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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 26 (Review/Retrospective)

It’s strange reading The Spirit Archives, Vol. 26. Not just because it’s a collection of absolutely everything (from stories to pin-ups to posters to sketches) rather than a set of comic strips. Also because of the scope of this final hardcover collection in DC’s Spirit Archives programme. While, with the exception of the last volume, each book collected six months of the weekly strip, this final book collects pretty-much everything Will Eisner did with the character from the time that the weekly strip ended through to his death in 2005.  I’m a bit surprised that there’s only one book of this material, although it does allow the reader to flick through the decades following the end of the strip as if examining a family photo albums – watching the subtle changes as time marches on.

Despite the fact that he was cancelled, The Spirit never seemed to quite go away. There was a lot of work featuring the character by other writers and artists, but most of that isn’t collected here. Instead, this admittedly disjointed collection reads best as a sort of a documentary charting the on-going relationship between Will Eisner and arguably his most popular creation.

Still making waves…

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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.

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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…

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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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