Visionary Character From A Visionary Creator
(originally published in the February
2003 issue of Once Upon A Dime)
of the thousands of heroes that first appeared in
comics' golden age, only the most original and exciting
ones have survived to the present day. The list
of such classic characters is short - Captain America,
Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman and
a very few others.
of those heroes may have each sprung from the forehead
of one creator, but all were eventually absorbed by
the comics corporations. Only one hero stands alone
as an exception to that rule. He is a protagonist
who has appeared in few new stories since 1952 - a
special man called the Spirit.
Spirit was a creation of the great Will Eisner,
one of comics' true visionaries, a man whose breadth
of vision and complex originality is reflected in
perhaps his greatest creation. The Spirit is a study
in seeming contradictions. He is a man with no special
abilities or powers, yet he is a man who never hesitates
to charge into a fight. He is officially an outlaw,
a man without obvious roots, yet he is very much
part of a tight family. He lives in New York (called
Central City in the stories), yet he is a world
traveler. He's loosely affiliated with the Central
City Police Department, yet he fights crime in exotic
foreign locations. He is a masked hero, but his
mask doesn't matter and nobody in the stories ever
comments on it. He is both a larger-than-life action
hero and big as life as a man who was frequently
hurt badly in his adventures. In the end, he is
a unique human surrounded by other unique humans,
and in that fact lays the real excitement of the
Spirit is a vigilante of sorts, a kind of a police
officer without portfolio in Central City dedicated
to stopping crime wherever it exists. He is a rough-and-tumble
figure who never minds a good fight and always seems
to be surrounded by some of the most voluptuous,
beautiful women in the world.
of characters fought crime, and plenty encountered
voluptuous adversaries. What really made the series
special was Eisner's approach to these storylines.
Only in the hands of a master like Eisner could
the world of the Spirit come alive in such an original
and compelling way. Eisner's writing on the Spirit
was startlingly original for comics, and his art
propelled and amplified the tales. They worked together
in the best of the Spirit tales to depict the most
outlandish and outrageous events, depicting each
story with great verisimilitude.
a Spirit story literally anything could happen and
almost always would. The spirit of Christmas was
felt annually. A humble accountant named Gerhard
Schnobble could fly. The Spirit would fly all around
the world, even to the "Crime Capital of the
World", in his adventures.
fought outlandish villains like Mr. Carrion, the
Octopus and Sand Serif. He would be repeatedly shot,
beaten up, tortured in almost any possible way.
At the same time the Spirit was a man with whom
readers can easily empathize. He had a family of
sorts, with lovers and confidants, and he had very
human failings and emotions. He is a hero, but definitely
not a standard super-hero.
Spirit has an origin like every other comic hero.
Before donning his domino mask, the Spirit was Denny
Colt, rising star of the Central City Police Department.
On the hunt for the evil Dr. Cobra, Colt is struck
over the head by one of Cobra's henchmen and has
Dr. Cobra's "death water" spilled on him.
Colt thought dead by the police department, a mysterious
man in a blue three-piece suit and domino mask appears
at the office of Central City's police commissioner,
Eustace Dolan, to help send Dr. Cobra to jail. The
mysterious man is soon revealed as Colt, who quickly
succeeds in his objective.
Dolan confronts Colt to ask him to rejoin the force,
Colt demurs, "I think I'll remain dead. As
The Spirit I can operate without red tape or politics.
Many criminals who operate outside the law can only
be apprehended by someone who is unencumbered by
story is a bit corny, but it is a terrific rationale
for the character's career. As the Spirit fights
crime, he becomes the trusted friend and confidant
of Commissioner Dolan and becomes the paramour of
Commissioner Dolan's daughter Ellen.
by his young friend Ebony, Ebony's friends, and
assorted hangers-on, and without any special abilities
beyond dogged perseverance, the Spirit helped battle
crime in Central City and throughout the world.
of what made The Spirit so special is the way
the feature was created. Never strictly a newspaper
strip, though there was a daily strip, and the Sunday
strip definitely ran in newspapers. Nor was it strictly
a comic book, though comic books featuring the Spirit
ran pretty much uninterrupted in comics' Golden Age.
The Spirit was a unique polyglot: a weekly 16-page
comic book that ran in newspapers, and which later
was reprinted on a monthly basis by Quality Comics.
the Spirit had to appeal to adults as well as children
in the newspapers, Eisner and his assistants were
given great license to innovate, to engage readers
in a way that the comic might never had done had
it been intended for the generally younger audience
of comic books in the 1940s. When Eisner was approached
with the idea of a weekly comic book in 1940, both
sides probably saw it as an interesting commercial
opportunity to create something that could make
them a lot of money.
Eisner related in a 1978 Comics Journal interview:
"It was in 1940, late '39 to be exact - the
Register-Tribune syndicate asked me to produce a
newspaper insert for them, called a ready-print,
which would be a comic book in format. They left
for me a certain amount of freedom to develop the
characters that I wanted to do, to develop the material
I thought would be appropriate.
'freedom' I mean that they had no prerequisite or
requirements in the way of stories or ideas, other
than they said they wanted stuff that was in the
genre of comic books. You must understand that the
years between 1936 and 1940 saw the rise of comic
books as a popular reading force and the newspapers,
ever alert to trends, sought to latch on."
those relatively humble beginnings, a twelve-year
Spirit ran weekly as part of Sunday newspapers,
generally in seven-page chunks, from June 2, 1940
to October 5, 1952, a grand total of 645 weekly
installments. Eisner wrote and drew most of the
stories between the first one and his induction
into the Army in 1942. He returned to the strip
in late 1945 and, with a team of assistants, worked
on the strip continuously until the summer of 1951,
returning to the strip shortly before its demise.
assistants read like a Who's Who of comics of the
era: such artists as Lou Fine, Jack Cole and Joe
Kubert worked on The Spirit while Eisner in the
Army; in the post-war era his assistants included
Jules Feiffer, Jerry Grandenetti, Klaus Nordling,
Don Perlin, and the amazing Wally Wood. Generally
the stories that are best-remembered are those of
the post-war era.
the post-war Spirit stories, Eisner felt free to
explore his intense curiosity and passion for creative
storytelling. There are very few comics that work
as hard at creating unique stories as Eisner did
in that era.
week's story was unique to itself, both in mood
and style. One week the Spirit story might be an
amazingly violent exploration into political corruption,
while the next week might be a humorous piece about
the Spirit's girlfriend being jealous of a female
physicist who is trying to get the Spirit help her
resolve a threat on her plans for a complex device
to revolutionize warfare.
stories are jam-packed with action and adventure
- a seven-page Spirit story might have more action
per page than any comic story in history. It was
almost as if Eisner, with a nearly limitless store
of imagination and curiosity, could never hold himself
back from cramming as much story in as small a space
since he was only essentially beholden to himself,
Eisner was free to explore his curiosity. Eisner
owned all the rights to his creation, licensing
it to the Register-Tribune syndicate but retaining
all the copyrights himself. There aren't 60 years
of additional work to muddy and complicate his creation,
as happened with Batman and the other characters
of the era. The Spirit exists only as Eisner created
him, and that ownership allowed him freedom to indulge.
the Spirit is both larger and big as life, his villains
are equally complex. First and foremost are his
female adversaries. Eisner could draw and write
women like few other cartoonists. Compelling femmes
fatales such as Sand Saref and P'Gell were not only
eye-poppingly gorgeous; they were also complex human
beings whose plans generally involved narrow self-interest
rather than real evil.
easy to both love and hate these women, to feel
sympathy to their plans to simply get rich and have
a better life while despising their methods for
achieving their goals. These are intelligent women
whose primary adversary is an intelligent man, and
in the chess game between the two sides lays the
compelling power of Eisner's stories.
of the greatest stories of the run of the Spirit
is from October 6, 1946. The story begins with a
typically seductive Spirit splash page. On it an
exotic woman in a slinky red dress is lounging on
a chaise while proclaiming "I am P'Gell - and
this is not a story for little boys!!"
P'Gell is a lace curtain covering an exotic locale.
Emerging from the curtain is the Spirit, his face
partially hidden. It's an image that's almost impossible
to resist. The story that follows is the equal of
the splash page. It turns out that the exotic locale
is Istanbul, den of spies and counterspies, where
everybody is looking for any edge they can in the
midst of a post-war period when the rules of the
future are yet to be defined. P'Gell, being a beautiful
and seductive woman, uses her wiles to get close
to "the notorious Petit, the dealer in men."
she's seduced him both to an alliance with her and
to her sexual powers, P'Gell finds that Petit is
the sole possessor of a scientific formula that
will extend life. Meanwhile the Spirit has shown
up in Istanbul to try to stop P'Gell's plans. Following
the two pages of setup is five pages of twists and
turns that would leave any reader breathless.
of the Spirit's most worthy adversaries is the Octopus.
Never seen in anything but shadows, and only ever
identified by his three-striped glove, the Octopus
was a brilliant criminal genius, and perhaps the
most worthy adversary of the Spirit. He was certainly
one of the most vicious of the Spirit's adversaries.
of the greatest Octopus stories is from August 24,
1947. This story is a triumph of both atmosphere
and excitement. It's a truly noirish tale in which
the tension of the atmosphere slowly builds to a
spine-tingling climax. It begins to a chilling splash
page. "It is night in Central City
so hot it makes your ears ring
and it is quiet
so quiet one's footsteps sound
like rifle shots
" the page begins, setting
a mood of tension that only increased as the story
to Commissioner Dolan's office. Dolan and the force
are worried. The 4th Ward of the city is quarantined
for the showdown between the Spirit and the Octopus.
Dolan paces the halls as the scene cuts to the master
villain with the three-striped glove. The blackness
of the setting matches the blackness of the Octopus's
soul, as the Spirit is shot in the hand, blinded,
almost shot in the head and then is almost blown
up by a grenade as he tries to pursue the man who
is responsible for so much evil in Central City.
one of Eisner's favorite stories as well. He stated
in a 1986 interview that this story was one of his
favorites. "On the old scale of one to ten,
I'd give this story somewhere around a seven or
eight. I consider it a very good effort, and looking
back at it now, I'm not at all ashamed of the art."
The Spirit is one of those rare cases where art
and story work perfectly in partnership. It's easy
to see how they work so closely together, of course,
since Eisner both wrote and drew the stories. However,
Eisner's innate sense of how art and story work
jointly in comics helped to emphasize both the art
is brilliant at his employment of body language
in his stories. Over and over again, one finds in
the Spirit stories that one can tell what a person
is thinking and doing by looking at the way Eisner
draws them. He is a master of emphasizing the small
touches that illuminate personality. It seems impossible
that a character identified by just a glove would
seem fleshed out, but Eisner pulls it off with great
aplomb time and time again.
is also a master of mood. The Octopus story above
is one example of his use of mood, but Eisner also
loved to draw whimsical stories. He loved to have
fun with his characters, letting them get into humorous
adventures as well as dramatic stories.
one other trademark of the Spirit that has to be
mentioned: the splash page of each story. Because
the weekly newspaper section didn't have a cover,
the reader would start reading with the first page
of the Spirit tale. Therefore the splash page had
to act as a de facto cover.
obviously took this as an open license for exploration.
Since he decided to forego a permanent logo, Eisner
was free to create a dynamic image each week's logo.
One week the logo was the words "The Spirit"
spelled out in a New York apartment building. The
next week the words were the bars of a cell about
to experience a jailbreak. The next week it was
the mailing address sent by the Spirit's assistant
Ebony from parts unknown. Each week it was an exciting
design element to an intriguing story.
end of the Spirit came, as you might expect, when
fewer and fewer newspapers began carrying the comic.
At the same time Eisner's American Visuals Corporation
started taking off and he began doing illustration
work for the military that would last into the 1970s.
After 645 weeks, the Spirit came to an end.
rather than go out with a whimper, the series went
out with a bang - the bang of a rocket. The last
extended story in the series was "The Spirit
in Outer Space," a grand science fiction adventure
that was drawn by Wally Wood at the very top of
one of the finest science fiction artists ever,
produced perhaps some of his greatest work in these
stories. Drawn contemporaneously with his work for
EC Comics, Wood brought a new spark to Eisner's
Outer Space stories were explorations of mankind's
venality and predilection for selfishness in an
outer-space setting. Instead of space taking mankind
away from its roots, mankind would take all its
troubles into space. In collaboration with Wood,
Eisner ends the series with a memorable burst of
just like that, the Spirit was gone.
had changed, Eisner was busy and comics were about
to come under attack in Congress. He moved on at
just the right time. The series would live on in
the memories of those who knew it.
readers would revive Spirit comics in the early
1970s, and reprints of the classic stories have
been in print almost ever since. Thousands of new
readers would rediscover Eisner through both Spirit
reprints and Eisner's brilliant new graphic novels.
Well over 100 different Spirit comics and collections
were released from the 1970s into the 1990s.
DC Comics is running a series of hardcover reprints
of the original stories. They are about to start
running the classic post-war stories. If there ever
was a series that deserved the deluxe reprint treatment,
it's the Spirit. It's one of the masterpieces of
American comic book art.