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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 22 (Review/Retrospective)

There’s a sense that Eisner and his staff knew that the end was rapidly approaching. Narratively speaking, there’s a lot of different elements here that suggest – at least unconsciously – an effort to tidy up The Spirit so that it could be neatly folded up and put away. Eisner hadn’t completely abandoned his creation to its fate at this point, but it seemed like he was well aware that the strip might not continue forever. The Spirit Archive, Vol. 22 seems a bit more reflective than the editions that came before, acknowledging that the worm is slowly turning.

Gun to my head, I'd say the strip is in trouble...

Gun to my head, I’d say the strip is in trouble…

There’s a preoccupation with time here. Not necessarily in the same structural manner that we saw with The Desert and The First Man in the last collection, more in a narrative sense. Eisner seems to be interested in stopping or skipping time, exploring the ramification of missing or lost time, or even just assuring us that time has passed. In Time Stop, for example, all time in Central City seems to stop for the residents – barring one individual, who finds himself frozen in a particular moment.

Eisner has been keen that The Spirit should not wind up like that. Although it wouldn’t be expressly acknowledged for a few decades, comic books typically operate on an elastic sense of time. Bruce Wayne is not over a century old, so he has only been Batman for about a decade. Similarly, Spider-Man has only been around for a few years in his comic, despite the fact that he was first published in the sixties.

Never get old...

Never get old…

These characters aren’t only literally stuck in a moment – as perpetual “twenty- or thirty-somethings” – either. They are also figuratively stuck. Mainstream comic characters like Spider-Man or Batman resist change. No matter what a writer or artist does to them, they inevitably “reset” back to their most marketable form. As a result, those characters wind up stuck in an arbitrary moment that editorial deemed their “prime.” For Spider-Man, it is before he married Mary Jane, apparently. For Batman, it is a decade into his career.

Eisner seemed keen to avoid this with The Spirit, and so Time Stop seems like a key thematic story, as Eisner literally freezes Central City and its inhabitants to provide a contrast with their perpetual evolution and movement. Unlike other comic book heroes, the Spirit moves in real time. That is why the magazine article in Rife Magazine emphasises that the Spirit has been in the game for a decade – “ever since 1940.”

The unchanging face of evil...

The unchanging face of evil…

The fake magazine article was likely intended to bring new readers up to speed, but there’s something quite mournful about its coverage of “the last of the crimefighters.” It seems to almost acknowledge that the Spirit has become something of an outdated relic. After all, superhero comics went into decline in the fifties, with only iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman enduring. Perhaps Rife Magazine could also be read as a preemptive obituary for one of those crimefighters who is living on borrowed time.

The sense that time passes for the Spirit is covered in Future Death, which provides an ending to the story of the Spirit, thanks to Tempus J. Fugit and his theorem, “The Experiment of Individual Movement in Time!”  Future Death suggests that the Spirit will grow old and Ellen will marry in 1970, and it also reveals that he will eventually die due to gun violence, killed by a time-displaced Fugit. More than that, though, it suggests that the Spirit is not immune to the ravages of time. He gets pudgy, and grey. Although I do adore the fact his kids wear matching outfits.

They blindsided him!

They blindsided him!

Still, even in this relatively sad collection of stories, there is room for Eisner’s humanism and a dash of optimism. The writer’s social conscience survives the trip to 1970 in Future Death. “Crime is at its lowest ebb in twenty years because we removed much of the cause for crime!” the Spirit explains, before articulating a lot of ideas that Eisner has hinted at before in the strip. “Now, there is full employment, fine homes where slums used to be…”

Similarly, in The Meansest Man in the World, the narrative is sympathetic to its cruel lead character, as Eisner recognises that criminals are occasionally a product of the society from which they emerged. Splinter is a bad apple, but he has also been shaped by any number of external factors. “Mebbe y’all can’t blame Splinter too much,” the narrator suggests. “He wuz born into misery and never really left it as long as he lived…”

Ah, sexism!

Ah, sexism!

There’s a hint of “been there, seen that” to a lot of the stories collected here. Showdown with the Octopus, for example, is a rehash of an old adventure with a cheesy framing story. Sure, it leads into The Octopus is Back, but the recap of the older story was not necessary – and certainly didn’t need to eat up an entire week of the strip. Death is my Destiny is just as a familiar – the story of a gun told by the gun. The Case of the Double Jones was more entertaining the first time around.

In To The Spirit With Love, the Octopus acknowledges the fact there’s a lot of recycled stuff in these stories. “Hasn’t anyone got an idea we haven’t tried?” he asks his minions, and it’s easy enough to imagine a similar question being broached during the plotting sessions. However, the fact that Eisner and his staff are willing to admit to recycling old material still doesn’t quite make everything suddenly better.

Face-off!

Face-off!

It isn’t just plots that get recycled, either. A lot of characters return after notable absences. In a way, it seems like they might be returning to see The Spirit off, in much the same way that a final season of a television show will occasionally try to reconnect with its first season to create the illusion of a full circle. Both the Octopus and P’Gell return to the fray, despite the fact that they had been absent for quite some time. Even Ebony returns in the last story of this set, School is Out.

The final section of the book sees the Spirit off travelling the world. It was a great idea back in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 19, but it seems like Eisner falls back on that far too readily. We’ve seen the character travel the world for extended story arcs with quite a bit of frequency. It seems like it is rapidly becoming a narrative crutch. If the story needs a shake-up, then there has to be a better way than to keep taking the spirit somewhere exotic for a little while before returning him home relatively unchanged.

Forces of darkness...

Forces of darkness…

However, the adventure does allow for some of Eisner’s most pointed political commentary in quite some time. It is very hard to read Wanchu as anything other than a thinly-veiled commentary on the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese. Given that there wouldn’t be an active rebellion until 1959, Eisner seems to be relatively on the ball here. The story sees Loo the Morning Lotus lead an attack on “the ancient citadel of the Wachu Monastery.” Once it is taken, Loo notes of the populace, “They would have the Lama back in power…” The use of the word “Lama” is less than subtle.

The Spirit finds papers that “request recognition of Wanchu” – reflecting China’s perpetual refusal to recognise the sovereignty of the region, and its discomfort with any international community that might. Indeed, the invading force here seems preoccupied with the notion of outside interference in what they perceive to be a domestic affair. The appeal for international aide halted, they boast, “Now we can attack Wanchu without interference from the outside world!”

Looking a bit the worse for wear...

Looking a bit the worse for wear…

Of course Wanchu is a fictional story, and so Eisner can afford the fictional state a happy ending. “And so it was,” we’re told, “during this season, that the city of Wanchu was returned into the hands of its rightful owners, its secrets to remain forever behind the wall of the silent white peaks.” It’s quite a fascinating story, and one that remains surprisingly (and sadly) relevant even decades after it was originally written. It is also, perhaps, evidence that even The Spirit in decline could tell clever and insightful stories.

I think it’s fair to argue that – at this point – The Spirit was definitely in a state of decline. That doesn’t mean there aren’t entertaining stories here, it just makes it quite sad to read the collection and know that various wheels were turning behind the scenes.

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