Will Eisner’s The Spirit Archives Volume 1: June 2 to December 29, 1940
(2000) - Will Eisner
Hardcover, 237 pages
Show me a person who knows absolutely nothing about comic books who wants to know something about comic books. In no time at all, they’ll hear the name “Eisner.” That reference might be to the Eisner Awards or to the man himself, but make no mistake, you’ll hear the name early and often.
There’s a reason for this: Will Eisner’s contribution to the world of comics is monumental. I could give you a rundown of Eisner’s legacy, but you can find that evidence just about anywhere, including concise treatments included in this edition. But save those for after you’ve read this first volume of archives, a collection of 7-page tales originally published weekly as Sunday newspaper inserts.
This volume’s opening gives a far better introduction to The Spirit than I ever could:
Denny Colt, a young criminologist, believed to have lost his life in a fight against crime, was buried in a state of suspended animation. He awoke one day in Wildwood Cemetery to carry on his struggle...his true identity known only to Police Commissioner Dolan. He is feared by criminals of all stripes as the SPIRIT!
The Spirit immediately separates itself from other Golden Age comics of the era in several ways. The writing is tight and focused. It had to be, with only seven pages to work with. Nearly all of these tales are self-contained, “one and done” stories, yet recurring themes and characters keep readers’ interest strong.
As good as these stories are, it’s Eisner’s art that’s astounding. Again, we have to think about what else is going on in the Golden Age at this time. Superman had been around for a couple of years, Batman was literally at the end of year one, and Captain Marvel had just arrived. (Captain America, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Plastic Man and Black Hawk were all waiting around the corner, debuting in 1941.) I’ll admit to not having read a lot of Golden Age comics, but the ones I have from this era don’t exactly have the most sophisticated storytelling or art. Remember, the medium (at least for superheroes) was still pretty new. Artists were, to a large degree, still trying to figure out the best way to illustrate stories, make them flow, and give the reader the greatest visual impact.
Up steps Eisner, who seems to have landed from another planet where people had already been drawing comics for centuries. (Eisner had, in fact, been drawing professionally for about four years.) You don’t have to look far to see that Eisner was way ahead of just about everybody else at the time. Just look at the first page of the first comic dated June 2, 1940: Even in the very first panel, we see Denny Colt (pre-Spirit) leaning into Commissioner Dolan’s office, separated by the office door. Dolan’s shadow appears literally on top of the door, setting the stage for something of a love/hate darkness/light relationship that will continue throughout the series (although both men are working on the side of good). In Panel #2, Dolan says, “Denny Colt! Haven’t I enough trouble?” as Colt sits on a corner of Dolan’s desk, clearly looking down on him. He says there for the next two panels. (Notice also the brightness of the Commissioner’s office contrasted with the darkness of the city through the office window.) They’re working for the same goals, but Colt and Dolan are different and Eisner makes each panel show this in subtle, yet unmistakeable ways.
And that’s just the first page.
Eisner had complete control over The Spirit and was able to take risks, experiment with form, art, and storytelling. You don’t have to look very far to see that Eisner has been an enormous influence over many artists, but I have to believe Steve Ditko must’ve spent many hours pouring over Eisner’s work. You see elements of Ditko’s strange architecture (from Doctor Strange), mad scientist laboratories (from The Amazing Spider-Man), shady underworld figures (from many comics) right here in this first volume alone.
Yet all is not paradise. Eisner’s portrayal of The Spirit’s sidekick Ebony is sorely racist and insensitive. No doubt this is a product of Eisner’s times, but Ebony’s character (as likable as he is) makes for many uncomfortable moments. But again, those were the times...
The original adventures of The Spirit ran from 1940 to 1952 and have been collected in 26 hardcover volumes. Most of these, sadly, are out of print, but hopefully DC Comics will reissue them soon. (The new Rocketeer/Spirit comic mini-series will be released this week, so hopefully that might create some demand for the original archive volumes.) I was able to acquire this volume through interlibrary loan, so check your local library first. I plan on reading all 26 volumes. I hope you’ll join me.