Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Best of The Spirit by Will Eisner

Not the best collection, but superb comics nonetheless
The Spirit, created by Will Eisner, may very well be the most influential comics series ever created. Each week from 1940 to 1952, Eisner produced a syndicated newspaper supplement with a 7-page Spirit story. He wrote and drew most of the stories himself, though over time he did enlist help from other creative talent, particularly while he was off serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. The Spirit is more of a police detective than a superhero, though he does wear a mask and miraculously survives a great deal of physical abuse. Although the series has a film noir style that grounds it in the mystery and crime genre, The Spirit gave Eisner the opportunity to explore multiple genres, including comedy, romance, horror, and even science fiction. Anyone who has read superhero or sci-fi comics from the 1960s knows how mind-numbingly simplistic the typical seven page stories of this “Golden Age” often were, but with The Spirit Eisner often turned out complex and innovative narratives comparable to a cinematic experience. For decades to come, comic books and newspaper strips in multiple genres would be influenced by Eisner’s groundbreaking work.

In 2000, DC Comics began reprinting The Spirit comics in their Spirit Archives series, and in 2005 they published The Best of The Spirit. Since this collection is published by DC, you of course get the obligatory foreword by Neil Gaiman, whose work has little in common with that of Eisner’s, but he does lavish sufficient praise on the master. To anyone who has never read The Spirit before, the 22 stories included in this “greatest hits” anthology provide more than ample demonstration of Eisner’s genius as a graphic storyteller.

But is this really “The Best” of The Spirit? The selections here seem to be chosen on the basis of two criteria: First, to include as many as possible of the sexy “dames” that were one of the series’s claims to fame. These femme fatales were certainly an important factor in the popularity of the strip, so their inclusion is no surprise, but I think the editors went a little overboard in that direction. Secondly, a wisely conscious attempt is made to eliminate any appearance by Ebony White, the Spirit’s African American sidekick who was unfortunately drawn as a stereotypical blackface caricature. He shows up in only two panels in this entire volume, including one unavoidable cameo in the very first Spirit adventure. This origin story itself is certainly not among Eisner’s better works, but one can understand the desire to include it here. It is one of two pre-WWII stories included, neither of which is artistically exceptional. In the selection of stories, one wishes there had been less emphasis on the Spirit’s female adversaries and more attention paid to Eisner’s innovation in page layout.

The often murky and sometimes blurry quality of the reproductions in this volume is disappointing. The unavoidable fact that the original Spirit comics were printed on a tabloid-sized sheet, and are thus reduced to about a quarter of their size here, contributes to a frustrating lack of clarity. I remember when Kitchen Sink Press used to publish reprints of The Spirit, however, and their reproductions, even at reduced size, looked a lot better. They even had a series, The Spirit Color Album, printed in full color in a large 9 x 12-inch format. When Kitchen Sink went under in 1999, DC somehow got the rights to The Spirit, and they’ve been reprinting the series ever since. If this volume is any indication of the reproduction quality of their Spirit Archives series, however, I’d rather hunt up the old Kitchen Sink editions.
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