Will Eisner’s The Spirit
After the various attempts at revamping Will Eisner’s classic Spirit character, I was leery of another. He’s a tricky property, well-known but without much substance. His backstory is too simple to do much with, his supporting characters must be handled carefully to overcome their background as stereotypes (the stodgy police officer, the pushy female, and the racist comic relief), and he doesn’t have any powers or unique abilities to set him apart from a bunch of other adventurers. But Dynamite Entertainment has assembled a terrific creative team that have found a great approach to the property, turning out entertaining retro-styled stories. Matt Wagner writes, Dan Schkade illustrates, and Eric Powell provides the covers shown here.
That retro approach is a big part of making the concept work, I think. The Spirit is best suited to the 1940s of his origin, a time when fist-swinging stories of battling criminals or saboteurs seemed fresher and more vibrant. The creators have also set up a very smart premise. The Spirit has been missing for two years and is presumed dead, so the characters are trying to learn how to get on without him.
This allows for a variety of flashbacks and memories, which well establish the appeal of and reactions to the Spirit in a natural way. They also provide action sequences with the title character, a requirement for this comic genre, and opportunities for many of the best-known characters to pop up, as the Spirit’s friends are looking for him and interrogating anyone who could have been involved.
There are some new characters (as far as I know), too — Councilman Weatherby Palmer, a stuffed shirt trying to take over from Commissioner Dolan; reporter Treadwell Stubbs, whose attempt to do a story on the anniversary of the Spirit’s disappearance allows for more natural exposition; and Archie Shale, Ellen Dolan’s milquetoast boyfriend. These may not be new. They fit very well into the milieu (a compliment to Wagner), and it doesn’t matter to the new reader one way or another.
While I’m talking about the creators, let me also praise Schkade’s art. It’s got the skill of the original but with a more modern staging and a slickness of presentation that’s a pleasure to read. The characters appear animated, as if caught in the middle of key motions that reveal a lot of their personalities, and the occasional daring layout does pop up to remind us of Eisner’s design skills.
Issue #1 gives an origin of the Spirit, as he’s fondly remembered, as well as setting up what’s been going on with the rest of the cast. Most importantly, it reintroduces Strunk and White, aka Sammy and Ebony, the Spirit’s former sidekicks who’ve now set up on their own as private investigators. It’s really nice seeing Ebony portrayed as so competent and mature, fighting for right on his own and being darn good at it.
In issue #2, they prevent Mister Carrion (and his pet buzzard Julia, which is so weird that it has to be original Eisner) from abusing an older woman who just wanted to be loved. Issue #3 takes up more of a globe-trotting approach, taking us to an island setting and reintroducing Sand Saref. It’s P’Gell’s turn in issue #4.
Issues #5-8 continue to fill in the backstory of what happened to the Spirit and set up a new big baddie. Plus, the various subplots continue to build. The pacing is exciting, a real page-turner with packed issues and no padded feeling.
So would someone without nostalgia for the Spirit want to read these? They make a good modern introduction to the concept, capturing much of the appeal with good storytelling, great character attitudes, and the best-remembered cast members and settings without some of the nastier elements of the original stories. However, it’s all probably irrelevant to the modern comic reader, who’s moved past this kind of slam-bang action stories. But for those interested in a key element of the roots of the modern comic industry, or those who love this kind of old-fashioned adventure, it’s a cracking good read.
The first arc is planned to be 12 issues, with #8 out this month and #9 due out March 16. See a preview of issue #1 at the publisher’s website.