The Spirit Archives
Outer Space Spirit: 1952
Life on Another Planet
Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood
Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master
The pages of most comic books are battlefields for hypertrophied mutants and space aliens raging gaudy supernatural war. This has been the case for generations now, the norm in a junk-entertainment genre whose elemental function has always been to commodify the testosterone delirium of male adolescence. To scan the racks of a comics shop like, say, Jim Hanley’s Universe in midtown Manhattan is to be assaulted by costumed mercenaries such as Darkchylde and Hellboy in stories like “Seed of Destruction.” Look closely, and you may recognize some of the old heroes—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, and their superfriends—still fighting in increasingly pumped- and sexed-up transmutations. Poke around the middle of the store, and you’ll find a mix of subgenres: reprints of vintage comics; the arty (and often raw) “comix” indebted to the underground movement of the 1960s; and Japanese titles based on the hyperactive animé cartoons. If you make it to the back of the last aisle on the far right, alongside the wall where the T-shirts are hanging, you’ll find a display of hard and paperback covers startling for their incongruity, with images of Jewish immigrants in the Bronx of the Depression years, slumped old men, ranting neighbors, a squabbling family…. You’re in the Will Eisner section, where the comics medium becomes something naturalistic, wry, introspective, and literate—that is, in the comics universe, something truly otherworldly.
Eisner, who started writing and drawing comic books straight from high school in 1936, is one of the original inventors of the form, although that fact alone hardly confers much distinction. The fledgling comics business was a sweatshop trade for creative hopefuls too inexperienced, too socially ill-equipped, or, more often, too minimally talented for the established avenues of hackdom, the pulps and commercial art. Mostly shoot-‘em-ups maladroitly adapted from crime and adventure magazines, the first comic books were sexless pornography for kids, incompetently scripted and drawn. The medium changed a great deal in the years hence, of course; today’s comics are drawn and written with sleek proficiency. That the form grew more significantly to become, at its best, something intelligent with rewards for grown-ups, testifies to Eisner’s contributions.
Among comics professionals and enthusiasts, Eisner, now eighty-four, is revered as more than a charter elder of the ultimate boy’s club, but as a model of seriousness, ambition, and achievement. “I find it difficult to argue that Eisner is not the single person most responsible for giving comics their brains,” comics writer Alan Moore has said. The author of the first literate comic book, The Spirit (1940–1952), two texts on the theory and practice of his discipline, and more than a dozen “graphic novels” over the past twenty-three years, Eisner is not merely the recipient of innumerable illustration and comics-art awards (including the National Cartoonists Society’s “Best Artist,” four times). The most prestigious honor in comics is named for him: the plaque bestowed each year upon one of his progeny is the Eisner.
Unsatisfied, Eisner still works obsessively, creating reflective and somber autobiographical works while tending the preservation of his legacy through a new series of hardbound reprints of his most popular creation, the Spirit comics. He drives every morning from the home he shares with his wife, Ann, in southeastern Florida to the studio he keeps about a mile away, and he puts in eight to ten hours, six days a week. “I’ve been trying to prove what the medium can do my whole life,” Eisner said recently. “If I thought my point had been made, I don’t know what I’d do.”
The fact that he has spent his whole life working in comics, striving to advance the medium from within, probably undermines Eisner’s prospects for recognition outside the insular society of comics buffs. Raised in the tenements of the Bronx, Eisner has surely learned the rule of every ghetto, literal or aesthetic: Anyone can come in, few can get out. It was one thing for gallery artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol to draw upon the style of the comics as a resource; it has been quite another for comics specialists to try elevating both their medium and the way it is perceived. (In jazz, a kindred American popular art form, indigenous creators suffered from a parallel imbalance when orchestral composers such as Stravinsky and Milhaud were praised in high-brow circles for employing “jazzy” touches in their concert works while the jazz masterworks that served as their inspiration were going ignored or dismissed as low-class entertainment.) Eisner recalls being invited, along with several other comics artists, including Harvey Kurtzman and Joe Kubert, to attend the opening of a Pop Art show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1974. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh boy! This is great! We’re finally being invited into the arena,’” he recalled. “Then I realized we were brought in for novelty value—the weird guys who do those crazy comic books.” He cringed from the wound more than thirty years later.
As Eisner remembers things today, he already had lofty visions for the comics form when he created the Spirit after several years of generating now-forgotten comic-book features such as “Muss ‘Em Up Donovan” (a series about a vicious law enforcer, a proto–Dirty Harry) for various publishers. The Spirit is an independent detective who has no superpowers and wears no costume (aside from a token mask Eisner treated as a blue skin graft around the eyes). “I had long been convinced that I was involved with a medium that had real ‘literary potential,’” he wrote in the introduction to the first volume of The Spirit Archives, each of which reproduces six months of Spirit stories (on good paper but in slightly reduced scale and with computer-generated colors that lack the texture and accidental vibrancy of the cheaply printed, off-register originals). What gave him such faith in a medium so disreputable and juvenile, he can’t recall. From the earliest episodes of the Spirit, however, Eisner’s aspirations are clear. The characters are memorable and human, including the Spirit (despite his name). The stories are intimate fables about desperation, loss, and human folly, developed from gestural crime situations; the pacing, graceful; and the drawing, naturalistically bravura.
The Spirit had the benefit of special provenance. When the character appeared in 1940 (two years after Superman and a few months after Batman), a hitherto-unchallenged hierarchical divide separated the two forms of comics—the decades-old, enormously popular newspaper strips and the just-sprouting comic books. The one-panel daily and expanded Sunday color strips produced by the major press syndicates were presumed to be read by the whole family and, accordingly, were designed for adults as well as children; comic books, despite having the space to tell more complex stories, were distributed by candy-store wholesalers and generally treated as another unhealthy confection for kids. The Spirit was born in neither domain; Eisner developed him under commission to create a comic book that would be distributed in Sunday newspapers, where it would reach readers of every age. Eisner wrote the feature “up,” for the adults. The childhood fantasy of magically transforming into a grown-up—Shazam!—was a staple of comic books; with the first issue of The Spirit, delivered on June 2, 1940, the medium itself matured instantaneously.
There was never much to the premise of the Spirit character: private detective Denny Colt is taken for dead, although he’s really alive, and he encounters (as often by accident as by intent) miscellaneous troublemakers (typically, exotics such as spies and smugglers or vampy women smitten with him). That’s it—no parents from outer space, no wizards or genies, no incantations, no kit of gadgets and weapons. The Spirit never behaves spookily, and no one in the stories seems to think he’s supernatural; he gets punched and kissed, and he bruises and kisses back. The idea of the Spirit is a positioning statement of objection to comic-book ideas, brazenly cursory, a mark of contempt for the gimmickry passing for characterization in the comics of the era.
There was not much crime in the Spirit stories, either—at least not after the first couple of years, when the series reached its maturity. Much as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock used trash sources as excuses to explore emotional terrain, Eisner tended to focus on psychological themes such as loneliness, betrayal, and despair against a translucent scrim of cops-and-robbers doings. In “Two Lives,” for instance, Eisner interweaves the stories of unrelated captives, an incarcerated hood and a milquetoast fellow trapped in a bad marriage; they both escape, are mistaken for each other, and are returned to the wrong prison. There was surely little else in that Sunday’s newspaper—and certainly nothing in the comics—so cynical about matrimony. In “The Desert Island,” the Spirit and a femme fatale named Sand find themselves stranded in paradise, although the Spirit is delirious with fever the whole time, sexually frustrating a woman who had tried to do him in countless times before. Before long, Eisner was dispensing with the pretense of crime situations—and with the Spirit himself. In some of the most poetically imaginative stories in Eisner’s work (or, for that matter, in all of comics), the Spirit scarcely appears in his own comic book. Instead, we meet a nobody named Gerhard Schnobble on the day he discovers he has the power to fly, or we find Adolf Hitler on a secret reconnaissance mission, roaming the subways and hobo jungles of New York (in a twist on Death Takes a Holiday).
Both Schnobble and Hitler find enlightenment in Eisner’s hands, but suffer ignobly for it in the last panel. Schnobble, reveling in his uniqueness among men, is accidentally hit by a gunshot meant for the Spirit and falls to his death before anyone saw what he could do. Hitler, converted to egalitarian niceness by his exposure to America, decides to give a speech reversing all his policies, but is assassinated by a warmongering lieutenant. Eisner’s world often seems a bleak, even godless one, not so much part of an irrational or existential universe as a worse one, rigged in the devil’s favor.
Like Welles and Hitchcock, again, Eisner has always been fascinated by form, and he began experimenting with the architecture of his medium in the same period as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Lifeboat. (Comparisons with film, comic books’ moneyed cousin, are irresistible and dominate the serious writing on comics, especially the Spirit.1) One Spirit story was told from the point of view of a murderer, all the images rendered in the ovals of the killer’s eyes. Another one took place in the “real time” of the ten minutes Eisner calculated it would take to read it. The text for another was all rhyming verse. Another had no text at all but unfolded in pantomime. One meta-episode included scenes of Eisner as both author of the tale at hand and a key part of it. Boundlessly imaginative and fearsomely ambitious—yet, still, “a comic-book man”—Eisner seemed to be trying to push out the boundaries of the comics form, as if he were one of his own characters, another misunderstood victim of a cruel system, struggling to escape.
Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (Dial, 1965): "Eisner's world seemed more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie.... The further films dug into the black fantasies of a depression generation the more they were labelled realism. Eisner retooled this mythic realism to his own uses." ↩
Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (Dial, 1965): “Eisner’s world seemed more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie…. The further films dug into the black fantasies of a depression generation the more they were labelled realism. Eisner retooled this mythic realism to his own uses.” ↩