The Spirit #4
I don’t know that the world needs another set of Spirit tales, especially since the character was always under-sketched, a cipher that allowed Will Eisner (and those who worked for him) to wander the city streets of the underclass. So there isn’t a lot of character fandom or a unique reason to bring this fedora-wearing mystery man back. But since DC’s done it, let’s look at the latest issue.
The Spirit #4, written by David Hine, art by Moritat, is the start of a story called “Frostbite”, about a new drug, a white powder called Frost, becoming available. A well-off girl at a small party overdoses, and her friends, worried about their standing and their future careers, dump her in the snow. This is standard stuff, harshly but familiarly laid out with a minimum of fuss and extra trimmings. The art is suitably moody, with faces exaggerated enough that the characters don’t quite seem like real people (thus perhaps blunting the identification with the well-off recreational drug users).
The real reason I want to talk about this comic is how they’ve reinvented two of the more problematic original characters. Ellen Dolan, the spoiled daughter of Commissioner Dolan, was originally a comedy figure, there to pine over the Spirit. She got in wacky trouble, putting her nose in where she didn’t belong so he could rescue and return her to the women’s sphere. She represented the ties of domesticity, which may first seem attractive but are ultimately too clinging for an adventuresome man.
Here, she’s got the same plucky spirit, but more gumption. We first see her standing up to drug dealers, unarmed, telling them to get out of her neighborhood. That’s still as stupid as some of the things the previous version did, and it’s relying a bit too much on her privileged role as a high-ranking police officer’s daughter, but at least she’s doing something for the community instead of herself. Now she’s more Lois Lane, on her best days, than Peg Bundy.
The other, worse problem is of course Ebony, originally a Stepin Fetchit black caricature, all huge lips and broken English. Here, she’s a savvy young woman who leads and inspires a group of street kids everyone else ignores. That gives them the ability to go places and do things, making them more like the Baker Street Irregulars for the Spirit. Making her female was a great choice, since it makes the name more plausible and helps balance out the traditionally male cast. One of the thugs even comments on this after Ebony and her snowball-throwing friends interrupt another drug deal:
Another girl?! What is it with the women in this town?
(Ebony replies) I guess some of us just aren’t content with looking cute, cooking, and raising kids. Not when scum like you are crawling around loose on the streets.
Unfortunately, she then becomes a victim, waiting for the Spirit to rescue her. But until then, I was really digging her approach.
The backup story (to justify the increased cover price of $3.99) is a black-and-white tale by Marv Wolfman and Phil Winslade in which the Spirit saves some old folks from a fire and handles a city blackout. I found it crowded and hart to follow, with lengthy word balloons cluttering already busy pages. It’s meant to be one of these “circumstances work out so the guilty always get punished, one way or another”, but it tries too hard.
In short, I don’t think this book needs to exist, but since it does, I like the ways the female characters have been reinvented. There is a preview available at the publisher’s website.