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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 21 (Review/Retrospective)

The end is nigh. Even if I didn’t know that these wonderful hardcover collections from DC comics were finishing up soon (with the last of the weekly strips collected in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 24), I could probably get a sense that things were winding down from a quick read of The Spirit Archives, Vol. 21. Up until this point, The Spirit has had five years of quality following Will Eisner’s return from service in the Second World War. It’s very hard to think of any comic (then or now) that has enjoyed any four consecutive years of quality that measures up to the work by Eisner on The Spirit at the very height of its game.

And it is, I must confess, very easy to get caught off-guard by the slow (but steady) decline in quality in The Spirit. After all, off-peak Spirit by Will Eisner is still better than most of its contemporary comics. And, to be fair, the vast majority of modern comics. There is some great stuff here – some truly fantastic, great stuff. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of evidence that Eisner’s creative energies were ebbing just a bit. The end was fast approaching, and this collection features the first truly noticeable stumbles.

Somebody's a fan of the Great Train Robbery...

Somebody’s a fan of the Great Train Robbery…

Eisner had been using a talented supporting staff for quite some time now. Perhaps that explains the constant reliance on recycled strips and ideas included here. Jules Feiffer was an avowed fan of Eisner, so it’s understandable that he would rely on old Eisner storytelling staples to keep the strip going. There are times here, even when stories aren’t explicitly revisiting classic Spirit adventures, that it feels like we are being offered more of an imitation of what a Spirit comic should be, than a Spirit comic itself.

For example, The Ship vs. Darling O’Shea can’t help but feel a little familiar, even though its characters are new. The story reminds us of Eisner’s occasional narratives about the S.S. Raven, a supposedly haunted ship. Here, we’re treated to the story of a ghost ship “made from the salvaged remains of some war ships!” The story is even narrated directly to us by a sailor, much like those S.S. Raven stories, who even seems to share many of the same core sentiments, “Aye… and the main thing I know is that a ship is more than wood ‘n’ steel… she’s a livin’, feelin’ thing!”

Caught red- (or blue-) handed...

Caught red- (or blue-) handed…

Similarly, La Cucaracha seems quite familiar – the story of an unlikely talking animal. That said, the punchline is much better here, so perhaps it isn’t quite as offensive as it might seem. Interestingly, there are also a few story ideas here that would eventually be repeated in later collections, most notably Ellen Dolan For Mayor. I’m not quite sure that the story was so brilliant as to merit a second telling, and perhaps it’s another indication of the strip’s decline.

Reading through The Spirit Archives, Vol. 21, I’m not entirely sure that we’ve ever had so dense a concentration of “holiday stories” before. Sure, Eisner has done stories about Thanksgiving and Independence Day. He has even done the odd Halloween Spirit story. And, naturally, The Christmas Spirit is an annual feature so popular that the stories even have their own collection. That said, I’m not convince that we’ve been treated to a barrage of holiday-themed stories in such a direct fashion.

A close shave...

A close shave…

We’ve experienced combinations of them spread apart over different years, but they seem much more frequent here than they ever have before. The Moment of Glory is built around the 4th of July. The Halloween Spirit of 1950 is about the eponymous holiday. The Song of Little Willum is focused around Thanksgiving, and The Christmas Spirit of 1950 seems rather inevitable. Of course, perhaps this is just perception. Perhaps early volumes covering the July-December stretch have used this many holiday-themed stories, but they seem quite heavy here, and they almost seem like a bit of a crutch from a creative team that aren’t quite sure about what they want to do.

Being honest, I don’t envy those working on these strips. Working week-in and week-out on a strip like this must be murder. I understand that the occasional shortcut must be taken. Sometimes it works very well. For example, the final strip in this collection, Happy New Year, is effectively a recap of the year’s events, much like Will Eisner’s Almanack of the Year from two years earlier. However, the story is told in the style of Charlie Brown, which makes it kind of novel.

Similarly, the strip plays with the audience when the artist hijacking Eisner’s Spirit notices that we’re watching him. Pointing a gun out of the strip, he demands, “Now I know you! You’re the one who watches every week!! All you ever do is stare! This time… you are part of this adventure! You can’t escape… not even by turning this page!” It’s a nice scene, and Happy New Year manages to effectively recap the year that has been, but without seeming quite as forced as the other holiday-themed adventures.

A heck of a run...

A heck of a run…

There is a sense that times are changing, and that perhaps The Spirit is on the verge of a sudden downturn in fortunes. In Sound, fictional comic artist Art Bennday reflects on the changing market, “Two years ago crime comics was the hot item, then true stories, then romance…” Reading that, perhaps a ten-year run is a considerable accomplishment. There’s a very clear sense that Eisner and The Spirit are finding themselves under a bit of pressure in a changing market place.

These pressures find themselves thematically expressed in stories like The Wreck of Old 78, which is essentially a seven-page ode to nostalgia as an old veteran and decommissioned train saves the day. The Spirit must have been feeling quite old, and perhaps sensed a looming decommission, at that moment. However, the story really works best when contrasted with The First Man, the strip published the following week. If The Wreck of Old 78 is an ode to old reliables, then The First Man is exploration of pointless novelty.

Time is running out...

Time is running out…

The First Man is the story of Herkimer Zither, a pathetic little man who measures his self-worth by being the first man to do various things – to cross bridges or travel through tunnels or drive on motorways. Explaining that Zither has a rival, a diner owner comments, dismissively, “He said he wuz gonna be first at a tunnel openin’ or something.” Zither’s obsession with the latest tunnel opening in Central City is pathetic. It is at times hilarious, but also at times completely bleak.

After murdering somebody, he panics. “Must have decorations… First man must always have decorations!” He offers a massive cash bribe to get to be “first”, placing such value on a ridiculously minor accomplishment. Reading the story, I can’t help but wonder if it was Eisner’s response to fleeting audience interest, as novelties distracted readers from a long-running and reliable comic strip that would arguably linger in the public imagination longer than the passing interest of the moment. As closing narration notes, despite the fact Zither accomplishes his goal, “By 9:45am all interest in the tunnel faded… and, as for Herkimer Zither… the first man… he was never seen or heard from again.”

While the metaphysical questions about the strip’s insecurities did provide a handful of enjoyable adventures, there were other more serious problems at play. For one thing, The Spirit seemed to be focusing on the younger members of the ensemble again. Many of the Ebony-only stories were painful because the character was so obviously racist. However, the arrival of Sammy demonstrates that – even if Ebony hadn’t been racist – his stories probably would have sucked.

A key adventure?

A key adventure?

Camp Wachoobie, for example, is a Sammy-heavy story what turns out to be a “very special adventure” about bullying. Sammy and Willum Take Over is as painful as the title suggests. This collection also introduces Darling O’Shea, a truly terrible character who might have been interesting in other circumstances. Even when those characters aren’t around, it seems like The Spirit is very consciously courting the youth market. For example, Teacher’s Pet features the Spirit undercover at high school school.

In fairness, it’s not all bad. For example, Teacher’s Pet reads reasonably well as a dead-on precognitive parody of the 21 Jump Street television show, giving us the hilarious sight of two middle-aged goons in school outfits threatening our lead. Although O’Shea is a pretty terrible character, she does at least allow for the heartening story of The Christmas Spirit of 1950, as Santa gives her some thoughtful advice, “Remember, Darling O’Shea, the trouble with always being protected is that it not only keeps your enemies out, but it doesn’t allow your friends to come in!”

Any witch way but loose...

Any witch way but loose…

There are other examples of Eisner’s trademark skill here. As I noted above, the ratio is still in Eisner’s favour, even if it has shifted slightly. The Story of Sam (from “The Spirit’s Reader”) is “a primer for adults containing somewhat of a sad little tale without a moral of any kind.” It’s actually a pretty good modern-day fable, until we come to the ending… which for some reason features Mars. The Winnah demonstrates that Eisner still does great tragedy.

There are hints of relevance to be found here, albeit less pronounced than Eisner’s social commentary had been in years past. Eisner had been unafraid to tackle anything from the rise of fascism in Europe to the difficulties posed by partisan politics. Here, the commentary seems a little better hidden, a little more insulated. The Halloween Spirit of 1950, for example, could be seen as a relatively subtle exploration of the McCarthy Witchhunts, which had been going on since 1947.

Talk about O'Dolan out the punishment!

Talk about O’Dolan out the punishment!

The Halloween Spirit of 1950 features a real life witch hunt, supported by “every big political leader in town”, and run by three “escaped homocidal maniacs.” Sadly, it never really hits any closer to home than that – to the point where I’m not even sure that Eisner intended the story as a political commentary. It seems relatively tame when compared to some of his more powerful stuff.

On the other hand, there is something just a bit prophetic about Vietnam ’50, a story which seems to foreshadow the war. essentially a pulpy adventure about buried treasure, Eisner picks what must have seemed like a minor French conflict to provide the backdrop – much like earlier stories featured priceless treasures lost and hidden in the Spanish Civil War or the Second World War. Given what would eventually occur in the region, it seems like an astute setting for a Spirit story.

I can see you!

I can see you!

There’s a sense that Eisner is, once again, probing the limits of comic strip narrative. It’s something that he did throughout The Spirit, inventing various tricks that comic book artists take for granted these days, and it’s amazing how truly innovative some of these techniques were at the time. With the stories collected here, Eisner almost seems to be approaching the edge of what he can do inside a comic narrative.

There’s an interesting fascination with time, perhaps one of the most distinctive features of comic book storytelling. Unlike film, television or radio, comics tell a story that isn’t necessarily paced in synch with real time. Pacing is entirely down to the artist and writer, with the beat between the panels supplied the reader, creating a uniquely elasticity that can’t really be replicated in other media. How long does each panel last? Well, that’s really in the eye of the beholder? A string of panels can unfold in what seems like less than a second, or a panel could last what seems like minutes.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

The Desert and The First Man both play with this concept in their own unique way. The Desert divides the pages into particular times of particular days, setting the pacing for the reader. Eisner gets even more explicit in The First Man, putting a timer in each individual panel, allowing the reader to position each panel as if it were a frame in a move – a definite length of time elapsing between each image on the page, time no longer elastic but ticking down rapidly. It’s great to see Eisner playing with the form, and both stories do it well.

However, it is Sound that suggests that Eisner is approaching the edge of what he can do in the medium. While The Desert and The First Man try to create a rigid enough structure of time within a comic book narrative, the very title of Sound points out one structural limitation of the medium that cannot be transcended using only the printed page. As you can imagine, sound effects are a massive part of Sound, but the very name of the strip indicates an obvious absence. By its nature, a comic book can never generate a sound – save, perhaps, inside the reader’s head.

The disguise are impenetrable...

The disguise are impenetrable…

Slightly more playfully, The Song of Little Willum draws the reader’s attention to the stock clichés of comic book storytelling in a reasonably affectionate manner. Eisner constructs entire poetic verses to the use of stock words like “meanwhile”“what’s a comic without meanwhile?” he asks – and “later”“all of which for comic reading is essential to our story.” There’s a sense that Eisner isn’t just probing the structural limitations of a comic book story, but also the narrative limitations facing the writing of a weekly strip.

Eisner would later confess that he eventually tired of The Spirit. That is, of course, why the strip came to be written and illustrated by other writers and artists as the end approached. Perhaps you can see evidence of Eisner’s dwindling interest here. There’s a subtle indication of a creator who has really reached the edge of what he can do with a weekly comic strip. After all, once you’ve done pretty much everything that you can do, it’s easy to see why you might tire of working on the same project for a prolonged period of time.

Cop on to yourselves...

Cop on to yourselves…

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 21 is not a bad collection of comic book stories. Indeed, being frank, no collection of The Spirit is really a bad collection of stories. Even when the strip became nothing but a shadow of itself it was still telling stories that were far more entertaining than those found in the other magazines of the time. However, we’re not even at that point, yet. This hardcover contains a number of entertaining and insightful Eisner stories, thoughtfully constructed. It just doesn’t contain as many as the last volume, and there’s a lot of comparatively weak material to be found here.

It’s the beginning of the end, but it’s not as bad as that makes it sound.

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