Friday, August 16, 2013

The Spirit Archives Vol.1 review

 While not nearly as infested with self-righteous PC-police wannabes as Scans_Daily, Comic Book Resources is no slouch in the “easily offended” department. Witness the utter war zone that the comments section turned into after someone did a post about Urban Legends concerning Will Eisner. There were quite a few gems of ignorance spouted off by both sides, but none stuck out as much as these two:
 Regardless of whatever the second person thought looked so “boring as hell” about The Spirit (“Jamall” huh? Who is supposed to be the racist again?), as well as the first’s completely ridiculous “examples” that he cites as proof that no one likes the series, I must concur that if someone picked up Volume One of The Spirit Archives, they would be hard-pressed to see what all the fuss was about regarding Will Eisner and his masked detective.

  Of course, the real appeal of The Spirit was never the concept or the character of Denny Colt, it was the way Eisner used the set-up as a jumping off point for anything and everything. In this volume, that aspect isn’t quite so apparent yet. Nevertheless, this volume still offers up the pleasure of watching comicdom’s greatest talent trying to find his voice.

The first story, “The Origin of the Spirit” begins with Denny Colt asking Commissioner Dolan for a head start at tracking down a mad scientist with an on-and-off accent named Dr. Cobra, but ends up drenched in chemicals and apparently dies. However, Dolan soon receives a visit from a shadowy figure called “The Spirit” who also asks for a head start in locating Dr. Cobra. Of course, the Spirit is really Denny, who was put into suspended animation by the chemicals. The Spirit and Dolan team up to capture the villain.
“It was not by any means an earth-shaking story” said Maggie Thompson of this story in 1974’s The Comic Book Book, and she was right. There are plot holes galore, like why Denny would be so threatening to his friend after taking up his new persona, or how he managed to avoid being embalmed. Eisner often joked about how when creating The Spirit, he didn’t want to make him a superhero, but the editor refused to print the strip if The Spirit didn’t have a costume, so Eisner added a mask as a concession. That must have been a slight exaggeration on Will’s part, because Denny wears no mask in this story, yet oddly enough, we are expected to believe that his identity is concealed even though he dresses exactly like he did when alive, and even funnier, we are expected to believe that Denny can strike terror into the hearts of evildoers just by…looking at them. It would be somewhat plausible if he had a mask, but he doesn’t, so why are the crooks afraid? Since neither of them had met Denny, you can’t even say it was a result of the terror they feel at seeing a supposedly dead man walking. Also, how DOES The Spirit claim rewards for captured criminals if Dolan takes the credit?
 It was an inauspicious, but at the same time inoffensive beginning of something great. Eisner seemed to be trying to make the Spirit a Shadow-like figure (he declares “I am the spirit of good—but I can also be the spirit of evil!”), and the weird scenes of crooks being terrified of him, as well as a panel of his face that has a lot of lines in it (suggesting it had been extensively redrawn), suggests that Eisner may have originally intended for him to have been horribly disfigured by the chemicals (like the pulp Shadow), but re-drew it because it would seem too grim for a newspaper comic. The art is moody, if somewhat crude (in fact, Eisner’s juvenile work on Hawks of the Seas is superior), and while there are none of Eisner’s trademarks on display, he does draw a nice layout of Dr. Cobra’s lab, and gets in a few clever lines (“Bet a nickel I know who you’re thinking about”, “Here’s your nickel”).

  The next story introduces Dolan’s nerdy daughter Ellen and her fiancé Homer Creep, who decide to examine the mental ward at the hospital, and encounter Dr. Cobra, who convinces them to help him escape (even though he really doesn’t seem to need their assistance). Of course, Cobra joins up with his old gang, before getting into a climactic shootout with The Spirit. Dolan throws a banquet in the Spirit’s honor, where Denny takes off Ellen’s glasses and lets her hair loose, before kissing her. Ellen then starts to fall for the Spirit.
 This is somewhat closer to what the strip would become, as there’s a “twist” humorous ending, even if it is just a standard “she was beautiful all along” one. The fight with Dr. Cobra is also fun, with the villain blowing himself up with a grenade (Hey? Isn’t that a more famous Spirit villain’s signature weapon? Who is to say a disfigured Dr. Cobra didn’t later decide to base himself off another slimy, boneless animal…). The scenes of Spirit climbing over rooftops and doing a high-wire act on clothesline wires shows some signs of Eisner’s later topsy turviness. Denny also has his mask now (and a gun, which we won’t be seeing much more of, probably because of the syndicate guidelines.) He also shows signs already of being a chick magnet. Ebony White, who appeared in one panel in the first story, also appears here in a slightly larger role, unnamed, but already ungrammatical and superstitious. Otherwise, it’s an utterly generic hero vs. villain story, not sufficiently better than anything in mainstream publisher’s comics. Close but no cigar.
One of Eisner's first interesting uses of perspective

 The next story however, “The Black Queen”, and even more so the fifth strip “Johnny Marston” are where we first get glimpses of the masterworks that would come later.

 The eponymous “Black Queen” is a female lawyer who charms the juries with her beauty (“Even if they found him holdin’ the gun, she’d find a loophole in the law and prove he’s not guilty” says a reporter) and gets a murderer named Slot Gorgan off. Meanwhile, budget cuts have left the local schools with no more free lunches. The Spirit tries to kill two birds with one stone by shaking down the Queen and her mob for donations; he then kidnaps them with the help of Ebony White, then kidnaps the DA, the judge and the witnesses to restage the trial, where he tricks Slot into confessing. Slot is re-tried legally, but the Queen still manages to get him leniency because he donated to the school lunch fund.
 A story chock full of humor, action and social commentary. It’s amazing how well set up this all is, in just one panel, the two main conflicts of the story (Slot’s trial and the school lunch problem) are established seamlessly in the first panel. Eisner shows how ahead of the curve he is here, exploring how people really would react to the Spirit’s wildly illegal Robin Hood-esque tactics, and although in typical Golden Age fashion the Spirit is celebrated as a hero and the kidnapped jurors are thankful to the Spirit, the ending shows just how well such tactics would really hold up in court, which is nada. Slot still gets re-tried for the same offense, but only because he knows if he doesn’t confess himself, the Spirit is waiting for him.
 Eisner would often call the Spirit a “Robin Hood figure” in the stories, even long after he wasn’t depicted as such, but clearly he is here. I always thought that was typical comic book hyperbole until I first read this story in one of the Kitchen Sink reprints. He comes off almost as a common thug in some panels, and his whole scheme here, forcing a mock trial, is something that comic book villains usually do, not heroes. Denny Colt is a scary, scary man at times, which may be why Eisner decided to officially make Ebony a sidekick in this story, for comedy relief purposes.

  The Black Queen is also an interesting villain. She’s clearly intended to be attractive in a ‘sexy librarian” sort of way, but Eisner’s legendary skills at drawing girls haven’t fully matured yet. Still, I love the basic idea, and it’s a bit depressing that the Queen would be reduced to a typical supervillainess in her next appearances. She still counts as The Spirit’s first great femme fatale, and I even included her on a list of intended “major” villains who flopped.
 The next story, “Voodoo in Manhattan” has a pretty typical Scooby Doo-type plot, and although perfectly enjoyable, it’s the strip that follows which foreshadows what Eisner would be capable of, even more so than “Black Queen”.

  “Johnny Marston” features a guy whose wife lies at her deathbed. The only thing that can save her is a trip to a hotter climate, but Johnny is so poor that the only reason he even has a doctor is because the doctor is an old family friend. Johnny bitterly turns to gambling, and although he wins, the casino owner forces him to play one more game, a rigged game. Johnny fights back, but gets knocked out and left for dead. The Spirit finds him and soon decides to win Johnny’s money back. Can the Spirit be successful before Johnny makes the biggest mistake of his life?
 First of all, I love the image of the Spirit in a top hat and tuxedo:

  However, the really important thing about this story is that it marks the first time Eisner would do something that would make him famous: The story’s true protagonist is not Denny Colt, but an average guy caught up in an undertow of crime. Within only two pages, Eisner has piled on the pathos so heavily for Marston that the reader feels they’ve known him their whole lives. Sure, the vast majority of panel time is focused on the Spirit, but it’s Marston the reader cares about. Eisner’s best Spirit stories weren’t truly Spirit stories, but human stories, and this is the first of the kind.

 It’s schmaltzy, and depends on a gigantic suspension of disbelief (the Spirit can win at every single game at the casino for several nights in a row), but the final panels still make for a genuinely touching moment:
 The rest of the stories are mildly enjoyable adventure and detective stories, particularly memorable being a story which pits The Spirit against a Joker-like madman named Mr. Midnight ( a story whose atmosphere is somewhat ruined by garish coloring and the presence of the ridiculous, but thankfully short-lived “auto-plane”), and the later stories which focus on Ellen and Homer Creep (who seemed to be being set up to be Spirit’s new comedy relief sidekick for a while) are fun if you ignore some of the more over the top sexism. Also worth mentioning is a story where a miser commits suicide in order to frame The Spirit for murder, which displays some genuine emotional weight in the rift it causes between Dolan and Colt, although the subsequent stories treat this conflict as an on and off deal, with cops even taking orders from The Spirit at times. Also entertaining is a two-parter involving a talking ape and a “devolved” woman, which feels rushed but succeeds at evoking pathos for the ape.

  Other stories however, like “The Morger Boys” and “Ogre Goran” (which wastes waaay to much time setting up the disfigurement of the villain) are the type of slap-dash, forgettable affairs that you could have found in a dozen contemporaneous comics (in fact, that “Morger” story, about a bunch of identical criminals, was handled far better in Batman’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum stories). Even the better adventure and detective stories display no more real craft or imagination than your average Superman story of the era, with the very sedateness of the Spirit’s gimmick working against him. The stories do improve towards the end of the volume though, such as “Slim Pickens”; a grim story about a wannabe thug about to be paroled who meets a hot-shot gangster who tells him his life story, and “The Leader” about a Nazi obsessed with the notion of the strong dominating the weak; a philosophy he soon comes to regret when he realizes how physically weak he himself is compared to his hulking subordinate officer, whom he can no longer control when they get stranded at sea with little water and their respective military rankings become meaningless.

 A big skeleton at the feast for modern readers will no doubt be the character of Ebony White. Truth be told, he actually isn’t all that prominent in these stories, and he’s portrayed as a valuable mechanic. On the other hand, whereas Eisner would later establish that Ebony was drawn that way because he was a child (after introducing a few realistically drawn African-American characters and sidelining Ebony’s equally offensively-drawn friends), here his age is more ambiguous, with him being shown to be a member of a black city council and being of driving age. Thus, the implication isn’t that he’s a child, but a childish adult. His superstitious beliefs are also played for comedy more than they later would, and the redeeming qualities Eisner would later give him weren’t developed yet. For those who care, I’d have to say that this volume shows Ebony at the height of his offensiveness.

 Ultimately, the vast majority of these early stories aren’t sufficiently better than most of what was being put out by other publishers, but what sets them apart is Eisner’s willingness to experiment, to do something more than simple adventure or detective stories. He doesn’t succeed more often than he does, but the ambition is there. For simply watching how Eisner grew as an artist, this volume is indispensable for longtime Eisner fans, just not really essential for anyone wanting to get into his works. Nevertheless, it still rates a respectable 3.1/5 in my book.

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