May 16, 2010

The Spirit Archives Volume 5

Written by "Will Eisner"
Illustrated by "Will Eisner"
Actually Written and Illustrated by others because Eisner was in the war. These include Manly Wade Wellman and William Woolfolk for scripts and Jack Cole and Lou Fine for art.
DC

I'm starting this one off with a rant.

Will Eisner was drafted into the army, and after last volumes's stories, was not able to write or draw the Spirit. This did not stop the series, of course, which was popular. Others wrote and drew it under Eisner's byline.

DC is well aware of this, but they refuse to credit the stories in the actual book properly. I don't know if this is because they were afraid to lose sales, had an agreement with Eisner not to do it, or just didn't want to pay royalties. Regardless, it was wrong and it annoys me. DC is good enough to list some of the creators on their website and the back cover, but again, they don't give individual credit, and in at least one case, it's clear it was drawn by another artist because he signed the end of comic!

I realize the 1940s were a different time, and even credits into the 1970s can be hard to nail down. But when Ron Goulart writes your introduction and calls attention to the subbing, I think a little work to properly identify who did what would have been helpful.

Okay, I'm done ranting about this slight. How good is the Spirit in the hands of others?

The answer is: Pretty darned good.

Though the visuals are a bit less experimental and the issues given more of a black and white feel, these episodes in the Spirit's life are so close to Eisner in look and feel that if you were only casually glancing at them, it would be rather easy to mistake them for his work. I'm sure that was intentional. The folks working on these issues were art assistants for Eisner in the first place, and probably helped out here and there before Uncle Sam became their boss's boss.

The devil is in the details, however. Note that the opening splash pages, with a few notable exceptions, are much more straightforward. If you see an off-kilter hat, that's apparently the work of Lou Fine. Are people bending a bit more than they should or leaning at exaggerated angles? I'm guessing you're seeing Jack Cole at the helm. (The "Nazi Invasion" story has a lot of this, for instance. Anyone know who drew it for sure?) Another artist draws the Spirit with just a bit too broad of a back, replacing Eisner's lanky hero with one who looked more like a body builder.

There are changes in the writing as well. We only get a few experimental stories, and they are far clumsier than when Eisner does it. At times, Denny Colt is more like Dick Tracy, and his outlaw status seems to be there only as a pretense. (He even dines publicly with the mayor at one point.) Gone are the far-flung genre stories--we're safely in the realm of beating up criminals and spies, with only a few exceptions that tend to keep the action bound squarely in and around the city. While the keepers of the Spirit name did a good job making sure we had solid action comics, and have nothing to be ashamed of in terms of the plots, they definitely were not working to put the boundaries of the medium, at least not here.

On the other hand, there's some positive things to come out of missing Eisner. Women, for instance, get a better hand here. Ellen may not be competent, but at least she's not a shrew. Similarly, while most of the women the Spirit meets are both attracted to him and unable to beat his manly smarts, I don't feel like they're shown in quite as bad a light.

The case of Ebony here is a bit trickier. On the one hand, he's still comic relief that's clearly racially motivated. He's scared of ghosts, his friends are money-hungry, and he boasts in a way that seems designed to show he's inferior to the Spirit. Especially when he's with other African American characters, I want to wince.

On the other hand, Ebony frequently aids in the cases and is at least as competent as Dolan, the Police Commissioner. In fact, Dolan and Ebony are both the butt of the Spirit's jokes. A lot of times it seems like Ebony is just filling the role of sidekick as defined by the 1940s: Go off, get into trouble, and get rescued. In that way, he's not a lot different from Aqualad. I'm left not quite sure what to think in terms of how to deal with Ebony and his portrayal here. I guess the best thing to say is that if you can tolerate how Eisner wrote him, you'll be okay here.

There are definitely some clunkers in here, the ghost story being by far the worst of the bunch, but any of the other volumes so far have tales that just don't hold up. I think that's true of any collection of any long-running comic. Not every Peanuts was a winner, after all. The fun is in getting to see the best stories in context. That's true here as well, and it's doubly true as we watch others try to stay in Eisner's shadow.

The Spirit Archives aren't for everyone, and if you're just a fan of Eisner, these next few trades are probably skippable. However, if you are a fan of classic comics, especially Jack Cole, these war years collections are definitely worth seeking out. But DC: If/when you reprint these, do the right thing--get the credits where they belong, inside the binding. Comics fans will thank you for it.