Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 272 (11/2) -- Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, Vol. 1

The great foundational classics of a genre often look small and unimpressive several generations later -- the fact that they were foundational meaning that later works have been built up on top of them, and even far above them. Serial works suffer from this more strongly than self-contained, compact stories: a serial story is a journey, and the beginning is neither the end nor the high points along the way, but just the place where it all started.

So the early months of Will Eisner's "The Spirit" -- long lauded as one of the greatest expressions of the comics form ever, by anyone, and a triumph of art on a world-historical level -- will inevitably be a disappointment; they're far below the level that the feature eventually achieved. (I might add that I find much of that praise overblown to begin with; even the best of "The Spirit" is mostly impressive for what Eisner could accomplish within a limited space, using stock characters -- and, like so much of the early history of comics, "great" applies much more to art than to story. [1])

Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, Vol. 1 reprints the first six months of the "Spirit" story -- June 2 through December 29 issues of 1940 -- as they appeared as a comic-book-sized insert in millions of newspapers across the country. They're adventure stories in the costumed-hero idiom, very much in a talky, mildly populist Golden Age vein, and Eisner was still laying the ground rules of his world in most of these stories.

So the first two issues establish The Spirit's typically unbelievable origin -- he was a young "criminologist" (which here seems to mean "private detective") who was buried after he appeared to be dead after a fight with a villain, but who came back to life and quickly established a huge base and "crime laboratory" in his tomb in the local cemetery. He's omni-competent at this point, like most of his four-color ilk, and the shine won't come off his smile until after the war. The Spirit starts out working hand-in-glove with the local police -- personified by Commissioner Dolan -- but then is driven away by not-entirely-believable plot machinations, and then stays an outlaw to the local police at the same time that he signs up for the draft and becomes a super-secret agent for the US government. (You don't go to Golden Age stories for consistency -- energy, yes, but not consistency.)

The supporting cast -- Dolan, his daughter Ellen, the racist caricature of a cabbie Ebony White -- fills in over the course of this period, and the Spirit also gets a ridiculously useful flying car, which I don't recall at all from later stories. Eisner's art is rough and scratchy to begin with, but gets more graceful and refined -- though still primarily in a Golden Age style -- as the months wear on. There are a couple of femmes fatale here -- notably the lawyer Black Queen -- but they're not as important, central, or alluring as they would become after the war.

This period of "The Spirit" is less interesting as a work in itself than as a bridge, from the usual Golden Age hugger-mugger to the more precise and careful work Eisner did five or ten years later. It's better than the general run of adventure comics of its era, certainly, but that is not particularly high praise.

[1] I reviewed -- using a very loose definition of that word -- The Best of the Spirit back in the summer of 2008, and also covered the 17th volume of this series in one of the periodic clumps of graphic novel reviews I used to do.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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