March 24, 2010

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The Spirit Archives Volume 2

Written by Will Eisner
Illustrated by Will Eisner
DC

The Spirit may be lounging around, resting on his good name* on the cover to this archive, but he does anything but in this next set of adventures from the weekly Sunday strip.

See former investigator Denny Colt take the law to places the police or US Government can't touch, rooting out everything from common criminals to international tyrants and terrorists as Eisner puts him through his paces in twenty six short stories.

I continue to be amazed at the quality of these stories overall, given when they were written, the short space allotted to tell them, and where they first appeared (in your local newspaper, now seemingly home to the most generic and inoffensive material editors can find). Eisner is not perfect here by any means, as I'll get to, but for comics written in 1941, this is great stuff. It's both artistically and conceptually better than its counterparts that I've read. There might be other comics just this good from seventy years ago, but I bet you'd be hard pressed to find one.

Though we've seen these tricks many times by now, Eisner tells one story in verse while another opens on a page that looks like that of a child's fairytale book. There's a story where the very idea of the Spirit is enough to bring a villain to justice, even as the Spirit himself decries his failures. We see the idea of multiple people claiming to be the Spirit, the return of at least one past character, and ever more innovating camera angles.

Perhaps most risky of all is when the Spirit gets into the politics of the day. There's the usual remarks about gangsters hiding behind politicians, a familiar theme going back to at least Dick Tracy. But we also see the Spirit chastise Dolan for not allowing a former criminal a chance to go straight, and the potential problems this might cause. That's pretty heady stuff for the funny pages, if you ask me, even today, and a sign of what Eisner will later accomplish with his graphic novels.

Most ballsy of all, however, is when the Spirit meets Hitler--or at least, *a* Hitler. Eisner's handling merges the comic with the serious, but it's clear he's sending a message to the reader about his personal thoughts on the idea of a dictator and what must be done. The Spirit may fail to grasp this point, but I don't think the reader does. I'd love to know what the reaction to this strip was, but unfortunately DC doesn't provide any historical commentary beyond yet another modern creator (Dave Gibbons this time) talking about how wonderful The Spirit is.

There are still quite a few things that are strange to modern eyes, even within the introduction of the innovative ideas you'll see on just about every other page. Characters still get the whole body treatment, leading to stiff figures more often than not. We're still working mainly off a nine-panel grid, though Eisner adjusts this as needed and even gives us a cut shot, looking down, of the Spirit's hideout. For every change in style, however, there's still way more that follows the conventions of the time.

Women and racial minorities aren't treated much better in this volume, either. There's a set of stories about Mexicans that have no redeeming features. They're just offensive and make Speedy Gonzales look downright tolerant. They're early on in in this collection, too, so be braced to be upset at the beginning and then settle in. Ellen is still incredibly awful here, as everything she does turns into a debacle that the Spirit must resolve.

Two exceptions do stand out here, and both come earlier than I expected. Satin is a character who starts off as a villain and moves into the role of the woman who can outwit the Spirit. That's sorely needed, and I hope we see her again, soon. She reminds me of "that woman" from Sherlock Holmes, and I imagine that was Eisner's intention. Interestingly enough, she's British. I wonder if Eisner felt he couldn't show a strong American woman? Does anyone know?

Similarly, Ebony is given more credit as a character. He's still stuck in racially offensive land, given how he's drawn, the way he speaks, and how he interacts with other African Americans. However, he's often shown trying to do the right thing and even contributes in some meaningful ways in these adventures. Ebony is still a second class citizen, but it's not nearly as bad. He's becoming less of a figure of comic relief and more of an actual sidekick. I think Eisner deserves a lot of credit for that, since this is still only 1941.

If you want to see the comics that inspired a generation of writers and artists, you really need to begin with the Spirit. It's easy to jump in anywhere, which is good because these archives aren't the easiest thing to find and are pretty expensive when you do. If you are a comics fan of any kind, but especially if you want to learn about the history of comics from the actual source material, you owe it to yourself to find and read The Spirit. You'll be glad you did.


*I'm sorry for that.**


**Not really.