Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Best of the Spirit review

As an avid reader I regularly encounter a problem: what should I read next? You’d think that’s an easy question to answer but that’s not always the case because there are often too many choices. When it comes to comics specifically, I tend to read works by creators I like and whose work I’ve regularly enjoyed in the past. I often make my way through their body of work until I’ve either read all or most of what they’ve done or until I no longer enjoy it. Back when I first started to collect comics in 2006, I felt a need to explore classic comics and critically acclaimed writers and artists. The problem is that I never really read a whole lot of comics that predated the 1980s. It’s not entirely by choice, newer comics tend to be more readily available, but there is still plenty of older material which can easily be found in stores or online. I consider myself a comic reader that doesn’t like to get pigeonholed into reading and buying from a single publisher or from a single genre. 

I absolutely love the variety that comics can offer. It’s an incredibly flexible and versatile form of storytelling. Sometimes I think that regular readers rarely explore as many older works as they probably should. In the last few years I’ve continued to explore different creators, genres and publishers but I still don’t own many older comics and that’s a shame because comics is still a young art form, having made a big splash in the first half of the 20th century, there is a wealth of interesting material that predates the shared universe superhero boom of the second half of the century.

That brings me to Will Eisner. He’s an immensely influential creator in the field of comics and although not as many people are as familiar with his work, everyone is familiar with at least a handful of creators Eisner influenced. I’m one of those readers. I’ve known of Eisner and his body of work for years but I’m never read one of his comics. It’s not that I didn’t want to, much the opposite really. It’s just so easy to be distracted by new releases and I’m just as likely to buy something from a creator I know I like than to explore and try something by a writer or artist that is new to me. That all ended this past weekend when I started to read The Best of the Spirit. It just so happens that it’s great timing as it’s currently the sixth annual Will Eisner Week. It’s celebration of the comics of Will Eisner, the promotion of literacy and free speech. It actually last for more than a week but that’s alright by meYou can find more information on the event here.

I chose to read The Best of the Spirit for a few reasons. It’s Eisner’s most famous work. It’s also known to be a highly experimental and innovative comic which was originally published from 1940 to 1952. The Spirit was a seven page comic book insert and it appeared in newspaper on a weekly basis during its initial run. Eisner was asked to write a superhero story, an increasingly and emergent genre at the time but he didn’t much feel like it and the result is a hero that’s essentially a detective but he has an origin story, wears a domino mask to go along with his trademark blue suit, tie, gloves and fedora hat. Detective Denny Colt confronts Dr. Cobra in his science lair and after a brief bout of fighting Colt “dies” after coming into contact with Dr. Cobra’s experiment. Later on he awakens in his grave, digs himself out and decides to continue pursuing a life of crime fighting as the Spirit. He wears a mask to keep his identity a secret but it doesn’t play into the series too much.

One of the things I like about The Spirit is its strict adherence to a seven page length. I find that creators work best with restrictions or limitations. It forces them to be more creative because there is a dual expectation. One is driving by the restriction itself; you must produce a seven page comic strip. The other goal is driving by the creator who wants to break from the format without breaking the format proper. Yes, Eisner had a seven page limit to each and every story, but if these 22 stories are representative of the whole series, that was the only constant structural element to The Spirit. Many of the stories treat the Spirit as a secondary character. He regularly doesn’t appear on the first or even the second page. That’s pretty surprising considering he’s the main character and that the comic is named after him.

For starters, the stories are never the same. The first one is a typical vigilante origin story but another can be a tense thriller, a suspenseful action story or straight up action. A lot of the stories deal with crime in one form or another and other stories still are romance or drama. A fair number of the stories also have humorous elements which Eisner worked into several different styles of stories. Some of the stories also contain racist or sexist elements. The most obvious of these is the depiction of young Ebony White, a black boy who acts as the Spirit’s sidekick in the earlier stories. Ebony is a typical caricaturized portrayal of a black person complete with wide vacant eyes and large lips. He also talks in a broken speech. I’m not sure how many stories he appears in or for how long he was a part of the strip. 

The Best of the Spirit only collects two stories that were published before Eisner was drafted into the World War II. The rest are collected from his more experimental era in the late forties. Ebony only appears in about three stories out of the 22 collected in this volume. In the later stories he’s replaced with a young white boy, Sammy, as the Spirit’s sidekick. It’s interesting that Eisner replaced Ebony with Sammy. It seems to indicate that while Eisner was clearly influenced by the portrayal of black characters typical of the time in which he was working on this comic; he didn’t entirely feel comfortable about it and so he replaced Ebony with another character. I’m not well suited to discussing racist depictions of black characters in fiction but there are plenty of interesting articles and essays to read on the subject and many are available online.

Other than the seven page length of the weekly Spirit story, the other defining aspect of the series was how many of the stories focused on Eisner presentation of the human condition. Stories include the life of a man driven to murder told through his point of view, literally allowing the reader to look at the world through his eyes (Eisner places us in the head of the murderer).  The life of Rice Wilder, aka Wild Rice, is told in just seven pages. Having grown up in a wealthy family she desired nothing more than to be allowed to escape and experience freedom first hand. She willingly heads into a life of crime only to have it end in tragedy when she gets what she wanted so desperately. One of Eisner’s most poignant stories in this collection takes place on a getaway island in South America. A friend of the Spirit asks him to clear the name of her husband who is clearly guilty but he changes his mind after the man dies while heroically trying to save the life of his step-daughter. Most of the stories in this collection present situations specific to human life in all its varied forms. You often get to see the Spirit punch someone, too but that’s more of a bonus. It’s very interesting how in his very own series, the Spirit regularly doesn’t appear for the first two pages of the strip. In many ways, he plays a secondary role to the true main character of any given story.

Though it only presents a small look at the series, The Best of the Spirit clearly demonstrates in many ways how Eisner was an innovator. He wasn’t the first to create many of the techniques he uses (though he did create plenty) but he changed them and pushed them further than they’ve ever been used before. He combined many different techniques together to produce interesting stories. There are several visual styles and storytelling tricks that continue to survive today that were first developed or used effectively by Eisner during his run on The Spirit. Some examples include new ways to use of sound effects, the further development of interesting and effective lettering techniques, “logotechture”, and the technique that incorporates a story’s title or the title of the comic into the background or buildings. These images were often one-page spreads. Later comics would adopt this technique to incorporate the credits of a particular comic into an introduction page. The idea of an introduction page is also something Eisner innovated. Many of the later stories in The Spirit begin with a nearly full or a complete one-page spread. Some of them didn’t even have text on them.

I would feel like my post was incomplete if I didn’t mention the fact that Eisner received a considerable amount of help while writing and drawing The Spirit. While in Europe during World War II, the comic was ghost written and drawn to allow for the regular publishing of the strip. During the end of its original publication, many creators, some of them well known such as Julius Schwartz, Wally Wood and others, were producing The Spirit nearly on their own which Eisner reduced to the role of supervisor and consultant. It’s pretty clear to me that The Spirit is as fascinating a comic as Will Eisner and they both deserved to be explored further. It’s something I plan on doing so don’t be surprised if either of them post up on Shared Universe Reviews again.

No comments:

Post a Comment