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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 25 (Review/Retrospective)

DC have done a tremendous job with their Spirit Archives collection. Twenty-four volumes collecting the twelve years of the Sunday strip is quite an accomplishment, and they’d be forgiven for stopping there. No other character in DC’s back catalogue has such a consistent collection of their early years. (Batman and Superman might have similar volumes of material collected, but somewhat haphazardly.) It’s to the company’s credit that they decided to close out their collections of Eisner’s work on the character with what might be considered two appendices. The next collection will include most of Eisner’s post-1952 work on the character, but this hardcover collects each and every daily Spirit strip published between 1941 and 1942. While it might not be the most essential collection every published (whether in terms of the character or in the history of daily newspaper strips), but it’s still nice to see it collected with the rest of Eisner’s work.

The Spirit is generally dismissed as a bit of a footnote in the history of the character and in terms of daily comic strips. After all, it only ran for three years. Gasoline Alley was first published as a daily strip in 1918, and still runs today. (The protagonist ages in real time, and is now over 100 years old.) Blondie is even over. The Spirit ran daily for a period of three years, significantly shorter than the twelve-year lifespan of the weekly feature that it spun out from. The relative lack of interest in the strip can also be traced back to the fact that it comes from a fairly troubled time in the character’s history. Eisner began publishing the strip in 1941, but would joint he army in 1942.

During Eisner’s absence, like the weekly newspaper supplement, the comic was left in the hands of his staff – comic legends like Lou Fine and Jack Cole. Both are respected as fantastic creators, but neither had a grip on the character that matched Eisner – to the point where quite a few people would recommend skipping the early years of The Spirit entirely and jumping in when Eisner returned in (very) late 1945. Eisner’s colleagues did a good job keeping the title afloat, but they didn’t have the same enthusiasm or vitality that Eisner had. So, given the daily strip was still relatively young when Eisner left, it’s fair to suggest that it was stumbling relatively early. Eisner plotted and illustrated the first six weeks, but the daily strip didn’t really have the same firm groundwork that anchored the weekly strip in his absence.

There are other factors that make the daily comic a bit of an awkward fit, suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t the best medium for Eisner to work. Personally, I think Eisner works best with colour, the cartoonish qualities of The Spirit emphasised by the vibrant primary colours – creating an almost surreal “cartoon noir” aesthetic. However, even beyond the black-and-white nature of the strips, there are other concerns. The rather narrow space allotted to each instalment allows Eisner and his artists very limited room for the visual experimentation that a lot of readers associate with The Spirit.

These newspaper strips leave the artist with very little room to breathe. As a result, the strip feels somewhat hemmed in. Given the fact that a lot of the energy of The Spirit derived from Eisner toying with form and layout, working in such a rigidly-defined and relatively small space generates its fair share of problems. There’s obviously no room for logo gags, and little room to breathe – Eisner and his crew must provide at least one laugh, one plot point, one cliffhanger within the space provided. There’s very little room for error, and the strip sorely misses the sense of space that defined the weekly strip.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule – moments where Eisner and his talented staff manage to do something visually interesting with the space afforded them. For example, the strip of 3rd January 1942 is but a single enlongated panel, stretched for atmosphere. Peek-Ah-Boo! features an impressively cartoonish map of Central City’s docklands as the first panel. Death’s Holiday is one long panel, with the outline telephone pole serving to bisect the page. The strip of 19th September 1942 is a string of reporters in telephone booths, rather than a sequential collection of comic panels. Still, these are the exception rather than the rule.

Another, albeit less obvious difficulty confronting the strip concerns the title character. It has been argued that many of the best Spirit stories only fleetingly feature the title character, instead allowing Eisner to tell his own short stories free to philosophise about the nature of life and the universe at large. However, those stories simply aren’t an option here. By the nature of the stories – told in small, easily digestible chunks – the focus is very much on Spirit and his supporting cast. The furthest the strip will venture outside the title character is to allow Ebony to carry the strip for a few days on his own subplot. Which, given the portrayal of Ebony at the time, is not necessarily the best idea.

On the other hand, the change in format also brings potential benefits. For one thing, it allows for longer form stories featuring the character, with somewhat tighter continuity between them. While Eisner’s weekly strip would occasionally acknowledge a shared history between characters, each episode was relatively stand-alone and accessible. The daily strip features several storylines, but they generally segue into one another relatively easily. While each story is quite distinct, you can discern a clear bridging section. It would be a bit of an exaggeration to describe it as “seamless”, but it does give the stories a relatively fluid feeling.

For example, the reward offered by the Squire on his deathbed for the Spirit’s identity leads into the Sphinx story. Then the Sphinx story feeds into Destiny Blake’s arrival. The Silver Heart mentioned fleetingly in the Destiny Blake arc, becomes a major plot point in the “Supuh-Ebony” story. Sometimes the connections aren’t even that sequential. The Spirit’s swearing off crime for Cinderella Sinn comes back into play with Mr. Porcine quite a while later, with no other major connection between the two stories. At the same time, the continuity is not so dense as to be exclusive, and some stories do have very clear beginnings and endings (most notable when the strip suddenly “drops” a plot like “Supuh-Ebony”), but it’s interesting to see this sort of interconnectivity in a title that has traditionally had narratives restricted to seven pages.

There are other nice touches associated like this. It’s never really remarked upon within the strip, but it seems to unfold in something quite approaching real time – despite the events flowing fairly logically from one sequence to the next. So, for example, when we’re told that the Spirit’s arm should heal in about a week, the cast disappears seven days later. When the Spirit promises not fight crime until the 31st August, you can count down the days. When Dr. Future predicts his death within a month, you can be sure that it’ll happened before the first strip dated for the following month.

Outside of the format, the stories themselves are just okay. There’s nothing here anywhere near as good as the best of Eisner’s work on The Spirit – whether before or after the Second World War. That’s not to say that they are bad, by any means. They’re generally quite entertaining and decent enough. That said, there are some questionable stories here and there to be sure – and story involving Ebony is still awkward to read, and the Spirit takes a surreal jaunt to Berlin towards the end of the collection. Following the death of Elsa, a girl he just met, the Spirit returns home lamenting, “Will anything ever seem worthwhile again?” Literally within the panel, seeing the Statue of Liberty, he gets over it. “I guess that’s plenty worthwhile…”

The stories, as you might imagine, are all remarkably pulpy. Some of the better ones feature an attempt to frame Dolan, the super-criminal the Sphinx’s attempts to unmask the Spirit and the mysterious predictions of Dr. Future – all of which benefit from the extra room and space afforded to them. Naturally, given the time period in question, the Second World War casts an impressive shadow over the stories. The Spirit takes an ill-advised trip to Berlin, crossing paths with Himmler and Hitler, but there’s also sinister spy-rings operating in Central City and the European agent Destiny Blake, with a typically pulpy tie to Adolf Hitler himself. In a sequence recounting her personal history, she muses, “And if I hadn’t been born, Hitler might not be alive today!!”

The daily strip is packed with similar moments. It seems like there can’t be enough shady secret societies operating around Central City. When Destiny is revealed as an assassin from Europe, she explains her murders were justified. “They were all members of the ‘Devil’s Ring’ — a secret fascist organization!” Later, we discover that there’s apparently “the Carnivor Secret Society” operating in secret as well, in one of the more ill-judged and dated stories – in which Ebony deals with King of the Nockney Islands (“until 1923 known as the Cannibal Isles”, because that stereotype just won’t die). Luckily, that plot is dropped rather suddenly and abruptly.

(Speaking of Destiny, there’s an interesting bit of real-life foreshadowing at the end of her story. Blake has been killing Axis sympathisers in Central City, but most of her victims committed suicide rather than facing her. This becomes interesting when she sets her sights on Adolf Hitler. As she departs, the Spirit notes, “One day in the months or years to come — if we read that Adolf Hitler has been killed or disappeared, we’ll look up and say, Destiny has accomplished her task!” The story was written years before Adolf Hitler would take his own life, but it’s an interesting overlap.)

Even when the war is int he background, the strip is still heavily influenced by it – playing into the same sense of patriotism we’d see in the weekly strips published around the same time. When given $100 by a stranger in an unrelated plot, Ebony tries to use the money to buy war bonds. This does nothing more than establish that the money is counterfeit. Later on, after his failed attempt to become an actor, the Spirit updates his monogrammed “P.E.W.” trunk to “B.E.W.” – “Buy Every Warbond.”

It’s strange, reading all these stories close together, but Dolan doesn’t really come out of them especially well. Despite the fact that the strip opens with the Spirit campaigning to prove Dolan’s innocence, the Commissioner is quick enough to turn on the Spirit when he’s accused of a crime – which would be fine if he were consistent about it, or if it were the first time that it happened. After the Spirit is accused of murder, he advises his daughter, “Don’t cry for him, Ellen! The Spirit met the fate he deserved!” He even gives his men the order to “shoot first and ask questions afterward!” Again, this would be less noticeable if the Spirit hadn’t been repeatedly set up in these stories.

It’s interesting that the collection ends with a story featuring the proposed marriage of the Spirit to Ellen Dolan. The last story in the weekly feature before the closing Outer Space Spirit arc would be Marry the Spirit, in which Eisner received editorial direction to marry the character off. Given that both formats were on the cusp of ending when marriage came into them, it’s no surprise that Eisner explicitly banned marriage from the 1998 Kitchen Sink series.

The collection ends on a cliffhanger, which actually creates a pretty depressing ending. After the Spirit gets cold feet before his wedding, Dolan finds that he has abandoned his lair in Wildwood Cemetary. “He’d been there, all right… but just long enough to pack a suitcase and leave a farewell note to Ebony!” I suspect this was intended to lead into another plot that would circle back to the status quo, but it instead suggests that Denny Colt just abandoned his city and friends – never to return. It’s certainly a pretty dark ending to an otherwise relatively light-hearted series.

DC have done a great job collecting these strips. There are some minor wrinkles, but they are easy enough to understand. The quality of the reproduction seems to vary from page-to-page, with some features looking crisp and clean while others like frayed and faded. That can’t really be helped, and it’s great that they are all included here – and that a conscious effort was made to collect all of the daily strips. Similarly, the strips are collected four-to-a-page, which occasionally makes them feel rather small and cramped. However, I can’t imagine any other way of reproducing them that wouldn’t take up a much larger amount of space.

That said, I do have some minor complaints. While the prelude introductory strip is included here, providing an origin and back story for the character, it’s a shame that there wasn’t space to include any of the other publicity material designed to raise awareness of (and interest in) the strip. None of these Spirit Archives have been too heavy on the bonus material, but this material seems to be out there – so it’s a shame not to include it. Still, that’s a relatively small issue with an otherwise high-quality release.

The Spirit daily strip might not be more than a footnote in the history of the character or of newspaper strips, but it’s mostly a fun and enjoyable read. It’s not anywhere near as consistently entertaining as the best of Eisner’s work, and it’s more pleasantly diverting than breathtakingly entertaining, but it is nice to have it collected.

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