A Visionary Character From A Visionary Creator
(originally published in the February 2003 issue of Once Upon A Dime)

Out 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.

Each 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.

The 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 series.

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.

Plenty 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.

In 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.

He 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.

The 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.

With 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.

When 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 law itself."

The 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.

Accompanied 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.

Part 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.

No, 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.

Because 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.

As 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.

"By '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."

From those relatively humble beginnings, a twelve-year run began.

The 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.

Eisner's 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.

In 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.

Each 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.

The 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 as possible.

And 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.

If 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.

It's 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.

One 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!!"

Behind 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."

Once 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.

Another 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.

One 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… a hot night… 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 went on.

Cut 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.

It's 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 and story.

Eisner 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.

Eisner 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.

There's 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.

Eisner 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.

The 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.

But 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 his game.

Wood, 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 writing.

The 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 energy.

And just like that, the Spirit was gone.

Times 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.

Those 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.

Currently 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.

-- Jason Sacks

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