The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The History of Will Eisner's The Spirit... In 1939 newspapers felt the need to compete with the growing popularity of comic books. Many comic editors knew this; among them Everett Arnold a publisher of Quality Comics. Arnold made presentations to various newspapers around this time and thus started the newspaper strips that gave birth to a parallel line of comic superheroes like The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon. Among the first creators in this group was Will Eisner, a talented, but then unknown, artist grinding out anonymous work with a small studio whose character "The Spirit" grew out of this development. Eisner was quoted about the creation of The Spirit: “I wanted to write better things than superheroes. Comic books were a ghetto… They wanted a heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he’d have a costume. And I put a mask on him (The Spirit) and said, ‘Yes, he has a costume.’” The Spirit is one of the most oddball characters in comic fiction. For one, he is a rarity in that he doesn’t really have a secret identity. He was Denny Colt, who is “killed” in the first few pages of the initial Spirit strip. His “death” was merely suspended animation caused by arch-villain Dr. Cobra. Awakening in Wildwood Cemetery, Colt takes on the persona of The Spirit (shaking off his old civilian persona) and begins a crusade of fighting crime from his base in the cemetery. Another thing that makes The Spirit unique is that he is a true middle-class superhero. He is not wealthy (Batman, Green Arrow), royalty (Aquaman, Wonder Woman) or an alien (Superman, Martian Manhunter). His “death” seems to transfer some kind of supernatural powers on him that Eisner doesn’t spell out, but is evidenced by a sudden development of exceptional skills and resources on every level. Despite these skills, The Spirit is often thrashed, thwarted and often tied up before turning the tables on the antagonists. Most interesting is the place of sex in The Spirit. The Spirit’s primary love interest is Ellen Dolan, daughter of benevolent Police Commissioner Dolan. However, the early years of The Spirit are riddled with femme fatales (Sand Seref, Silk Satin, Autumn Mews) who tempt, beguile and wreak havoc on this character. There was a tradition of burlesque and pin-up illustration during this time (with many illustrators moving back and forth between the two) that Eisner taps into with his buxom, under-dressed babes who are exhibited in poses that are blatantly, and comically lascivious. This presence of a femme fatale also points to another influence of and on Eisner’s creation which is the American Detective story personified by such Masters as Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Chandler (The Big Sleep). This type of story was wildly popular, but not considered as anything significant or artful. The pulp detective stories in such anthologies as Black Mask helped influence some of the comics/superheroes. Batman’s detective abilities were often highlighted early in his career and this is almost certainly a direct influence of writers like Chandler and Hammett. The femme fatale is a staple of these stories and Bob Kane even gave Batman one in Selina Kyle who started as a non-costumed antagonist, but who of course eventually morphed into the superhero/super villain Catwoman. Underlining this parallel further was the Spirit’s outfit which was and is also much more along the lines of a private eye’s stereotypical costume with his suit, fedora and brogues. (The trailer for the film pays tribute to this connection by emphasizing the Spirit's voiceover: "What are you?" That's what the woman asked me. Am I some sort of ghost? I still move. I still breathe. I'm still alive" -This is stuff straight out of Chandler and the Bogart/Mitchum film noir classics). Along these lines, yet another unique aspect of The Spirit character is the fact that it was written with more of an adult audience in mind. At the time, comics were kids stuff and considered low art at best (as is evidenced by Eisner’s interest in getting out of the comic book game). Comics in newspapers were read by kids, but adults were the main audience for newspapers and there was a difference in many of the strips as a result. Themes and imagery from hard boiled fiction drove The Spirit’s narrative. These ideas would be familiar to adult readers, but mostly unfamiliar to younger readers of the time. This level of adult sophistication was also very influential as The Spirit might be one of the earliest superhero comics written with an adult audience in mind. Eisner's strip also helped some major comic creators get their start: Joe Kubert, Jack Cole (Plastic Man) and Jules Fieffer all worked on the strip (most notably During WWII where the Strip was mostly "ghosted" by Eisner's assistants. The Spirit was pretty much kaput by the early 50's but the 60's and 70's saw the strip being re-printed by various comic press operations like Harvey Comics and Warren Publishing. Kitchen Sink Press began reprinting the entire Post WWII Eisner series in the 1980s and also published original Spirit works in the 1990s with contributions by comic heavyweights like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Paul Pope. The work of Kitchen Sink Press helped not only keep the Spirit alive (so to speak) but laid some of the groundwork for the characters' revival. In the early-mid 2000s, DC began publishing Eisner's Spirit works as part of its Archive edition series. These works helped revive Eisner's character and helped elevate his already lofty reputation (the premiere comic awards are known as "The Eisner's"). More importantly, it spurred a whole new DC Spirit series most notably helmed by Darwyn Cooke (the comic creator at present who is most stylistically in debt to Eisner). Eisner's most interesting and influential work in The Spirit was in his use of paneling to tell a story. I saw an interview with him late in his career and he explained that with the newspaper strips there was never anyway to tell how much space would be available for his strip (due to shortages in World War II for instance). As a result, it forced him to use all of his creativity to tell a story in a few (or many panels). Eisner's openings for his stories are especially striking and vivid. One of THS's favorites (and one of Eisner's most famous) involves gangsters tearing up a secret message on a bridge and tossing the shards of paper over the bridge. As the tattered paper drifts down, the torn pieces reconfigure into the title: THE SPIRIT. Before you think all of Eisner's work is filled with pioneering work and accolades, there is a particularly problematic aspect of Eisner's work on The Spirit, and that is the character of Ebony White, who acts as a sidekick/driver to The Spirit. This black character was initially portrayed as a complete racial stereotype and presents a thorny issue in assessing the work of Eisner. To Eisner's credit, the character of Ebony evolved during the run of The Spirit and Eisner also introduced black characters who were not caricatured like a detective named Grey in the course of the series. Oddly enough, Eisner never seemed to get a lot of flack about this character from African-American leaders or interest groups. Darwyn Cooke's contemporary work on the Spirit includes this character, but he has been updated to be a reliable operative for The Spirit rather than a character of broad, offensive comic relief. Eisner's later years were devoted to more serious projects, most notably his Contract With God comic which is a landmark work in the history of graphic novels due to its serious themes involving culture and religion. He also taught and lectured at the School of the Visual Arts in New York and wrote an interesting, influential book called Comics as Sequential Art about the art of storytelling through comics. Despite all of Eisner's contributions, his character of The Spirit remains his great achievement and definitely most beloved achievement. There is more than a touch of irony in the fact that Eisner was reluctant to work on comic books early in his career, but managed to create one of the most memorable superheros of the 20th century. Omnicomic fans and THS groupies: The Hidden S wishes you a Merry Chri(s)tma(s)! and Happy Hanukkah!