March 3, 2010

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The Spirit Archives Volume 1

Written by Will Eisner
Illustrated by Will Eisner
DC

Will Eisner doesn't show up much on my review docket because I read pretty much all of his graphic novels before I started on my sometimes Quixotic quest to review everything I read.

The Spirit, however, eluded me, except for a "best of" collection, mostly because I can't justify dropping $50 a trade no matter how good the stories are and these never turn up used. Even getting them from the library turned out to be tricky, with volume one bouncing from hold list to hold list and almost never seeing shelf time.

(I did get it once before, but wasn't able to read it before it went on hold again.)

However, this time, it's all mine and I got to sample the early drawings of the man who is undeniably one of the most influential Western creator-artists of the comics field. Years before others would start to break the conventions of the genre, Eisner was fiddling around with the medium. What's even more amazing is that he wasn't doing this for a traditional comic book--this was in the comics pages of the *newspaper.*

As you grab a copy--if you can find one--of the local paper and look at the banal generalities that take up most of the slots on the page, let that thought sink in for a moment. This is a man who was trying to do something different from the start, and he accomplished it in a part of the medium that's known for being even more conservative than its newsstand companions.

Wow!

You can see this on display early and often, as Eisner plays with the Spirit's logo in small ways here that will later lead to the classic "covers" we all know and love and see homaged frequently.
Eisner splits panels, sometimes using circles and at others refusing to frame the panels at all. Characters will narrate to the reader here and there, and we're already seeing a few instances where the focus is on people who aren't Denny Colt.

I was also impressed by the wide variety of stories that Eisner places on the page. Some are domestic crimes, others are mafia-wide schemes. There's international espionage, jungle attacks, and a few science fiction stories with talking apes and killer robots. Eisner certainly wasn't afraid to experiment in the early goings. What's impressive is how good the stories are, when you think about how long ago these were written. Despite a lot of standard trappings (a lot of the pages are standard nine-panel grids, and the good guys are always coming out ahead), you can sense a hint of modernity that just isn't present when you read other works from this time period.

Now, I don't mean to give the impression that all of this happens immediately and that you'll be blown away by the very first volume. This collection contains the first thirty-one weekly strips, along with essays by Eisner, Alan Moore, and others, and therefore has a lot of the conventions of early comics of the time. (If you've ready any of the original Batman or Superman stories, you'll know what I mean.) The characters don't have as much of a realistic feel to them and we are often dealing with long-shots of the action, giving us a lot of small figures rather than close-ups where we can feel the action crackle on the printed page. There's a lot of use of black ink and the overall feel is a bit hazy, which I generally attribute to the difficulty of reproducing work that is fifty or more years old.

However, the hardest thing to deal with are the extremely racist portrayals, common to the time but hard to swallow now. The Spirit's sidekick, Ebony White, could not be drawn more offensively if Eisner had tried. Sadly, any other portrayal would likely have not been published. (To his credit, Eisner quickly makes Ebony an increasingly competent aide to the Spirit, but man, reading those first few issues are brutal.) Because we were at war with them, the Oriental Menace is also a bit part of things, with several Asian characters acting like they just walked out of a propaganda film. Other races get similar dismissive treatment, but it's hardest on the African Americans and Asian immigrants in a way we'd never see today, at least not in a work that was as mainstream as the Spirit in its prime.

I am definitely a fan of the classics, but like wincing at a certain line in Duck Soup, some of this was rough for me to get through. Keeping context in mind, however, goes far, and allows you to see the creepy atmosphere Eisner draws for the oriental settings. I think there's a way to appreciate these pieces while also acknowledging their flaws.

Honestly, what bothers me the most about Eisner's work is his misogyny, and it's in full force here. Women are either evil killers, evil manipulators, or so man-crazy they'll do almost anything. The Chief's daughter is engaged to another man, but dumps him for the Spirit without a second thought--and that's in the first issue! The first recurring villain is the Black Queen, a good lawyer who can't of course be anything but evil, because she is a woman working in a man's world.

The women in the Spirit are either horrible harpies or hapless victims, and sometimes both. I continue to be bothered by the lack of apology for this, when I've seen Eisner in print acknowledge the racial problems. The reason this sticks with me is that while the racial issues fade over time, especially in his graphic novels, the portrayal of women never changes. I know that Western comics tend to be anywhere from mildly to wildly misogynistic, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

I don't think you can be a fan of Western comics without at least trying the Spirit. Eisner's work may not be perfect, especially when viewed from a modern lens, but for the time it's revolutionary. You can see the great artist he'll become over time, right here in his signature work. If you like comic books of any type, you owe it to yourself to find some Spirit stories and read them. (It would be nice if DC would print these in paperback, like they are doing for their capes properties.) No matter what the genre you like to read, odds are you'll see some touches of Eisner in your favorite artists. With a pioneer like him, it's hard not to.

I'm glad to finally be reading these stories, in order, for the first time. I encourage you to do the same!