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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 23 (Review/Retrospective)

You know that The Spirit is in a state of declining health when even the back cover concedes that, “by the second half of 1951, The Spirit was winding down.” Still, having read the collection from cover-to-cover, I find it quite difficult to disagree. The Spirit Archives, Vol. 23 provides an interesting study of a comic strip coming to terms with its own mortality, but there’s also a sad sense that the magic is slowly evaporating from Will Eisner’s iconic creation. We are no longer watching a beloved comic strip missing a few steps. Instead, we’re watching a slow and painful deterioration.

I gather, from the look on his face, he has read the strips...

I gather, from the look on his face, he has read the strips…

Perhaps tellingly, the introductions to these collections have skirted the issue a bit. I can’t really blame them, after all. Who wants to read several pages on introduction telling you that you’re about to read a fairly mediocre collection of comic stories? I can’t imagine that exciting too many people. Still, John Benson hinted at the difficulties in the stories collected here in his introduction to The Spirit Archives, Vol. 21:

One can find proof positive that the realization of story by the artist is the key element in comics by comparing the stories in this volume with those done after August 1951, which were not drawn by Eisner. Although some of Feiffer’s scripts for the later period are – as scripts – very good, without the benefit of Eisner’s pictorial conceptualisation, the end result is distinctively minor.

It’s a very diplomatic way of phrasing a legitimate observation, and it’s also one that doesn’t insult the stories collected in the volume he is introducing. However, it’s surprising precisely how accurate Benson’s introduction is. The sudden decline in quality is striking between the last story in July (Veta Barra) and first strip in August (The Return of the Narcissus).

The Spirit was weakening...

The Spirit was weakening…

In this hardcover itself, Dale Crain’s introduction only fleetingly touches on the strips contained herein. He instead offers a deserved overview of the Spirit Archives project as a whole. It’s a very nice piece, and it is very worth including. Indeed, Crain’s introduction includes a touching story about how Alan Moore put aside his infamous differences with DC, in order to allow his piece on Eisner to be reprinted as the introduction to the first volume.

I can’t help but feel like it might have been more worthwhile to have a second introduction as well, to cover the stories collected herein. That said, it isn’t as if the introductions to previous volumes necessarily focused on the strips included in the hardcover. Still, this collection finds The Spirit at a bit of a crossroads, and it would definitely be nice to have some more focus on this stage of The Spirit‘s life cycle.

He certainly picked a pocket...

He certainly picked a pocket…

Crain does touch on the difficulties evidenced in this collection, albeit only briefly. The sum total of his commentary on this half-a-year of strips amounts to:

In the period collected in this penultimate volume of the Sunday Spirit Sections, Eisner was taking more and more freelance work for his American Visuals company, which was creating educational comics for major corporations and the government. Circulation had begun to slip on The Spirit, and his other jobs were proving to be much more rewarding. By mid-1951 Jules Feiffer had taken over virtually all of the writing of the strip, and one needn’t flip past more than a handful of pages here to realise that Eisner’s hand is sorely missing from the artwork. There was simply no financial incentive for Eisner to hire the ‘best and brightest’ to continue his creation, and it was undeniable that The Spirit’s days were numbered.

It’s efficient, but I can’t help but feel that there must be more to say and to discuss of the period.

Talk about broken window policing...

Talk about broken window policing…

It’s hard to really quantify the absence of Will Eisner and what that means to The Spirit. I understand that Eisner was absent for a prolonged period of time before – during his service in the Second World War – but the circumstances were very different. There is a reason that the post war strips are considered among the very finest work that Eisner has ever done, and for him to go missing after those definitive and iconic Spirit strips creates a tangible vacuum.

You can feel that absence in stories like The Decline and Fall of the Roamin’ Umpire and I Hate the Spirit Because…, both of which seem like they’d be perfectly amusing throw-away stories if they came from Eisner’s pencil. Instead, they feel mundane and boring and generic. It’s hard to measure Eisner’s va va voom by any rational standard, but you can definitely see it in the quality of the more average stories here, the ones that are lacking a sparkle or sense of energy that Eisner could convey so easily.

The gloves are off...

The gloves are off…

There’s a clear sense of insecurity and uncertainty to be found in these stories. Indeed, in Veta Barra, the Spirit comforts Dolan with a very philosophical reflection, “You just got a little confused, Dolan! In these days, who isn’t confused?” Times are uncertain, and you can almost sense how uneasy the creative team working on The Spirit must be. The image of a fading or declining individual or society recurs throughout these stories, perhaps reflecting the concerns of those working behind the scenes. In Balloons, the Professor Hormone mutters, “I’m a relic, am I? A has-been, eh?” He could easily be speaking for the strip itself.

We are introduced to Weepsdale in The Town That Committed Suicide. It is portrayed as a once-thriving community that is now nothing but a ghost town that has seen success move on to other towns and cities. “Weepsdale is just outside Central City! the narrator tells us. “A lot of people called it a suburb, but it wasn’t! We had our own mayor an’ everything!! Above all we had town pride!” It’s not too hard to imagine a similar sentiment in the offices of The Spirit, as the creators now watch other comic strips and media take focus and attention.

Dolan always was top gun around here...

Dolan always was top gun around here…

The title of The Spirit Gets Older practically speaks for itself. The strip only recently confronted its hero’s inevitable mortality in Future Death, and here the Spirit finds that his clock is ticking. Pretending to soldier on in front of Dolan, he muses, “Well, I can still put on the old act of gay abandon! The Spirit must be getting old! If Dolan only knew I can hardly walk right now!” In a rare moment of introspection, the character considers taking a dignified retirement, musing, “Maybe I should bow out of the picture while I’m still alive!” I can imagine Eisner contemplating whether to cancel the strip himself, or to fight on.

The notion of the Spirit’s advancing age is not easily dismissed like so many of the weekly adventures that are easily forgotten once things get going again. The Spirit’s mortality is raised once again in Joshua Blows His Horn, with a doctor examining the wounded hero. “A few years ago you could have shrugged it off,” the doctor assures his patient, “but a man your age doesn’t bounce back that easily!” When did the Spirit get old? After all, if he can old, doesn’t that mean he can die?

Flagging my concerns...

Flagging my concerns…

Another legendary figure provides a much-needed note of optimism in The Man Who Fixed Christmas. Despite the best efforts of a crook conspiring to end Christmas, Santa protests, “As long as people have belief in Santa Claus, there will always be a Santa Claus!”
It’s an endearing sentiment, and one that is perhaps true of The Spirt as well. As long as people believe in the character, he can’t truly die. Given the generally fatalistic tone of this collection, I’ll take all the good news I can get.

The Counterfeit Killer also offers the faintest bit of hope, as well – or, at the very least, tries to look on the bright side of things. The strange resurrection of Denny Colt prompts the Spirit to reflect on his own life. Discussing the situation with Dolan, the Spirit comments, “He’s much happier where he’s been these past eleven years anyway!” It’s a nice way of acknowledging what a fun run the character has had, in a short of “come what may” kind of way.

Quite a catch...

Quite a catch…

Still, things aren’t necessarily looking so good elsewhere. As with the last couple of volumes, there’s the sense that the team are repeating old stories. Sometimes it is literally offering a rehash of a previous adventure (in Bucket of Blood, for example), while sometimes it is the reuse of too many tried and tested elements. For example, when the Spirit finds himself stranded on an island with a femme fatale in The Loot of Robinson Crusoe, I couldn’t help but think that we only saw this adventure a couple of years ago.

The Foxtrot Poll resurrects one of the recurring insecurities of The Spirit – television. Earlier stories displayed an obvious fear of the relatively new medium, and the opening to The Foxtrot Poll acknowledges the rise of colour television. However, it also vows, “We are not going to take this new competition lying down — no sir — this week we will present a colour television treatment of the Spirit.” What follows is a delightfully bitter parody of television. There’s the rigidly structured panel indicating a lack of creativity with form, and an abundance of corporate sponsorship cheap shots – with Dolan forced to name his tobacco brand by reading off “Prompting Board #1.”

Do not adjust your set!

Do not adjust your set!

Far more thoughtful, however, is the short story Heat, which seems to build off the earlier Sound. Like Sound, it explores the limitations of the medium, as comic books are (obviously) incapable of producing sound – save in the mind of the reader. As such, the image of Spirit lying in an alleyway and unable to call for help above the ambient noise, is a poignant one. As if to underscore the limitations of the medium, Heat is immediately followed by Quiet, which implores the reader, “Please read this story with the utmost silence. Kindly refrain from coughing, sneezing or clearing of throats… There’s a sick man inside…”

However, the best story of the collection is Psychoanalyzing the Spirit, which deals with the obsession we have with psychologically profiling pulp heroes and deconstructing these adventure stories, to the point where they no long work. Seduction of the Innocent was only a few years away at this point, but it’s hard not to imagine that the strip was aimed at those armchair psychologists. “A typical comic strip uff today,” Professor Sigmund Schyzoid boasts. “By reading vun story ve should be able to gain a psychological concept uff the motivations uff the author and subsequently his characters!” It might seem a bit heavy-handed but, given the absurd claims that Wertham would make, it feels strangely appropriate.

Pearls of wisdom...

Pearls of wisdom…

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 23 represents the point at which the end of the strip must have seemed absolutely inevitable. There were only ten months of life left in the character after the last story collected here and even a last-minute change in direction was not enough to salvage The Spirit. Sadly, I can see why the cancellation occurred, and I think at least some of that is due to decisions made by Eisner.

thespirit23h

I wonder if he brought a silencer…

The market was in decline at the time, but the lack of quality on a strip that had once been the measure of weekly comic strips must have made things worse. Similarly, the decision to recycle old story ideas seems misguided and a sure way to alienate your readers. I realise that it’s a catch-22 situation, a vicious cycle where one negate outcome leads to another negative outcome and the situation gets progressively worse.

I’d argue that the past couple of years had seen a slow (but steady) decrease in the quality of the strip, but I think that the six month period collected here saw the decline become a lot steeper, and a lot more noticeable. It makes that picture on the cover of The Spirit Archives, Vol. 23 seem all the more ironic.

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