• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 24 (Review/Retrospective)

And so, the end is near. The Spirit Archives, Vol. 24 is a bumper-sized edition, collecting every Spirit weekly strip published in 1952, from January through to October. It’s nice of DC to put out a slightly larger collection to finish out the weekly strip, rather than breaking the final year of the comic into two smaller (possibly more profitable) volumes. This collection devotes its cover to The Outer Space Spirit, but that storyline only emerges towards the end of the book. Given how much attention Wally Wood and Jules Feiffer’s reinvention of the masked crimefighter has generated, it’s interesting that it’s actually a fairly small contribution in terms of page count. Still, reading those adventures now, it’s easy to see why the storyline has attracted such a strong following, even if you practically see the weekly strip dwindling as you approach the final pages.

And we're flying to the moon and back...

And we’re flying to the moon and back…

In a way, this reads almost as a regular archive, with a nice bonus feature at the end. The average length of these collections comes in at around (and a little under) 200 pages. The first 200 pages of The Spirit Archives, Vol. 24 are devoted to a version of The Spirit which looks relatively familiar. There’s the same cartoonish style, the same storytelling devices, the same bright and vibrant colours. To the untrained eye and the uninformed reader, the first two hundred pages of The Spirit included here might read as business as usual. Perhaps the highs aren’t quite as impressive as they had been in earlier volumes, but the quality is still consistent and there are some good short stories to be found.

Behind the scenes, however, a lot was happening. Eisner had – to a large extent – given up on the strip by 1952. He has confessed that one of the reasons that he went on to write and illustrate PS for the army was because he had tired of The Spirit. In those first 200 pages, it is occasionally quite clear that it’s a member of Eisner’s studio that is illustrating – attempting to affectionately emulate the master’s style, much like his staff did during his absence for the Second World War. Much like those ghost artists had started out with a style looking quite similar to Eisner, only to drift a little further off-model over time, there are points in this collection (Patrolman Dolan in particular) where it is clear this isn’t quite Eisner’s work we’re seeing.

Looking a little the worse for wear...

Looking a little the worse for wear…

The writing must have been on the wall for the strip as The Spirit entered 1952. If it wasn’t explicitly discussed, it was weighing pretty heavily on the strip’s subconscious. Much like you can see the gradual build-up to America’s seemingly-inevitable (to Eisner at least) involvement in the Second World War in the strips written through 1940 and 1941, you can see the seeds of uncertainty about the strip’s future reflected on the pages collected here. The 1950s brought a massive post-War boom to the United States, but you wouldn’t know it by reading these stories. Fabian Skimp is the story of a downsizing at the Central City Express, a fictional newspaper. The audience is advised, “Gentlemen, with the increase in production and newsprint, we must find some way to cut down!”

Five Hundred Papers, is a story of a sad and failed cartoonist, watching his student surpass him. One wonders if Eisner empathised as the character moaned about his dwindling influence. “You had no right to call me a has-been! I’m still carried by forty papers…” Five Hundred papers suggests that the decline should have been obvious – even flashing back, it’s clear that the character’s comic has been in decline for some time. “I used t’ have five hundred papers, kid… I’m down to two-hundred and fifty now! Things ain’t lookin’ good!” It makes the decline and collapse of the Spirit seem almost inevitable.

The big goodbye...

The big goodbye…

Ironically, given the nature of the last-ditch effort to save The Spirit, the cartoonist is even given the advice, “Try this inter-planetary stuff that’s big now.” Knowing with the splash page from The Outer Space Spirit adorning the cover of this collection, The First Man on Mars seems especially cruel in hindsight. An obvious jab at the popular science-fiction pulp heroes that were replacing the noir heroes of the thirties and forties, the Spirit is mocked as “outdated!” and “passé!” in favour of “Captain Isotope”, who is ultimately revealed as a fairly inept dope hoodwinked by crooks who aren’t too bright themselves. All those jabs add a sense of historical irony, as The Spirit finds itself mocking a genre it would desperately try to emulate in order to stay afloat.

There are other hints of insecurity or uncertainty about the strip’s future seeded throughout these issues. Rube Potter opens with a narrator precoccupied by the threat of television, an emerging medium at the time. “Television, pooey!” he remarks on the opening page. A Witness to Murder centres around a family buying a television, and the horror that results. Rube Potter hints a generational gap, as the narrator laments that this bunch of kids have never heard of the eponymous sportsman. One wonders if the writers were concerned about the Spirit’s name recognition among the same age group. “Never heard of ol’ Rube, eh?” the narrator asks the kids. “Never heard o’ the scrappinest, talkinest shortstop in two leagues, eh? I don’t know what kids today is comin’ to!”

They must have had an inkling of what was coming...

They must have had an inkling of what was coming…

Rube Potter is the story of an ageing, declining sportsman whose best years are behind him – just one of several tragic older characters seeded throughout the volume. Including, as we approach The Outer Space Spirit, the title character himself. Rube Potter is filled with delusions of grandeur and importance… and denial. The narrator tells is, “Know what happens to a athlete what gets old. He lies to hisself, is what happens…” Much like in Five Hundred Papers, the veteran wonders about the age and qualification of his replacement – watching a young generation replace him. Rube protests, on seeing his substitute, “That kid couldn’t carry my glove two years ago!” I wonder if those veterans working on The Spirit might have felt the same way about some of the emerging writers and artists on more popular pulpy books?

That said, the first bunch of stories here, despite coming a little after the height of the strip’s success and popularity, retain quite a few appealing Eisner-esque touches. The first story here, Fabian Skimp, is one of those lovely character-centric stories that the strip does so well. Similarly, the story of Hubert in The Rainmaker could easily have been produced a few years earlier, when the comic was well in its prime. In fact, it was; its inclusion here serves as a reprint of a similar April-Fools-themed storyWater from two year earlier.

Changes needed, post haste!

Changes needed, post haste!

The Big Job is a nice effective noir story, the kind that you assume was going out of fashion at the time. It has a nice hook at the end, one that feels just effective enough to sustain a seven-page story. A Different Face has a familiar enough (and easy to spot) twist, but it’s one of those delightfully Twilight Zone-style stories that the strip would occasionally do so well. Even when it comes to comedy, there’s some good stuff here. L’Espirit is essentially a single gag spread over seven page, but it’s a good one – and one that is still funny today. In fact, in a world that is probably more willing to embrace foreign cinema, it’s probably funnier now than it was when it was originally published.

Leap Year even manages to turn some of the strips conventions on its head – perhaps a sign that the comic was well and truly the grand old man of newspaper strips. When Tiny Buttrix falls in love with “a great man!” and “a crime fighter! mature, a worldly…”, we forgive Denny Colt for assuming that she’s talking about him. After all, attracting beautiful women seems to be the closest thing the Spirit has to a super-power. However, in a nice reversal, she’s actually attracted to Commissioner Dolan.

Bang for your buck...

Bang for your buck…

Still, that doesn’t mean that all the collection’s humour is spot-on. Despite the changing social mores of the time, there’s still room for some good old-fashioned sexism. In Mayor Dolan, another reprint from a strip running out of steam, the Spirit repeatedly attempts to sabotage Ellen Dolan’s campaign for mayor… because he doesn’t want a woman in the job. After a series of increasingly petty attempts to undermine his girlfriend’s attempt to find a career for herself, he whines, “Women in politics… bah!”

There’s even room for some of the strip’s patented meta-awareness, and fourth-wall breaking, a feature of some of the best strips in the feature’s twelve-year history. Design for Doomsday revolves around Eisner and Wally Wood plotting a Spirit story. “How d’ya like that for a lead-in, Will?” Wally asks after setting up catastrophic stakes. After the story climaxes with Wood destroying the planet, Will asks, “What about next week?” In A Witness to Murder, television records a murder, in a nice device that blurs the line between the art and person observing it – are you watching the television or is it watching you?

A silly Wally...

A silly Wally…

(This fourth-wall breaking continued, appropriately enough, into The Outer Space Spirit. In Return from the Moon, the criminal Buggsy finds himself facing an existential dilemma as a fictional character – does he exist when you close your eyes or stop thinking about him? “Oh, you wanna know if you’re part of my imagination?” he asks us. After considering his options for a minute, he concedes, “You mean I exist in your imagination! H-hold it… wait! Don’t close your eyes!! If it’s true that’ll kill me!!! Wait — Wait! Don’t close your eyes!” Given the strip was on the verge of cancellation, the implications for The Spirit are quite depressing. Did the creators fear the work might disappear the moment that people stopped reading it?)

Indeed, the last of the stories before The Outer Space Spirit sees Eisner return as a character. In Marry the Spirit, the creator imagines the various possible marriages between Denny Colt and his various leading ladies, dealing with the pressure of editorial interference. The strip feels a little bit hilarious in hindsight, given the comic book industry’s recent fixation with devolving married characters into single adventurers. “Everybody is getting married in comics!” Eisner is told. “We can’t have the only bachelor comic character in the country!” Given that DC recently used their reboot to wipe out the long-term marriages of both Superman and the Flash, it seems quite ironic.

It all blows up in his face...

It all blows up in his face…

There’s another story that feels a little funnier in light of comic book history. In What Are You Really Like?, the strip takes several digs at the personal psychological tests that were popular at the time. However, it feels quite amusing that an adventure is centred around pseudo-psychology, given the damage that pop psychology would do to comics as a medium with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent. However, even more than that, the adventure seems a few decades ahead of the curve.

Accessing her lover’s personality, Ellen’s muses, “You are brutal, inclined to violence in order to relieve your hate for others. You will soon murder unless you under-go immediate aid…” While it’s certainly not true of the Spirit as a character, it does seem like a particularly cynical take on a comic book superhero, awash in psychobabble. Frank Miller is an avowed fan of the strip, directing the misbegotten live action adaptation and providing an introduction to an earlier volume in the series. The Dark Knight Returns could be said to be a serious application of that psychological analysis to a pulp icon.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

It’s interesting that Marry the Spirit serves as the last “classic” story in the series, before the strip got a bit more experimental. The daily strips had also ended with a storyline concerning the Spirit getting married. Given that track record, it’s little wonder that Will Eisner forbade the Kitchen Sink writers from marrying off the character during the nineties revival.

There are hints of change found in these early stories – a sense that the series did need a bit of a shake-up. Assassins Incorporated seems like a concious attempt to relive past glories – a multi-part globe-trotting adventure. The strip had already done a number of these in the past, seemingly whenever Eisner felt like the comic might benefit from a change of scenery. Here, however, it seems a bit more desperate. The two-parter is specifically labelled as such, as opposed a series of stories taking advantage of temporarily up-ended status quo.

Did somebody order some beef?

Did somebody order some beef?

In Sammy Falls in Love, the strip acknowledges that is getting on a bit. After the Spirit tries to offer the kid some romantic advice, Sammy rebukes him, “You wouldn’t understand! You’re an old man!” The Spirit is incensed by the suggestion, but still notes, examining his reflection, “A gray hair!” This is in sharp contrast to the later portrayals by Eisner that would suggest the character was functionally immortal, and forever young. (While Ellen and Dolan both aged in something approaching real time.) Perhaps the strip wasn’t sure that its lead had fully transcended mortality, and were uncertain as to his status as an iconic and almost mythological figure. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Interestingly, the Spirit’s mortality would be one of the more interesting threads of The Outer Space Spirit. After all, a comic book character doesn’t have to fear death. They fear cancellation, consignment to limbo – floating in some eternal black empty void, forgotten about and ignored. Despite it’s science-fiction premise, I think that The Outer Space Spirit probably features the most sophisticated character work of the entire twelve-year strip. At least for the leading character. But I’ll talk about that in a moment.

He packed his bags last night, pre-flight...

He packed his bags last night, pre-flight…

It might have been a last-ditch effort to save the title and the character, but The Outer Space Spirit is actually pretty thoroughly seeded throughout the volume – despite the reluctance implied by stories like The First Man on Mars. The Great Galactic Mystery, for example, sees Humbolt Weepy explicitly identify the public’s fixation on the notion of a lunar landing, and its importance in the greater scheme of things. “It is time that I did something to benefit civilisation!” he declares. “I want to send a man to the moon!” Whether intentionally or not, it also foreshadows the notion of alien life, something the series would flirt with during its very last weekly instalment, Denny Colt: U.F.O. Investigator.

Starting with Rube Potter, however, the hints more overt, with the final page devoted to Central City’s seemingly independent space programme. In a delightfully playful note, the page teases, “This item is brought to you as a public service. It has absolutely no bearing on The Spirit. … We repeat, this item has absolutely no bearing on The Spirit.” Hints would continue to be dropped through the following weeks. Ironically, this lead-up to The Outer Space Spirit could be read as one of very few long-form stories in the weekly edition of The Spirit, where most stories were stand-alone seven-page affairs.

Don't look at me!

Don’t look at me!

It seems appropriate, given that The Outer Space Spirit is really the first long-term arc on the title. While the individual strips are relatively self-contained, the whole section reads as one single story broken down into chapters, following the expedition from lunar landing to safe return home. Various characters and plot points are set up and teased, and played out in a way that really works best as one relatively long story, rather than a bunch of individual narratives. The change in the form of the story is just as noticeable as the sudden shift in setting and art style, and also the tone.

The art from The Outer Space Spirit represents a significant shift from the strip’s iconic appearance. Even when Eisner was unable to work on the strip, his artists would typically emulate his style. However, The Outer Space Spirit is very much the work of Wally Wood in his own style, something that makes the world and its characters seem more realistic than Eisner’s cartoons, fitting the themes and the tone of the story.

It is very cold in space...

It is very cold in space…

Befitting Wood’s unique style, Eisner even explicitly acknowledges the changing of the guard, rather than leaving the artistic change unremarked-upon, as with earlier ghost pencillers. The Outer Space Spirit has an introduction from Eisner himself that proudly shares credit with the arc’s creative team. “I want to personally thank Jules Feiffer and Wally Wood for their joining with me to expand this feature into new and uncharted areas.” It’s nice to see the work of the non-Eisner Spirit creators so proudly and transparently acknowledged in the strip itself.

The rather wonderful Colin Smith has made the argument that The Outer Space Spirit was a decade ahead of its time, somewhat foreshadowing the formula that Stan Lee and his artists would use to push Marvel Comics to the forefront of the market during the sixties:

There’s a very real, if easily qualified and challenged, sense in which “Outer Space” marks the first appearance of the particular type of superhero which was at the heart of the Marvel revolution of the early Sixties. And the Denny Colt of “Outer Space” is something of a superhero rather than just a straight-forward and two-fisted crime-fighter; he has his mask, and the respect of all those around him for his clearly untypical abilities, and he’s the lead in a science-fiction tale of space-travel too. But most importantly, he’s the very model of the hero with a flaw and a self-conscious understanding of it that Stan Lee and his collaborators ran with in 1961 and 1962 and beyond, with the creation of Peter Parker and Ben Grimm and all of their wounded brethren. Colt’s fatal flaw is his age and the physical and mental limitations he feels and fears his years fighting the forces of disorder have brought him. And the various reflections upon that Achilles Heel given to him by Mr Feiffer, in both dialogue and thought balloon, sit recognisably in a tradition that would later inform Stan Lee’s most successful work; the self-reflective and recognisably mortal hero. Add to that the presence of the soap opera complications of the Spirit’s relationship with the distraught Ellen and the deeply concerned Commissioner Dolan, and what’s here is the distant but distinct ancestor of the characters and conflicts that the House Of Ideas was built upon.

It’s an interesting argument, and one that I largely agree with. It is interesting (and appropriate) that the Spirit’s problems are rooted in his own advancing age, while those of perhaps Stan Lee’s most high-profile creation, The Amazing Spider-Man, are rooted in his relative youth and inexperience. It’s a perfect reflection on the changing of the guard.

The Spirit of adventure...

The Spirit of adventure…

As the Spirit ventures to the Moon, he doesn’t embrace this strange foreign environment with the same enthusiasm we’d expect from the strip. Instead, he seems practically meloncholy – and not just because he has been taken out of his element. “Now circling the moon at ten miles… circling to land… should be excited… why aren’t you excited? Why do you feel so tired, as if your insides were dead? Why…” It sets a tone for the adventure which seems relatively sombre given the light-hearted enthusiasm of many earlier stories.

Indeed, the Spirit is initially hesitant to venture out into that brave new world, perhaps suggesting that he’s an old man playing a young man’s game. He seems uncertain whether he can transcend the boundaries of genre, whether he can embrace the look of fifties pulp fiction after over a decade rooted in popular consciousness of the forties. Asked to accompany the mission, he confesses, “I… I’m a cop… I don’t have any experience in this business. You know that?” However, it seems that his age is what ultimately convinced him to take the risky assignment.

The final frontier...

The final frontier…

“A man gets tired after a while, Professor… He thinks about settling down, getting married, raising a family…” The Spirit has none of that – by virtue of being a weekly comic book character, he can never settle down, get married or raise a family. It retroactively suggest that – benath the smiles and jokes – the past twelve years of the character’s life have been somewhat more nuanced and almost tragic than we would have ever expected. Twelve years of playing a dynamic and dashing hero must be exhausting, and The Outer Space Spirit seems to see that exhaustion catching up on the characer – somewhat appropriate given how close the strip was coming to the end.

Strangely, given it sends the character into the realm of science-fiction, The Outer Space Spirit feels like a character-driven work for the character. While Eisner did great work with the guest characters in The Spirit, Denny Colt was rarely a character in his own right. He was a window into the world, a plot device to tell a certain story or an actor to drive it. It feels strange that sending him into space should render him so very human.

Giant steps are what you take...

Giant steps are what you take…

More than that, though, there’s the suggestion of character growth. Working with the convicts, it seems that the Spirit develops a certain empathy with the criminals on the mission. After showing the Spirit a comic, the criminal Spider is amazed to learn how human the Spirit actually is, “Say, Dutch, the great man laughed! It’s human! Maybe we c’n get along with this joker after all!” Similarly, the Spirit seems initially reluctant to accept the comic (a rather unenthusiastic, “sure, Spider! why not?”), but his response to another is much warmer (“thanks Spider, thanks!”).

The narration tells us that “these are not criminals… these are frightened men…” and the Spirit seems to coming to that realisation. The character has been able to sympathise with villains before – especially those seeking to redeem themselves. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the Spirit really accept the humanity of criminals who aren’t necessarily making an effort to better themselves. Spider isn’t going to the moon for the betterment of mankind or to atone. He’s going because he doesn’t want to be on Earth. The Spirit treats these character with more compassion and honesty than he has used with criminals before. There’s no patronising banter or jokes at their expense.

A little spaced out...

A little spaced out…

That’s not to suggest that it’s all sombre. After all, the story does feature one chapter (A DP on the Moon) about Spanish dictator who made it all the way to the moon – reportedly it was originally written to feature Hitler, but the world wasn’t ready for Iron Sky yet. Of course, the changes don’t really hide the story’s origins especially well – the fictional dictator is still referred to as “my leader” and the uniforms still evoke the Nazis. It’s a suitably pulpy premise, and it’s handled charmingly enough.

However, as The Outer Space Spirit comes towards its end, you can feel the strip weakening just a bit, as its last legs begin to wobble. The Last Man runs a meagre four pages in length, as does The Man in the Moon. There’s a sizeable continuity mismatch in the publication of the strips with The Spirit Back on Earth actually published a week before Return from the Moon. The continuity hiccup was so great that the archive edition – otherwise remarkably faithful to Eisner’s material – shifted the order around. In those last few weeks, it’s quite clear that all is not healthy with The Spirit.

Time for a long nap...

Time for a long nap…

In The Spirit Back on Earth, the Spirit muses the possibility of alien life, and on the changing world that he inhabits. There is only the faintest hint of optimism as he muses, “This is the dawn of a new era…” The strip can’t even seem to share his enthusiasm. In the next panel, his observation is made to seem deeply ironic – far from embracing this strange new era, the Spirit has collapsed completely. He’s asleep, while Ellen looks on worried. The final panel is mostly dark – it doesn’t feel like a new beginning. It seems likely that the writers and artists on The Spirit knew that this was the end. Denny Colt, UFO Investigator ends on a cliffhanger, confirming rather brutally that the Spirit isn’t a part of that new era.

Ah well. It was a good run, and – barring that final four page strip with an unresovled cliffhanger – it ended well. Who could ask for more?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: