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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 20 (Review/Retrospective)

By 1950, it seemed like time was almost up for The Spirit. Indeed, the run of stories collected here represents perhaps the last six months of the truly superb hot streak the strip had been on since Eisner returned home from the Second World War. There’ll be time, discussing the next few volumes, to explore and to contemplate the decay and decline of The Spirit as a Sunday newspaper strip, but The Spirit Archives, Vol. 20 contains a pretty solid run of weekend adventures for the masked crimefighter. There’s still a lot of the fun and energy and verve that defined Eisner’s best work on the character, even if you can almost sense the ennui creeping in at the very edge of the page.

The man behind the mask...

The man behind the mask…

The Spirit was at its very best when Eisner enjoyed writing and illustrating it as much as his readers enjoyed devouring it each week. Appropriately enough, the collection opens with Fan Mail. In any other strip, it would seem like padding – perhaps the work of a creator trying not to fret too much in the first week of a new year. Here, instead, it’s a delightfully entertaining look at a comic strip that never took itself too seriously.

There’s some wonderful moments in the strip that sees Dolan (and Sammy) tasked with answering some fan mail concerning the blue-suited hero. Asked how much the Spirit weighs, all Sammy can offer is, “The day of the gaunt, thin, hawk-like crimefighter is over!” Voicing one reader query, Dolan asks Eisner himself, “Why does the Spirit wear his gloves day and night… even when he goes to bed??” Eisner hangs up, prompting Dolan to note of his creator, “Cartoonists are too @#**5$% sensitive!” In a nice touch, Taxes and the Spirit sees Will Eisner listed as a “dependent” of the Spirit.

A handy find...

A handy find…

The collection also arguably sees the introduction of the last truly iconic member of the Spirit’s already expansive supporting cast. Being entirely honest, I honestly had a bit of trouble believing that Sand Saref would be introduced this late in the run. However, as well as introducing the last of the Spirit’s truly memorable femmes fatale, Sand Saref also provides us with back story on the Spirit himself. Eisner intentionally designed the Spirit to be something of a blank slate, so we really haven’t ever probed too deeply into the hero’s history or back story.

We knew that he came from a line of respected crimefighters and criminologists, sharing his grandfather’s name. Here, we discover that he actually grew up in “the slums of Central City’s Lower East Side” and that his uncle was a criminal. Of course, there’s a reason that this feels like a lot more background information than we’re used to. Sand Saref was effectively a repurposing of another comic by Eisner – John Law. I actually don’t mind seeing a strip like that recycled here. Given how The Spirit would eventually cannibalise itself, it makes sense to at least adapt stories the readers might not be familiar with.

It's a jungle out there!

It’s a jungle out there!

Even though the origin was that intended for another Will Eisner character, it still makes an interesting addition to the mythos of The Spirit. In a way, this story sort of solidifies a lot of what Jules Feiffer was talking about when he described the character as “a middle-class crimefighter.” Unlike so many Golden Age heroes, the Spirit doesn’t come from an exceptionally wealthy background, and is defined as strictly street-level.

That said, I don’t think you could argue that Eisner was ever particularly consistent about that. While the stories of Central City provided a vehicle for Eisner to explore New York as a kid who grew up in the metropolis, and who knew the streets inside and out, I don’t think that Denny Colt himself is necessarily cut from the same clothe. For example, in this collection, in Taxes and the Spirit, it is confirmed that the Spirit lives of an inheritance from his family. I could have sworn that earlier adventures stated that he survived off money confiscated from crooks, but I guess he can’t really declare that on his tax form.

I guess that's "undeclared"...

I guess that’s “undeclared”…

The Spirit’s finances and his back story come up quite a bit here, suggesting that these strips were perhaps an opportunity for mature reflection. I’m not sure that a masked vigilante living off an inheritance that provides almost enough to run a secret underground lair in a cemetery falls into the “middle-class” tax bracket. Sure, the inheritance doesn’t quite cover costs, as we discover in Wanted: Dangerous Job, but it has been doing a decent enough job that he’s only noticing the shortfall now.

As an aside, it’s interesting that it’s the Revenue that finally manages to force the Spirit to unmask. The strip has been reluctant to show us Colt’s face for a decade, and it seems slightly strange that it’s the power of the United States government that brings Denny to heel. Then again, the government seems to be quite busy in these stories, with a number of adventures concerned with Denny’s taxes or even Census ’50 built around an attempt by the government to take a census of Central City – which would seem a daunting task, given the variety in shape and form of life that we’ve seen in the region over the last decade.

Snowball fight!

Snowball fight!

Still, perhaps this relatively introspective attitude (the focus on Denny Colt and on the workings of the United States) reflects a cultural shift. After all, it is now the fifties. The Spirit has well and truly moved out of the shadow of the Second World War, and an era of prosperity for the United States lies ahead. I have to admit that, in reading these final few years of the strip, that the Cold War and the Communist threat never seemed to weigh too heavily on Eisner. There’d be an occasionally thinly-veiled reference, but it never got the same focus as fascism did.

That said, Eisner hasn’t entirely retreated from commentary on international affairs. As ever, there’s evidence that he was astutely documenting and studying various happenings overseas. For example, in Blood of the Earth, Doctor Gregg refuses to sell the oil rights of the Middle Eastern nation to an outside party so they can bleed the land dry. Demonstrating Eisner’s social conscience, Gregg vows, “I’m going to exploit the land myself and rebuild this kingdom! I’ve already rented drills and equipment!”

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Wanted: Dangerous Job flirts (albeit cautiously) with post-colonialism. Handed a delicate international assignment, the Spirit inquires, “You say this man, Dirk, is a political boss of an African Colonial Possession…” Doon clarifies, “It was orrrigionally a colony… boot, as a result of the war, it has become an hindependent little country…” Unfortunately, the commentary seems a little light. Perhaps, fearing backlash, Eisner casts Dirk as a white gentleman, but doesn’t give us too much insight into what happened to the local people after the colonial forces departed. There is something interesting, though, in the fact that Spirit poses as a scientist looking for “atomic deposits” – and the strip implies that atomic power is more valuable than gold.

Most of this collection, is relatively light. It’s still entertaining, but there’s not too much substance here. It’s all in good humour, though. Mocking a recent epic, the splash page for Sammy and Delilah promises “Fossil B. DeSpiel’s Masterpiece.” The story itself about Sammy under the influence of an “eminent psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychologist and lecturer on interplanetary warfare!” It becomes something of a parody (or an outright homage) to The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, as Sammy’s urge for Lemon Meringue Pie and soda leads him to betray Dolan. (Much like Turkish Delight led Edmund to betray his own siblings.)

He's not half the man he used to be...

He’s not half the man he used to be…

There are a few hints of troubles here. For one thing, it’s quite clear that Eisner and his staff are recycling some old scripts. In the introduction – John Benson even argues that The Jewel of Gizeh is a reworking of The Jewel of Death. It’s a problem that would become a lot more severe in the collections to come, and perhaps suggests that – after a decade of weekly publication – the strip might be running a bit out of steam. Indeed, one of the stories collected here – Water – would be reworked as The Rainmaker two years later.

Building off the success of the “islands” arc that introduced the last volume, there seems to be a strong emphasis on serialised storytelling here. Both Sand Saref and The Jewel of Gizeh end with “to be continued…” There is an extended sequence featuring Saref and Carrion trapped on a desert island with our hero. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Eisner has demonstrated that he works well enough with seven-page stories and those spanning weeks really need to justify the additional time and space.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

It’s also interesting that Sammy has pretty much completely replaced Ebony as the Spirit’s sidekick, despite Eisner’s energetic protesting to the contrary. Indeed, Ebony seems to be missing completely, even from the background and group shots. (He is even absent from the “welcome home” party in Rescue.) I think the most fascinating thing about Eisner’s decision to phase out Ebony is that he never conceded that Ebony was a racist character, and that he was embarrassed by him. The stories marginalise Ebony, in what seems to be a concession by Eisner, but he still claims to have no hesitation or second-thoughts about the character.

Unfortunately, writing Ebony out like that creates a void, and The Spirit is now noticeably missing any African-American supporting characters. You can argue whether it’s better to have a racist caricature or a complete absence, but neither is a desirable scenario. Even the African leader in Wanted: Dangerous Job is a white European. It seems like a bit of a disingenuous move on Eisner’s part, as if he’s grudging making minor concessions while refusing to make the larger necessary changes.

Not quite washed up yet...

Not quite washed up yet…

Still, it’s not all bad. There are moments when Eisner’s charming and endearing humanism shines through, and I do think you can make an argument that this is the end of what has been an impressive run for Eisner. In Sammy the Explorer, Eisner even gets to throw in a sentiment that cuts right to the heart of the best of The Spirit. Reflecting on lost childhood, Dolan notes, “Trouble is when we get older we think of the whims we had as kids as whims only! … We forget to see them in the serious light that we saw them in those days!”

At its best, The Spirit helps us recapture that. It would continue to do that from this point until the strip was eventually cancelled, but with a bit less consistency from this point on. Still, it has been a pretty great run, and there is some good stuff that lies ahead. It’s just a bit more scattered and uneven.

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