April 8, 2010

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The Spirit Archives Volume 3

Written by Will Eisner
Illustrated by Will Eisner
DC

The Spirit's adventures continue as we move further into 1941. Watch a few old characters return and Ebony given more pages (not all of which are positive) as Eisner continues to see what he can do in 8 pages every week.

Experimental storytelling continues to be the big draw to these early years of the Spirit. We have a futuristic tale, an autobiography gone awry, our first overt war story, and even a multi-act play performed over the pages of strip in this edition. Eisner was not afraid to try new things in his strips, and we see that over and over again.

We also see a few contradictions, particularly with Satin. Eisner can't seem to decide what to do with her, as you'll notice in her appearances here. Ellen, the Chief's Daughter, also is a bit shaky in characterization. She seems to go from being semi-confident to being completely useless. Part of that is undoubtedly Eisner's inability to write female characters (they continue to either be useless or horrible people), but I also think it shows a strip growing as it goes along. Eisner isn't quite sure where he's taking all of the characters and reading them closely like this shows that.

While Ebony gets a lot of page time in these stories, he's back to being second fiddle. Rarely shown doing anything positive, he's after money, scared of ghosts, and generally getting into trouble. It's unfortunate, because I thought he came out better in the second volume and I was hoping that would continue. Reading some of these stories is downright hard, frankly. The way African Americans get shown in the 1940s comics is not a pretty sight. I wonder, quite frankly, if I'd even read this at all if the author wasn't so acclaimed?

Since this volume is at the start of the war years, Eisner is freer in his attacks on the Axis. The Spirit is involved in war issues multiple times over the course of the story, and references to the war increase. It's weird to me that America and Britain aren't shown as being full partners at this point. I guess history changes everyone's perspective.

A few themes return here, most notably the idea of character redemption. The Spirit often tries to do right by people who are drawn into crime, often butting heads with Dolan in the process. I wonder why that idea was so important to Eisner? Does anyone know?

There's also a lot of use of disguises for Denny Colt. He's everything from an old man to a women in this one. It's funny to watch because whether intentional or not, Eisner never really draws him all that differently, so it's up to the reader to decide if the people around the Spirit are just that clueless. My guess is on them just being clueless.

The best story in this collection, though, is where Eisner tweaks fellow cartoonist Chester Gould, creating a Dick Tracy-like comic strip and involving his creator in a caper. It shows a great sense of humor by Eisner and also that comics could self-reference, even this far back. I wonder how Gould liked that?

Overall, I'm enjoying reading these Spirit comics after waiting so long, but the ones in this volume felt a little flat to me. No matter how good you are, there's only so much you can do in eight pages, and the racism and misogynistic tendencies seemed to be in full force this time. I'm hoping for better next volume. Enjoying historical context is one thing, slogging through stereotypes just to say that I did is another.