that on this day Gerhard Shnobble had flown.”

Tangling with the Octopus...

Tangling with the Octopus…

It has been a recurring theme throughout Eisner’s work, but it is arguably best expressed in The Story of Gerhard Schnobble. The notion of a society punishing the exceptional and systematically starving the imaginations of its youth recurs quite a bit in this collection alone. In a scene that will be familiar to anybody who has watched Good Will Hunting, Cache McStash features an unsolvable mathematical theorem scrawled on a classroom blackboard. The class is younger, and the teacher warns the kids, “If I say it’s impossible, it’s impossible!”

Eisner seems to have little patience for a world that will tell a child that he shouldn’t fly, if he can, or that things are impossible merely because grown-ups tell you that they are impossible. The Spirit has always had a bit of a social conscience. After all, a lot of the villains in the stories following the Second World War devoted their time to exploiting veterans or the families of veterans who fought in the war, as Eisner seemed to criticise a society that wasn’t quite sure how to welcome home those who had fought and died for their freedom and security.

Night terrors...

Night terrors…

Here, there’s a definite sense that Eisner is concerned about how that society treats its children. Sometimes, as in The Story of Gerhard Schnobble and Cache McStash, it’s simply a matter of telling children what they can’t do. However, sometimes it’s more material and tangible concerns. Indeed, in Tooty Compote, the villainous lawyer ‘Slips’ Claw is advised by Dolan, “Why don’t you save your legal brains for a children’s court instead of helping crooks beat well-deserved jail sentences?” In Quirte, Dolan complains about having to “spend Thanksgiving… 2000 feet up”, only to be told, “Commissioner Dolan… we are building a place… so unfortunate children can have theirs next year!”

That’s not to suggest that The Spirit is unnecessarily preachy or that it attempts to forces its ideas down the audience’s throats. Rather, The Spirit was broad enough to allow Eisner to share whatever thoughts might pop into his head with a large readership, to go on about his own interests and perhaps incite some of that interest in others. Sometimes that interest was in social causes, while occasionally those interests were more abstract or cultural.

The Spirit of the West...

The Spirit of the West…

Collected here are two strips by Eisner that adapt classic literary tales. The Thing by Ambrose Bierce was adapted from The Damned Thing, written by Ambrose Pierce. Perhaps the readers weren’t ready for such coarse language. Eisner confessed to having an interest in short stories and was a very hungry reader. Given Eisner’s fascination with New York, perhaps the fact that The Damned Thing had first been published in Tales from New York Town Topics inspired him to adapt it for The Spirit. Treated as something of a guest strip, the adventure even gets its own title card in the style of The Spirit.

The Fall of the House of Usher is another adaptation of a horror story by an iconic American author, and it also gets its own atmospheric title card. Eisner does tend to dilute some of the more uncomfortable subtext from Poe’s original narrative, but it’s great to see these stories illustrated by Eisner. Eisner obviously went on to tell his own stories after The Spirit, and some of those included literary adaptations like Moby Dick, The Princess & The Frog and The Last Knight. It’s a shame that he never put out a collection of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, as his style seems perfectly suited here.

It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night…

In fact, Eisner’s knack for horror – an aspect of the artist very rarely brought to the fore in The Spirit, due to the nature of the strip – is on full display in Lorelei Rox. The short story is essentially the tale of a modern-day siren leading truck drivers to their doom. As the Spirit explains, “You lure the dazed drivers up here… and kill them…” Befitting the premise, Eisner offers all manner of ethereal and disturbing illustrations.

The images suit the unnerving narration, as we’re told, “And suddenly I began hearing music… a strange kind of music… pitched high… and yet blending with the ‘singing’ of the tires…” In many ways, Eisner’s work here seems to foreshadow the approach that John Totleben would bring to Swamp Thing when he worked on the title with Alan Moore. There’s the same sense that the images is being distorted by factors well outside our perception – all we can reach perceive of these strange elemental forces in the manner in which they warp what should be familiar objects. Eisner draws great horror, even though we very rarely see it.

It's all a blur...

It’s all a blur…

Of course, The Thing by Ambrose Bierce ends with an appeal to children to keep reading. Finishing up the adventure, the Spirit advises Ebony, “It seems to me you spend a lot of time with comics, radio, television and movies… well, don’t neglect books…” Old media tends to spend so much time terrified of new media. Consider how much fire comic books came under as subversive literature, and video games are frequent subjects for editorials and opinion pieces. I’ve always found that fascinating, seen as how new media is typically courteous and respectful of its predecessors. Eisner didn’t see novels has competitors, but as another form of media that was just as valid. I find it astounding that such tolerance and respect only seems to run one way.

There is the same sense of playfulness here that we’d see throughout Eisner’s time on the strip. For example, in The Coin, Eisner plays with the format a bit. “To make reading The Spirit pay,” the strip vows, “We announce the first give-away episode in our history!!” Similarly, in Quirte, we discover that The Spirit is syndicated in The Central City Globe. There are some other nice artistic touches and flourishes. A Day at the Beach consists mostly of an extended silent underwater action sequence, while Quirte sees the title character’s thoughts projected on to his bald head.

That's a hole load of trouble right there...

That’s a hole load of trouble right there…

The Spirit has been going for almost ten years at this point. Eisner has written a significant portion of that. So it is refreshing to see that he is still enjoying it greatly, taking advantage of the opportunity to tell the stories that appeal to him, and not simply falling back on a paint-by-numbers routine. There are a fair few “Spirit catches gangster” stories here, but there’s also a sense that Eisner doesn’t feel confined to that format.

Pancho de Bool is essentially a classic joke extended over seven page, featuring a talking bull who pleads, “Please, Senor Butcher, a momento while I tell ho how I came to thees sorry end…” Most people have heard the punchline before – I suspect it was an old gag even in the 1940s, but Eisner tells it well. Ultimately, the butcher wants to buy the talking bull, prompting the owner to dismiss the butcher’s enthusiasm, “He tells everybody that story! He’s a beeg liar!!”

He must have a spirited tailor...

He must have a spirited tailor…

Bakarolle allows Eisner to essentially tell a noir story centred around dogs. It’s a one-note gag that never overstays its welcome, and it’s worth it to hear Bowser advise a suspect, “If y’come clean I can make things easy for ya down at the pound…” Gold and The Chapparell Lode take the title character outside his comfort zone and turn the Spirit from an urban vigilante to a Western cowboy. Two Lives plays with the form a little bit, with the story split in two, while Nazel B. Twitch is the love story between a man and his car.

That said, Two Lives and The Springtime of Dolan both feature shrewish old ladies. It’s a painfully unfunny comedy stereotype, and it’s not the first time that Eisner has fallen back on using it, but I think it’s more noticeable because the creator has been consciously downplaying Ebony. Without the obvious racism to distract from it, the sexism of some of these strips becomes a lot more obvious. I know that The Spirit was a product of its time, but this sort of thing just illustrates that Ebony was so large a problem that he distracted from all manner of other legitimate concerns.

Pipe down!

Pipe down!

This collection ends with Will Eisner’s Almanack of the Year. It’s essentially one giant flashback sequence, in which Eisner takes us on a trip down memory lane, singling out one or two stories from each of the last twelve months as a sort of a celebration of the strip. It’s a little indulgent, but it feels earned. It has, after all, been one hell of a year for The Spirit. Eisner has been churning out weekly strips (with the help of his studio) for so long that the brief respite offered by Will Eisner’s Almanack of the Year feels like a break that has been earned.

The Spirit continues to go from strength to strength, but I think – perhaps – it reaches something of a pinnacle here. I think that the strip has reached a pretty consistent level of quality, and I don’t think that it declines too rapidly in the years ahead. This collection feature perhaps the best Spirit story ever told, though, and I think that’s just enough to put it narrowly ahead of those around it.

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