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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 18 (Review/Retrospective)

I seem to be opening each of these reviews with a reminder that The Spirit is in fine form, and that it continues to be a superb piece of pulpy entertainment. I continue to be astounded at the relatively consistent standard that Eisner works to, week in and week out. More than that, though, I am continually impressed with the vigour and ingenuity that the writer and artist brings to his work. Just when you think you have The Spirit figured out, it throws another curveball, effortless switching gears and becoming something a bit different than you were expecting. Sometimes it’s a technicolour noir story, sometimes it’s a treatise on humanist philosophy, sometimes it’s a western, sometimes it’s romance, sometimes, its comedy, sometimes it’s tragedy. Sometimes it’s all and more.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 18 doesn’t necessarily have a single story that can be measured against The Story of Gerhard Schnobble that we found in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 17, but it’s still a testament to Eisner’s storytelling sensibilities and his strength as a writer and artist.

The board walk...

The board walk…

The Spirit has almost been around for a decade now. It doesn’t seem that long when you consider that Prince Valiant has been in constant daily publication since 1937. Similarly, The Spirit would be outlasted by other Golden Age superheores like Batman or Superman. Still, there’s a sense that there’s a bit of a milestone in the character’s life approaching. Indeed, The Spirit Archives, Vol. 19 would open with a string of stories that could be interpreted as something of a mid-life crisis for the strip and the character, as he storms out of Central City with little motivation to see the world.

Here, Eisner acknowledges that time is passing. In Ice, he explicitly acknowledges that there must come a point where the “will they or won’t they?” romantic tension between the Spirit and Ellen Dolan will lose any narrative tension. “Besides,” she observes, “I’m not getting any younger, y’know…” Many comic book characters might not be getting any younger (while some, apparently, do with each passing reboot). However, Eisner’s writing occasionally suggests that maybe Ellen and her father are ageing, while the Spirit himself remains an eternal icon. It’s a theme he’d revisit after the strip ended, in the New York Herald Tribune.

He'll make the bad guy cry for mummy...

He’ll make the bad guy cry for mummy…

While that discussion is a few years away at this point, Eisner brings the Spirit and Ellen Dolan closer to marriage than they have ever been. When Eisner handed over control of the character to a new generation of talent, the creator offered only the loosest and least restrictive of rules and guidelines. Those writing this next generation of Spirit stories could not, for example, kill the character or anything that drastic. The Spirit would also, apparently, not be permitted to marry.

Personally, I can’t help but wonder if this is because the last adventure in The Spirit daily comic strip featured a marriage plotline and the last strip before The Outer Space Spirit revolved around marrying the character off, suggesting that the idea of Denny Colt getting married became something of a bad omen for the character. Or maybe Eisner didn’t want to see his character get tied down like that, and aged so substantially.

Facing up to reality...

Facing up to reality…

In A Prisoner of Love, Ebony whines about how marriage will ruin the Spirit’s career as a crimefighter. He sounds like I imagine many of the executives at DC comics must have sounded when they decided to jettison the marriages of characters like the Flash and Superman, claiming that they “age” the characters in question. “Now… a married detectif is a man wif worries,” Ebony protests, “an’ a man wif worries fes’ ain’t on the ball… an’ in this business, y’gotta be sha’p!”

Eisner has toned down Ebony considerably in the past year or so, and he’s very much in the background here. The trend would continue with the decision to introduce Sammy in the second half of this year. However, it’s sad that the decision to tone down Ebony’s involvement did not see the introduction of more prominent African-American characters. Eisner did introduce a couple of recurring, intelligent and competent African American supporting players – Detective Grey comes to mind – but they don’t seem to recur as often as the white members of the ensemble.

With Ebony’s involvement significantly reduced, the sexism in the strip has become a bit more obvious. To be fair, Ellen Dolan is a character who is written relatively well – she is a character in her own right as much as she’s plucky comic relief, feeling at least as developed as her father. However, while Eisner writes pretty compelling femme fatales, there is a somewhat disconcerting need to have them fall head-over-heels in love with our main character. The fact that he has no idea what to do about it makes for a pretty decent gag, but Eisner occasionally pushes things too far.

Wait, I though men were from Mars...

Wait, I though men were from Mars…

In Thorne Strand and the Spirit, we’re introduced the eponymous female character as a brutally competent female criminal. When the Spirit shows up and chivalrously offers her a way out, she retorts, “Has it ever occurred to you, my handsome oaf, that if I needed protection, I’d have been rubbed out a long time ago in this racket…?” It’s a fair point, and it would do an excellent job setting her up as a female villain who could hold her own. (After all, we have competent female anti-heroes like P’Gell and Satin, even if they are both also defined by their sexual attraction to the Spirit.)

However, not only does Thorne Strand fall in love with the Spirit, she sexually assaults him. In A Slow Ship to Shanghai, the Spirit is tied up and at her mercy. She plans to kill him, although we’re not entirely sure she’s follow through on it. However, in the meantime, she has her own plans for him. “But until we get to the smugglers’ ship, you and I can entertain ourselves…” We see the scene through a porthole, as a chained Spirit responds, “Now wait… Thorne… keep back… Thorne…”

It's a dark world...

It’s a dark world…

It’s treated as a comedy scene, which feels a little cringeworthy. Just imagine their positions reversed, with a male character planning to “entertain” himself with a chained up Thorne while she begs him not to. Suddenly the sequence becomes a horrific moment, instead of one that is supposed to provoke a smile a chuckle. It feels a little misjudged on the part of Eisner, even if you can argue that – like the racism of the earlier adventures – it was a product of its time. It doesn’t make it any easier to read, to be honest.

The portrayal of the relationship between the Spirit and Ellen isn’t the only place where Eisner uses continuity. The Spirit has never been a continuity-heavy feature, but there is a sense that Eisner is picking up and developing threads throughout this collection. Some of been left fallow for quite some time (the reappearance of Artemus Peap in The Space Sniper), while other threads continue through consecutive stories.

For example, the Spirit finds himself deputised in The Spirit Now Deputy, chased by the police in the subsequent The Hunted and forgiven for his past offences in Hamid Jebru. To be fair, though, there’s never a sense that Eisner is quite ready to up-end the status quo. It isn’t necessarily that these stories are leading to a particular point, merely that they conveniently lead to another seven-page story. As soon as these elements cease to be of use, they are discarded. For example, the Spirit’s status as a fugitive is handily overturned in the first line of dialogue on the second page of Hamid Jebru. Dolan remarks, “Hayville County has just dropped all charges against you! Isn’t that great?” There’s no reason given, just sort of a “remember how you were on the run, eh?” line.

Light entertainment...

Light entertainment…

The stories here offer a fairly effective demonstration of The Spirit as a noir comic strip. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fair share of delightfully “out there adventures. There is the Visitor, for example, which sees the Spirit tackling an extraterrestrial agent. The Space Sniper features delightfully pulpy Nazis… in space! However, the vast majority of stories here feel like crime thrillers and urban adventures that the Spirit has wandered into, in contrast to the more bohemian feel of the previous (and the next) collection.

For example, Ice features the Spirit breaking up a rather clever smuggling operation. The Big Sneeze Caper sees Will Eisner channelling Philip Marlowe when he casts Ebony as a private eye. Ebony’s office come complete with a “Bachelor of the Investigating Arts” from the “Mail Order Academy” – and there’s an inspired touch as an empty soda bottle dangling from his hand. The hard-boiled dialogue is somewhat undermined by Ebony’s phonetic accent, but it’s a charming little adventure.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

Foul Play is another of Eisner’s superb explorations of urban anomie, as the writer explores the way that those living in the urban jungle respond to the possibility of death and pain around them. It might seem strange, the narrator assures us, “But the fact is that big-city dwellers instinctively ignore the affairs of their neighbours.” There’s a definite irony – a sting in the tale – in how the story plays out, another of the ways that Eisner so successfully channelled film noir in telling his own comic strip stories.

In fact, you could argue that several of Eisner’s stories here play as extended ironic jokes, turning death and noble sentiments into some bitter joke. Sometimes the laugh is honest enough (as the the end of The Valentine, but sometimes it can be surprisingly grim (as in Death, Taxes… and the Spirit).Sometimes it seems that, in Central City itself, entire human lives exist just to set up grim gags that aren’t necessarily visible to any of the city’s inhabitants – only to us, the reader.

While the Spirit’s name typically adorns the front page, you could argue that The Spirit, as a whole is more about Central City as a character – using its denizens as a vehicle for Eisner to explore the human condition. There’s enough variety and honesty in the portrayals of the people living in this fictional metropolis that Eisner can tell virtually any story that he might want. The Crime of Passion might be published in The Spirit, but it is really the story of Monroe Shmink. Similarly, The Prediction might feature an appearance from the masked crimefighter, but it is the tale of Humid J. Millibar.

Smoke and... well... er... more smoke...

Smoke and… well… er… more smoke…

That’s not to suggest that the Spirit is short-changed. He can’t be killed from week-to-week, so the degree to which Eisner can trap him in a dark and fatalistic world is somewhat hampered. The artist doesn’t hesitate to doll out physical pain to his creation, but The Spirit also finds time to trap its own lead character inside various moral and philosophical situations where there is no real way to win, only varying degrees of loss.

The Spirit might not be a regular superhero, but he’s not a cop here. Eisner sometimes skirts the issue, but he’ll occasionally bring up the distinction between a law enforcement official and a masked vigilante. Unconfined by procedure or law, the Spirit operates by his own moral compass. While that gives him a certain amount of flexibility, it sometimes catches him in awkward situations – ones where there aren’t necessarily any rules or guidelines.

For example, in Satin, the Spirit finds himself covering up for a dead murderer. Silk Satin asks her to prove her husband’s innocence, putting the Spirit in an impossible situation. Satin’s husband dies, but not before the Spirit uncovers some damning evidence. Asked directly, at the end of the story, about he husband’s guilt, the Spirit can only offer, “I… I… He’s dead now… It doesn’t matter anymore… Remember your late husband as a hero…” On the flight home, he makes the decision to destroy the evidence. “The evidence against him could do no good for anyone now…” It is a tricky moral decision, and does an excellent job of illustrating the murky grey world that the character inhabits.

Gotta fly...

Gotta fly…

That’s not to suggest that the entire collection is dedicated to Eisner’s obvious affection for film noir. There’s lots of room for other opinions and insights from the creator. Glob sees Eisner affectionately mocking (then) modern art, in particular primitivism. In a situation that will be familiar to many, the Spirit finds himself examining “the Mildew Primitives”, only to wonder, “This is drawing??” The story sees Leonard Snitch passing off honest-to-goodness cave paintings as examples of his own mastery of the form, sold with nonsense like, “Notice the uncultivated design… the uninhibited linear quality!”

Young Dr. Ebony sees Eisner having a bit of fun at the expense of radio melodrama. One of the interesting things about reading The Spirit half a century after it was originally published is seeing just of relevant it still is. Young Dr. Ebony is a spot-on parody of hospital melodrama. “Alonzo Hack” is credited as a guest writer, with the opening page asking us, “The story of a young man’s struggle through life that asks the question… ‘Can a young man struggle through life?'” One of the better recurring gags has a nurse repeatedly demanding to make a confession of some dark secret in her past. It’s enjoyable stuff, and still quite amusing.

While Eisner finds time to play with the conventions of other media, he also finds time to explore his own. The Deadly Comic Book. feels like a sarcastic response to the Seduction of the Innocent controversy where Dr. Fredric Wertham alleged that comic books were corrupting the day’s youth. Wertham would publish the book half-a-decade later, so the appearance here of Dr. Wolfgang Worry seems a little bit ahead of the curve.

A throwdown...

A throwdown…

Eisner is, to be fair, less than subtle about the sensationalism surrounding horror comics. As our narrator tells us, “One dull and gloomy day on my way to class I paused to watch my worthy colleague, Dr. Wolfgang Worry, our school psychiatrist, at work… He was holding his weekly comic book burning…” In a story that couldn’t be any more sarcastic if it tried, one horror comic drives the lead character to a mental breakdown, as he descends into paranoia, “Suddenly… I was seized by an overwhelming fear… I could see nothing… but I was certain I was being followed!”

It’s a great way of ridiculing the ridiculous claims made about comic books subverting the culture of the time. Indeed, Eisner has a bit more fun when he has Dolan offer a running critique of comic book action sequences, while trapped inside a comic book action sequence, ending with Dolan asserting that the pulpy entertainment of his childhood must have been a lot more wholesome. “Now take the ‘penny dreadful’ juvenile reading of my day… there was constructive stuff… when Deadeye Dick shot up Indians, it had historical significance!” Eisner had a wonderfully bitter sense of humour, and it’s immediately clear what he thinks of these sorts of opinions.

Besides, The Spirit is a legitimate response to these accusations. It’s gender and racial politics might leave a lot to be desired, but it’s hard to argue that Eisner didn’t craft a legitimate work of art.

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