The Spirit Archives Volumes 23-25
With the movie opening tomorrow (although the reviews are in already, and it’s not looking good), I figured now was a great time to get caught up on my reading of the classic reprint series The Spirit Archives. Volumes 23-25 are the three most recent. Volume 26, the last in the series, is due out next week. It features Eisner’s Spirit material from after 1952, when the original series ended, including work originally published by Harvey and Kitchen Sink.
Volume 23 includes the Spirit supplements from July – December 1951. By this time, Will Eisner was busy with other things, as series editor Dale Crain mentions in his introduction. That piece was the best thing about the book, since it presents a brief history of DC’s work on the series and how they made it happen. It’s a lovely look back and summing up.
As Crain says, by this point, Jules Feiffer was doing “virtually all of the writing”, and the art was handled by a mixed studio. Favorite characters continue to appear — P’Gell, Commissioner Dolan, his daughter Ellen (now mayor), Silken Floss — but racial caricature Ebony is gone but not missed. The topics are timely for the period, covering the rise of television, psychoanalysis, bullfighting, corruption, and tales of being lost on a desert island, although none of the stories are particularly memorable.
The end was clearly near, and like many things, it would come not with a bang but a whimper.
Volume 24 contains the last of the original Sunday supplement stories from January 1952 until October 5 of that year. This book is promoted as containing Wally Wood’s art, which it does — he took over with July 27’s installment. However, after four weeks, the feature dropped from 8 pages to 4, until its abrupt end less than two months later. So there’s fewer than 60 pages of Wood work here, in a 272-page book.
Wood’s art takeover came along with a change of focus, in which the Spirit is sent to the moon to supervise prison laborers supporting a scientific mission. It’s a dumb idea, even for a culture space-crazy at the time. The character just doesn’t work without his mean streets and overhanging brownstones.
Before then, there are a couple of curiosities worth mentioning. In the second tale, a writer pitches a story of a heat doomsday to “Will”, a pipe-smoking editor/business type, with the writer’s efforts intercut with the illustrations he’s describing. It’s notable mainly for the ending, in which the writer builds to an explosive big finish. The editor then points out that the writer didn’t consider one thing: “What about next week?”
Another early story parodies science fiction action heroes with the goofy Captain Isotope, ironic in light of how the Spirit ended. Several others evoke memories of similar, better earlier stories. (We have the advantage of having the whole series to reread to remind ourselves.) One from June has a broken cartoonist bragging about how he used to be carried by 500 papers (now down to 40) and don’t call him a has-been. His apprentice steals his files and replaces his strip in the papers. Most directly, the story just before the switchover has Eisner himself trying to create while taking phone calls from the syndicate directing him to marry off the Spirit.
The feature was 11 years old by this point, and it had been dropped by papers as Eisner’s attention and personal creation turned elsewhere. The sci-fi storyline seems like a last-ditch effort to seem relevant before everyone gave up and the strip sputtered to a stop. Unfortunately, according to the introduction, “the major shift of subject and style … inspired other papers to finally drop the ailing feature.”
So what’s in Volume 25, then? As it’s subtitled, “The Complete Daily Strips from 1941-1944”. I didn’t even know there were daily Spirit comics! According to Tom Spurgeon’s introduction, that may be because they weren’t very good. In the smaller, black-and-white space, Eisner couldn’t do fancy layouts, his strength, or use expanded timing (pauses, etc.). Instead, we get adventure, comedy, and Super-Ebony.
Plus, Eisner only did the first six weeks before he went into the military, after which it was taken over by Lou Fine, then Jack Cole (Plastic Man).
(A note on pricing: the standard Archive price was $49.99 for about 200 pages of material. Volume 24 expands the page count in order to complete the series and raised the price to $59.99. Volume 25 stays at that price but goes back to the 200-page size. Plus, there’s no color for most of it.)