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The Best Of The Spirit by Will Eisner

1/12/2010. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Best Of The Spirit in the USA - or Buy The Best Of The Spirit in the UK

author pic

pub: DC Comics. 188 page graphic novel softcover. Price: $14.99 (US), $17.99 (CAN). ISBN: 0978-1-4012-0755-7.

check out website:www.dccomics.com

This is a selection of the late Will Eisner's ‘Spirit’ stories from between June 1940 and January 1950. They are in chronological order in this volume, which makes sense, and also in colour for this is not one of those bulky cheap reprints. 'The Spirit' was not a comicbook but a comic strip, published in the comics section of American Sunday newspapers, much more prestigious and better paid than mere comicbooks. ‘The Spirit’ and creator Will Eisner are often spoken of in tones of hushed awe by other comic creators as the greatest thing since sliced bread, which was first sold in 1928. Oddly, sliced bread was banned in the USA for a short period in 1943 as a wartime conservation measure. The Spirit was around then.



However, he began on June 2nd 1940 in 'The Origin Of The Spirit'. Private detective Denny Colt goes after the evil Doctor Cobra but in the ensuing fight is covered in a chemical solution and left for dead. The police bury him but he was only in a state of suspended animation, caused by the chemicals. He breaks out of his grave and comes back to fight crime in a lone ranger mask as the Spirit. As you would. Except you probably wouldn't and graves are not all that easy to escape from, what with the pine box nailed shut and six feet of mud on top. The first story is full of holes or 'Holy origin story!' as another masked superhero's assistant might say. But from these dubious beginnings came a legendary comic strip.

'Introducing Silk Satin', published March 1941, is the only other pre-war story featured here but it is a prelude of things to come, namely, women. In the decade featured here, we get Dulcet Tone, Skinny Bones, P'gell, Wild Rice, Lorelei Rox and Sand Saref. Will Eisner may have inspired Ian Fleming to give female characters names like Pussy Galore. Anyway, Silk is smarter and tougher than any mere man but fails to kill the Spirit when she has him helpless because he kissed her and she fell in love, as you do if you're a ruthless criminal. Except you probably wouldn't. Holy heartbreak! That just proves the awesome masculinity of our hero. I suppose Eisner was playing along with the conventions of the time and this plot device owes something to film noir and hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1940s and 50s. In fact, all the stories owe a lot to those genres.

As Neil Gaiman says in his excellent introduction, the strip really took off post-war. 'The Last Trolley' (March 1946) is told from the point of view of the bad guy and uses white space and long narrative captions in the opening. 'Mostly they're gone now, the old trolleys...just a few still run.' ‘The Story Of Gerhard Shnobble' (September 1948) starts with, 'Before we begin this story we want to make one point very clear...this is not a funny story!!' This omniscient narrator is a common feature of many tales, again reminiscent of the voice-over in some films of the day. Visual innovations abound including Dali-esque symbolic splash panels, varied panel borders or none, even pages that read in columns separated by thick dotted lines. Some of the characters are rendered in a very cartoon-like, almost comedic mode rather than realistically and have funny names, too. This reminded me of the ‘Dick Tracy’ film with Warren Beatty. There was also a ‘Dick Tracy’ comic strip which preceded ‘The Spirit’. The subject matter, crime, is the same but apart from this broad similarity there is no real comparison. As far as I can see from samples on-line, the ‘Dick Tracy’ strip shows no innovations in story-telling technique.

Like many cartooning stars, including Simon and Kirby and Bob Kane, Eisner operated a studio system. He wrote his name on the strip and at this stage probably wrote most of the stories but had many able assistants helping with the art. Some of these, like Jack Cole, Joe Kubert and Jules Feiffer went on to glory themselves. Assisting meant doing inking, backgrounds and so forth, at least in the early days. It should be emphasised that Eisner designed the strip, hence his fame. A blurb on the cover of this collection refers to 'Citizen Kane' and that is an apt comparison. As with Orson Welles' cinematic masterpiece, the novelty is not so much in the tale but in the telling and the techniques used. The modern reader will see nothing very innovative here but that's simply because Eisner's method has become standard. It was new when he did it. The writing, too, I must say, is a master class in the art of the short story. Not a word is wasted and atmospheric tales are created in seven short pages.

Although I have to admit that none of the stories set my heart racing or made my blood boil with excitement, this book offers a golden opportunity to grab some comic strip classics at a very reasonable price and for that reason is recommended. Don't be put off by the film.

Eamonn Murphy

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