Comics Time: The Best of the Spirit

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The Best of the Spirit

Will Eisner, writer/artist

DC Comics, 2005

192 pages

$14.95

Buy it from Amazon.com

Will Eisner’s The Spirit is a virtual symphony of dudes getting socked in the head. I think that’s what I ultimately took away from my read of this best-of collection of 22 Spirit 7-pagers, assembled by persons unknown using criteria unknown. No matter how far Eisner stretches the parameters of his strip; no matter if it’s the masked vigilante/bounty hunter’s origin story, or a standalone tale about an ill-fated criminal or plastic toy tommy gun in which the Spirit happens to show up on the final spread; no matter if it’s a surprisingly psychologically astute portrait of a soldier who loses it after coming home from the war or society girl whose depression leads her to take up with criminals and then commit suicide-by-shootout, or a whacked-out EC riff about a killer granny with images and dialogue as crazy as anything Frank Miller could possibly put on screen–no matter what, somebody, somewhere, somehow, is gonna get clocked on the noggin.

That all but universal action beat, and the presence of the nattily attired Spirit himself, give you a throughline as you watch Eisner and his studio’s style evolve from the barely recognizable 1940 origin story to the trademark caricature, pantomime, and big-city atmospherics of the 1950 capstone strips. By the end, Eisner’s Gene Kelly-esque action choreography is at the height of its unique, humorous appeal; it tickles me to observe how naturally he’d apply the same play-to-the-balcony techniques he used for slobberknockers and machine-gun massacres to the body language of his late-period melodramas a couple-three decades hence.

I came into this collection expecting one dominant Spirit storytelling mode to emerge, one style to prove self-evidently definitive. But based on this sampling, the Spirit really could be all things to all funnybook fans: harsh or poignant, stark or silly, realistic or far out, surprisingly rich or divertingly slight, Humphrey Bogart or Tex Avery, a Hero or a Maguffin. Eisner’s experiments with form only reinforce the natural diversity of his subject matter. Everyone’s entitled to their Spirit. Me, I’ll go with the one that entails the most people getting cold-cocked.

This is my final comics review for 2008. Thank you for spending Comics Time with me this year! -Sean

6 Responses to Comics Time: The Best of the Spirit

  1. I read this collection a couple of years ago, and it’s the extent of my familiarity with The Spirit, so I’m not sure if it’s an accurate representation of the strip, but: It’s never about the Spirit himself. It’s always about other characters.

    That was my major reason for being skeptical regarding Miller’s film. In Eisner’s comics – at least the ones in this book – The Spirit is really more of a plot device than a character. He’s a “spirit” that carries on from strip to strip. He moves along the plot and catalyzes the human stories of ordinary folks (and criminals), but never quite takes center stage himself.

  2. Bill Sherman says:

    The Spirit started out as a more centrally featured character in his stories, Marc-Oliver – an extended multi-week sequence when he gets temporarily blinded stands out in particular – but it’s true that over time, he evolved in what Jules Feiffer memorably a “masked Mary Worth.” I’m assuming, though, that Miller is primarily taking from the earlier run – where the Octopus and shady dames like Sand Seref more regularly came up against our hero. You can see that period of “Spirit” work informing much of Miller’s early Daredevil stories.

    Great take on the character, Sean. I first came to the series through Harvey Comics’s two-issue reprints of some of the later stories – and I remember being knocked out as a young reader by Eisner and company’s ability to move from slapstick Mad comics joking to noiry tales of betrayal and murder. To be sure, Eisner had the help of some talented behind-the-scenes men (Feiffer, for a time, among ‘em), but you need only look at one of the DC Archives reprinting “Spirit” work from the period when Eisner was in the service to recognize just how much the character was his . . .

  3. Bill Sherman says:

    The Spirit started out as a more centrally featured character in his stories, Marc-Oliver – an extended multi-week sequence when he gets temporarily blinded stands out in particular – but it’s true that over time, he evolved into what Jules Feiffer memorably called a “masked Mary Worth.” I’m assuming, though, that Miller is primarily taking from the earlier run – where the Octopus and shady dames like Sand Seref more regularly came up against our hero. You can see that period of “Spirit” work informing much of Miller’s early Daredevil stories.

    Great take on the character, Sean. I first came to the series through Harvey Comics’s two-issue reprints of some of the later stories – and I remember being knocked out as a young reader by Eisner and company’s ability to move from slapstick Mad comics joking to noiry tales of betrayal and murder. To be sure, Eisner had the help of some talented behind-the-scenes men (Feiffer, for a time, among ‘em), but you need only look at one of the DC Archives reprinting “Spirit” work from the period when Eisner was in the service to recognize just how much the character was his . . .

  4. Steven Grant says:

    Bill:

    The Octopus and shady dames were mainly fixtures of the mid-late Spirit years, following Will’s return to the strip after his military service, not that there weren’t shady dames earlier on (I don’t recall if The Octopus appeared in the pre-war run) but the stories tended to be more serious action-adventure stories, while the post-war years are more Eisner and staff having fun with what they increasingly consider a ludicrous set-up. It’s interesting that The Spirit and his world become more “real,” entirely of a piece, the less Eisner and surrogates stopped trying to use the strip to represent the real world, not that the seeds of that weren’t in some of the pre-war strips, but those are generally marked by Eisner beginning in very “comic-booky” mode then slowly trying to pull back from that to “real fiction.” Post-war stories tend to be more fables than Black Mask stories, structurally, and it’s that framework that allowed Eisner to move past a simply well done strip to something unique.

    The other major recurring postwar villain was Mr. Carrion. Sand Saref wasn’t even introduced into the strip until 1950, a mere two years before its end.

    But I think everyone agrees that the “fill-in years” were considerably less interesting than when Eisner was directly connected to the series. That’s one reason I see no real point to DC’s current SPIRIT series, despite a lot of my friends working on it. The Spirit without Eisner is… well… just another comic book character… (Though I always thought the episodes scripted by Jules Feiffer from Eisner’s direction worked the best, even long before I learned Feiffer had worked for Eisner. Feiffer seems to have had the better instinct for story structure, or perhaps knowing Feiffer would be able to handle the dialogue spectacularly freed up Eisner to focus more on the storytelling.)

    - Grant

  5. Bill Sherman says:

    I’ll defer to Steven’s superior historical knowledge on this ‘un – teach me to double- (or was it triple-?) post before morning coffee. I was mixing Sand Saref up with Silk Satin (a much more ambiguous dame who debuted in ’41). The Octopus did indeed wait in the wings until the post-war years, though that Harvey Comics collection I remember from the sixties rewrote the Spirit’s origin to make the Octopus a key figure in Denny Colt’s “death.” Haven’t yet seen the movie to see if Miller keeps this character’s involvement in the hero’s origin, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

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