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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 19 (Review/Retrospective)

The times, they are a-changing. It seems that is true for The Spirit as well. Given it’s a weekly comic strip, those changes aren’t necessarily obvious at the micro-level, as you read through these superb archive editions collected by DC comics. Change is, after all, as likely to be a gradual development as a sudden change of pace. However, reading The Spirit stories collected here, it is clear that things have subtly shifted over the past year or so. It’s not quite the harbinger of doom that we’d see over the next couple of years as the strip died a long, slow and painful death – it’s more a change of focus on the part of Eisner, as he seems to continue to push the character boldly forward.

Denny Colt is the Spirit? No!

Denny Colt is the Spirit? No!

Those characters who endure typically have to evolve and to change with times. I’d argue that is why Batman and James Bond work so well as characters – they are flexible and easy to use in any number of contexts. I’d also argue that Superman has had difficulty moving past the Richard Donner characterisation, and keeping up to date with modern world. While The Spirit would eventually go into a prolonged hibernation in the mid-fifties, I think that Eisner did a great job keeping the character with the times, and keeping him focused on public imagination of that moment.

Sure, the Spirit was generally static. His supporting cast might gain a member or two, but it seldom lost a member. Even when Silk Satin was given a kid and married off, she still found a way to return almost annually. So, in the adventure at the start of this collection, when the Spirit abandons Central City, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll be gone for long. Even as the character island hops across the “Peligros” islands, we know he’ll eventually rejoin Ellen and Ebony and Commissioner Dolan. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate the change of pace.

File under A for Awesome...

File under A for Awesome…

You could argue that the trip to the “Peligros” islands is something of a mid-life crisis for the Spirit and the strip. After all, the strip was almost a decade old at that point. Even though Eisner had served in the army for some of that time, one wonders if he didn’t have some vague sense of wanderlust. In Lilly Lotus, the Spirit himself even concedes the the motivation for his trip is hardly the most nuanced or sophisticated, “Funny how my reasons for coming here almost seem silly now…”

As Eisner has noted, this was an attempt to broaden the world inhabited by the character, to push out into new things:

“This was the beginning of an experiment to move The Spirit out of Central City. I was always groping for a new angle on characters, and this was my attempt to move into new areas. After all, I was doing this thing week after week, and after a while you get to wondering whether the audience is going to sleep on you.”

Evidence of the strip’s constant evolution could be found elsewhere. For example, the Spirit’s adventures away from home also introduced him to Sammy, the young boy who would eventually overshadow Ebony as the Spirit’s child sidekick. The Spirit encounters him in The Ball Game, and he’s confirmed as part of the ensemble by Dolan at the end of The Return. “You can’t leave… you’re part of the family now, Sammy.”

Walking the world beat...

Walking the world beat…

Many have interpreted Sammy as a conscious effort by Eisner to replace Ebony with a similar character who might avoid many of the unfortunate implications that surrounded the character’s young African-American sidekick. Indeed, even though he is only introduced in these stories, Sammy has a much stronger presence in this collection than Ebony does. For his part, Eisner has vigorously denied the suggestion that Sammy was a “replacement” for Ebony.

In Will Eisner: Conversations, when asked directly whether Sammy was a conscious attempt to supplant Ebony, Eisner responded, “No, I was just looking for new characters, that’s all.” He has argued that Sammy was simply an expression of that same desire to keep doing something new with the strip that was already almost a decade old. While he concedes that difficulties with Ebony led to Sammy’s creation, Eisner would never concede that his portrayal of Ebony was racist:

“Ebony was becoming more and more difficult to deal with,” Eisner relates to interviewer Tom Heintjes. “I couldn’t let him grow up, because his character was that of a young boy, and yet I couldn’t let him remain the way he was, because that wouldn’t be true to his personality. So I decided to bring in a bunch of other small assistants who were similar to Ebony. Sammy was one of these. He was an interesting character, and most important, he provided new material for me.”

No man is an island...

No man is an island…

Being honest, Eisner’s logic is less than convincing here. The only story in this volume that couldn’t have been told using Ebony is (most likely) Lurid Love, where Sammy falls in love with Ellen Dolan. I can only imagine how controversial such a storyline would have been with Ebony at a time when mixed marriage was still illegal in a large portion of the United States – and I can only imagine how awkward Eisner’s attempts to deal with that might have been. Then again, that’s not necessarily a huge argument in favour of Sammy, that he allowed Eisner to tell stories that racist laws would have made too controversial to tell with Ebony.

Besides, Eisner’s argument that he couldn’t let Ebony evolve and he couldn’t continue to treat Ebony as the same character belies the fact that he did one or the other to most of the ensemble. Commissioner Dolan, for example, didn’t really evolve as a character over the course the of the run. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that Silk Satin as a family woman was a logical evolution of the character introduced before the war. To suggest that Eisner’s problem with Ebony was governed by questions over whether to develop him as a character seems quite unlikely at best.

Wrapping it all up neatly...

Wrapping it all up neatly…

Still, whatever the reason Sammy came to replace Ebony, it was a sign that times were changing. So, too, was the mention of a holocaust survivor in Surgery and the retelling of The Case of the Inner Voice in The Inner Voice. A lot of Eisner’s stories in the wake of the Second World War had been deeply rooted in the conflict. Criminals were exploiting veterans, soldiers were having difficulty adapting to life back home, former war criminals were everywhere, as was hidden war loot. There were even war brides. Slowly, and gradually, that idea came to fade – we got the sense that The Spirit, and perhaps the American pop consciousness, had begun to look beyond the conflict and towards the future.

Indeed, the only major use of Nazis in the previous collection came in The Space Sniper, with the pulpy revelation that the Nazis had sent missiles into space. The concept is hardly the most astute comment on the wake of the conflict, and perhaps is best read as a parable about the militarisation of outer space during the Cold War. Either way, the actual Nazi characters die before things get properly started. Here, the mentions of the Second World War seem almost strange, because it has been so long since we last discussed the conflict.

Something to bug you...

Something to bug you…

In fact, The Inner Voice is really just the same story we read a little while ago, with a new one-page prologue and epilogue added to give the story a sense of tragic irony. The ties to the Second World War (well, the Spanish Civil War) all come from the earlier Case of the Inner Voice. The relatively happy ending (and the closure) for Dr. Anschluss in Surgery… seems to exist to draw a line under the conflict, to suggest that everything is done and dusted. Indeed, its mind far from warfare, Flaxen Weaver revolves around an attempt to steal the “peace medallion”, an obvious reference to the Nobel Peace Prize which was not awarded from 1939 through 1943.

Outside of this sense of forward movement, the stories collected here continue to offer top-notch examples of Eisner’s strength as a storyteller. The adventures in Peligros make for a fascinating change of pace after so many urban adventures. Eisner does an exceptional job crafting noir stories against this more tropical backdrop. “It was hard to say just where he came from,” we’re told, “but on these islands, no one cares…”

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

Eisner even gets a bit “Nolan” about his hero, as the Spirit becomes something of legend, his story whispered and repeated in Sally of the Islands, while The Masked Man assures us, “Among the countless islands that make up the ‘Peligros’, they tell of a masked man whose path threads the islands… studding each with a new adventure…” Back in Central City, Private Eye Willie Ankle observes that the Spirit is more of a myth than a man. “Sugar, did you ever consider the fact that the Spirit is not so much a real figure as a figment of the public’s imagination? A symbol of justice to the good… a symbol of terror to the wicked! Anyone wearing a blue mask and gloves could be the Spirit!”

Even after the Spirit returns home, Eisner still crafts a series of entertaining tales. Those the stories towards the end of the volume aren’t quite as fascinating as those at the beginning, they hit on some of Eisner’s favourite themes. In White Cloud, for example, Dolan finds himself elected Mayor and dealing with the politics of compromise, struggling against all the private interests keen to feed on the inhabitants of Central City.

"If you can make yourself more than just a man..."

“If you can make yourself more than just a man…”

Eisner has always been cynical about politics and there’s a sense that he is speaking through Dolan as the former Commissioner vows, “This rigamarole! I know that all you owls want is spoils for your private interests! But I’m not going to sanction your contracts or back a single bill that will help you line your bank accounts! This city administration will be clean!!” Of course, eventually the good man has his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, and becomes corrupted by the mechanical grind of those interest groups – in this case personified by Monica Veto.

That said, I wasn’t exactly sure why Dolan resigned. Sure, he’d made mistakes, but he had been willing to rectify them. After all, a man like Dolan who acknowledges his mistakes must be a better choice than some party elected by a political machine. Dolan had won the public back, so it wasn’t even that he was hounded from office for his past mistakes. Perhaps, the Spirit’s eventual return to Central City, it is merely an acknowledgement that Eisner can bend, but not break, the status quo.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

Indeed, Death of Autumn Mews, suggests that the Spirit’s outfit is really just a result of a fixed status quo, rather than a conscious choice on the part of the author. When Sammy asks about it, Dolan observes, “As for the ‘mask’ business… why, it’s more tradition now than anything else!” It’s a nice admission from Eisner that he was never too keen about the mask, and it was just something added to appeal to the syndication people. However, it’s now iconic, so it stays.

There are other nice Eisner-esque touches. White Cloud gives us a glimpse at the social history of Central City. “In 1619,” we’re told, a group of pilgrims landed on Central Rock. The little community flourished and grew. “Central Rock” became “Central Trading Post”, then “Central Township”… and so it grew from township to city to that great, thriving metropolis of today… “Central City.”” It also explores the relationship that exists between the city and the Native American population that used to inhabit the region.

That's all I can stands...

That’s all I can stands…

The Story of Rat-Tat the Toy Machine Gun is a fine example of Eisner’s moral storytelling, as he offers a fable about modern crime. the opening page assures us that this story is “a primer for adults, containing instructive and pleasant little moral tales.” The more experimental Ten Minutes is told in “real time” – roughly. We’re told, “It will take you ten minutes to read this story…” Then it is confirmed that we are watching “the last ten minutes in Freddy’s life” as they unfold. (And, once again, the story has a “crime does not pay” moral.)

Arguably the best story of this collection is the surprisingly grim Fox at Bay, which seems to foreshadow the increasing frequency of spree killings in the second half of the twentieth century. A student of psychology conducts his own “experiment” involving the murder of ten innocent people, documenting his emotional state on a typewriter in the middle of a tense emotional stand-off with the police force. It’s a lot darker than most of Eisner’s stories, and it doesn’t try to mitigate the heavy atmosphere at all. It’s powerful stuff, and an effective demonstration of exactly what Eisner could do with seven pages.

Fight sequences were never a crutch for Eisner...

Fight sequences were never a crutch for Eisner…

It’s worth noting that the wounds the Spirit receives in Fox at Bay last for quite some time, straight through Surgery… and beyond. Perhaps it’s a way of acknowledging just how unique that encounter was, and just how much psychological damage that must have done. It’s a very powerful little tale, especially considering how such incidents are no longer as uncommon as they once might have been.

It’s easy to take The Spirit for granted. After all, the strip has been running for almost ten years at this point. However, it continue to be an absolute joy to read, and there’s a sense that Eisner is still willing to try new things and new ideas with it. Even as it approaches the end of its first decade, The Spirit still has a sense of energy and vitality around it, and enough to suggest that the comic still has a few years of life in it yet.

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