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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…

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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…

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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…

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 20 (Review/Retrospective)

By 1950, it seemed like time was almost up for The Spirit. Indeed, the run of stories collected here represents perhaps the last six months of the truly superb hot streak the strip had been on since Eisner returned home from the Second World War. There’ll be time, discussing the next few volumes, to explore and to contemplate the decay and decline of The Spirit as a Sunday newspaper strip, but The Spirit Archives, Vol. 20 contains a pretty solid run of weekend adventures for the masked crimefighter. There’s still a lot of the fun and energy and verve that defined Eisner’s best work on the character, even if you can almost sense the ennui creeping in at the very edge of the page.

The man behind the mask...

The man behind the mask…

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 19 (Review/Retrospective)

The times, they are a-changing. It seems that is true for The Spirit as well. Given it’s a weekly comic strip, those changes aren’t necessarily obvious at the micro-level, as you read through these superb archive editions collected by DC comics. Change is, after all, as likely to be a gradual development as a sudden change of pace. However, reading The Spirit stories collected here, it is clear that things have subtly shifted over the past year or so. It’s not quite the harbinger of doom that we’d see over the next couple of years as the strip died a long, slow and painful death – it’s more a change of focus on the part of Eisner, as he seems to continue to push the character boldly forward.

Denny Colt is the Spirit? No!

Denny Colt is the Spirit? No!

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 18 (Review/Retrospective)

I seem to be opening each of these reviews with a reminder that The Spirit is in fine form, and that it continues to be a superb piece of pulpy entertainment. I continue to be astounded at the relatively consistent standard that Eisner works to, week in and week out. More than that, though, I am continually impressed with the vigour and ingenuity that the writer and artist brings to his work. Just when you think you have The Spirit figured out, it throws another curveball, effortless switching gears and becoming something a bit different than you were expecting. Sometimes it’s a technicolour noir story, sometimes it’s a treatise on humanist philosophy, sometimes it’s a western, sometimes it’s romance, sometimes, its comedy, sometimes it’s tragedy. Sometimes it’s all and more.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 18 doesn’t necessarily have a single story that can be measured against The Story of Gerhard Schnobble that we found in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 17, but it’s still a testament to Eisner’s storytelling sensibilities and his strength as a writer and artist.

The board walk...

The board walk…

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 17 (Review/Retrospective)

The Spirit Archives, Volume 17 contains perhaps the best-loved Spirit story of all time. Indeed, you could make a compelling argument that The Story of Gerhard Schnobble represents perhaps the best seven pages that Will Eisner ever produced, beautifully encapsulating all the magic of the creator’s work, tempered with the same awareness of the harsh realities of life. This collection continues to offer The Spirit at the peak of its run, and The Story of Gerhard Schnobble simply sees all these elements that have been working so consistently for so long coalescing into something that is practically transcendental.

Beginning with a bang...

Beginning with a bang…

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