The Spirit Archives Volume 14
Will Eisner is one of the acknowledged geniuses of the comics field. While he didn’t actually invent the graphic novel (with 1978’s A Contract With God), he did make numerous strides in fighting for acceptance of the medium as an artform.
One of his advances was his Sunday Spirit sections, seven-page stories included in weekly newspaper supplements. The Spirit Archives collect these tales in handsomely re-colored hardcovers. With 24 volumes out so far, giving them a try can be intimidating. If you’re wondering where to start, I recommend Volume 14.
Why? First off, the post-war stories are better. The stories reprinted in this book originally ran from January to June 1947. While Eisner was away at war, the Spirit stories were continued under his name by other members of his studio. When Eisner returned, he brought a new level of creativity.
Second, this volume begins with my favorite Spirit story, because it shows how the title character is only a device to frame all kinds of tales. While Denny Colt is technically a superhero — he came back from the dead and he wears a vestigial mask — he’s more of a detective, and ultimately just a mechanism to get things going. (Often, his major contribution is getting knocked out or barely surviving a murder attempt.) The Spirit stories aren’t his adventures, and in some of the best ones, he barely plays a role.
Instead, Eisner uses the framework to demonstrate his great creativity of both topic and art. In “Perfect Crime”, a thief robs and murders a man. He and his dame take a submarine (!) to an uncharted island, fortified for defense and stocked with provisions to wait out the heat for a few months. In a beautiful example of the proverb “the guilty flee where no man pursueth”, Baxter and Maggie wind up destroying each other in a descending spiral of madness.
The best part of the story? Even though the criminals have been punished more thoroughly than the courts could have done, the Spirit and Commissioner Dolan have no idea of their fate, and so they think they got away. The evil pay the price for their crimes, but the good have to put up with the feeling of failure and never knowing how well they actually succeeded. Merely the idea of the Spirit is enough to drive the bad guys to destruction.
Eisner, like Damon Runyan, portrays seamy underworld life with flourish better than realism. He understands the psychology of the petty criminal mind and so creates colorful characters driven by man’s basic motivations: lust, fear, greed. Their body language and expression are wondrous to see.
But it’s not just criminals he captures. This volume introduces Saree, a wise-beyond-her-years adolescent with a repulsive lack of morals. She wants to be a femme fatale, but she’s so over-the-top that she’s a figure of comedy instead. Then her new stepmother arrives: P’Gell, one of Eisner’s seriously lethal exotics, come to open a “School for Girls”. One page, consisting of a cutaway house where the room are panels, demonstrates his reputed experimentation with layout and structure in a way that works on multiple levels.
Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with this work is that, when it comes to characters other than white men, it’s very much a product of its time. The Spirit’s sidekick, Ebony, is drawn as a horrible caricature right out of a minstrel show, while the women are one-dimensional: either silly and flighty or gold-digging sex bombs. Even the brilliant Dr. Silken Floss attempts to trick the Spirit into marriage while undressing for the viewer. It can be difficult for a modern reader to put up with the stereotypes. Still, if they can set them aside, they’re in for some amazing cartooning and a wide variety of exciting stories.