Wednesday, August 6, 2014

CBR Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT


It's time for some classic Action/Mystery/Adventure... Humor as well!

Revisit one of the most original and all-time classic iconic characters of all comic books!

Don't miss out my previous pulp heroes-related reviews!

Comic title: The Best of THE SPIRIT
Art & story by Will Eisner

Published by DC Comics
From 2005
Lineup Will Eisner's The Spirit
Format: Omnibus-sized trade paperback collecting 22 Spirit stories originally published between 1940 and 1950.

Created by world-renowned cartoonist Will Eisner in the 1940s, The Spirit first appeared in "The Spirit Section" on June 1940 in Sunday newspaper. At the time it basically become one of the most read "funny papers", reaching in the million readers all the way through the 2nd World War.

Eisner had to take a break from the character when he was drafted into the war, late in 1941. Ghost writers took over before the character had to be put on hold for a little while.

Eisner finally returned to The Spirit after the war in 1945, and continued all the way through until the series ended in 1952.

The character would be brought back for new Eisner-penned stories from the 1960s to the 1980s. Over the years Spirit material has been continuously reprinted through various publishers from Harvey Comics to the classic Kitchen Sink Press reprints, etc. Which brought the character a renewed interest to several other generations, where the character met new interests and renowned success during the 1980s and the early 1990s.

In the 90s, Dark Horse Comics was able to get the character to produce new original stories, this time under several new writers and artists (including the likes of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Paul Chadwick and also Paul Pope), before the character's right were finally obtained by DC Comics in the 2000s (where the copyrights still are to this very day, despite DC basically not using the character anymore, at all).

This is The Best of The Spirit, a 2005 collection reprinting several material from Will Eisner classic Spirit run, from 1940 to 1950. 192 pages-worth of classic comic book material. Some of these were done with the help of several contributors, and they're all mentioned in the first pages of this book.

This collection also contains a wonderfully-written introduction by SANDMAN creator and New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman! Heartwarming and insightful. Neil Gaiman talks about the influence the great Will Eisner had on comics as a whole and his experience discovering his work as a kid. It's a really powerful though as Gaiman describes how in the 70s he actually had no idea those comics were actually reprints of such older material. It just goes to show how Will Eisner work on The Spirit doesn't shy away from its competition at the time, how ahead of his time was Eisner. His work on this series is timeless and just as complex and detailed as 1980s comics would get.

The Spirit was closer to detectives from old serial dramas and pulp stories rather than the following era of all-powerful Superman-type superheroes of the late 1940s.

These stories follow the adventures of a masked vigilante named Dennis Colt Jr.

Denny Colt was a young apprentice detective, under his mentor police Commissioner Dolan. One time following a lead, Dennis got caught and thought to be dead... only his vital signs were only put in stasis long enough for him to be buried alive!

Having cheating death and gotten a new chance to make things right, Denny Colt decided to take advantage of the situation to help the police get rid of the crime-ridden corruption in Central City!

Now know as The Spirit, with no more "real identity" to speak of, he could finally help make a change in the city. Living in his secret lair in Wildwood Cemetery.

Despite the domino mask, Denny Colt would now be mostly considered dead outside his Spirit persona. Armed with simply a blue suit, a blue fedora hat, a blue domino mask and a red tie.

But The Spirit is not alone, helped by his close friends who are in on his secret such as Dolan, and his young friend and assistant the young African-American named Ebony White.

The Spirit faces all kinds of crooks, mad scientists and femme fatales. For only real weapon, his wits first and foremost.

To be honest, the actual character was never that inspired of a creation to begin with. He was bsically a pretty regular sort of guy. The real force of Eisner's creation didn't just lie in his character (even if you have to admit Denny Colt was sort of a charming lead, and a pretty funny hero that always ends up in all kinds of trouble).

His real strength resided in the sheer originality that Eisner came up with through his actual adventures.

His main inspiration being his Jewish upbringing in New York City and life in the city in the old days. Urban life is probably the main theme of this series. Also inspired by the style of noir pulp movies at the time.

The Spirit was a means to explore various genre, back when comics were mostly considered "children's entertainment". Eisner clearly never had any intention to make a pretty straightforward superhero comic to begin with. 

Part of the fun with The Spirit is how the book's never been confined to a single genre, but rather used as a way by Eisner to explore several of them, blending concepts and ideas, and even playing with the art alone.

Playing with negative spaces at a time comics were all bright, clear line and really made simple for children to read. (just compared any early Superman comics with The Spirit!)

Most Spirit stories were usually pretty short, about 7 page-long, 16 at most. And self-contained (usually).

The Spirit is one of Will Eisner's most iconic creations, along the famous first "real" graphic novel, "A Contract with God". The man was a fantastic creative, always believing in the comic book medium, and a huge innovator that inspired generations. He was singlehandedly responsible for creating the contemporary graphic novel format still used to this day!

This collection contains a quick run down through Spirit history, presented here in their chronological order. The stories still hold up pretty well to this day.

It tries touching as many landmarks as possible. The origin of The Spirit, following by Silk Satin's, a short tale in a trolley, the mysterious and fatale P'Gell, a creepy turn through the sewers, the captivating Lorelei Rox, two very similar lives, a Christmas tale from 1948, the saddest happy tale or the happiest sad story of a toy machine gun, a guy turned killer in less than 10 minutes, another man turning into a "fox" as an experiment traps him in a building and finally the collection closes on the one of The Spirit's most defining characters, Sand Saref!

After a pretty basic first couple of stories - far from the later much more ambitious material - Will Eisner quickly used this introduction of The Spirit's recurring elements to throw Denny Colt into all kinds of directions and adventures.

Only really missing from this collection is the character of Ebony* (more on that point, below!). A character that was one of the earlier depictions of a young African American in the USA, while despite his apparent silly name and typical blackface caricature at the time, was also a pretty innovative character at the time, always well portrayed. A much better example would also be Detective Grey much later on (also absent here... come on, DC!!), who did not fail into the same racist stereotypical representation, and way a very competent man and far from any other representation of a black character at the time! The love interest and young feminist daughter of Commissioner Dolan, Ellen, is also entirely missing and appearing nowhere in this collection (apart from a quick cameo in the Christmas tale).

The collection tries to get a large wide range of several different tales.

The Spirit has always covered one Christmas Spirit story annually. And we do get a quick look at what would become The Spirit's arch-nemesis, The Octopus - a criminal mastermind never seen on page besides his hands (like Inspector Gadget's Dr. Claw much later on!). The dangerous money-hungry P'Gell would become one of the fan-favorite characters and recurring villains in the series. And let's not forget The Spirit's childhood friend, Sand Saref , one of the better deepest characterizations in comics in ages.

The Case of Ebony White

Will Eisner went on experimenting all sorts of ideas through the medium, which had never been seen at the time. Back when US Comics where still in their infancy.

Ranging from pure crime noir dramas to fun lighthearted comedic adventures, but also darker mysteries, pure horror tales and even love stories! Eisner allowed himself to explore all kinds of genres, playing with both the medium and readers' expectations.

He also loved playing with the story structure in the comic book format as well as imagery. Hey, comics are a visual medium!

He produced several classic covers during his run on the series, most of those contained in these issues collected here. Playing with the limited colors available at the time, and black and white inking, the shadows. He always dared giving an almost exotic feel to his panels. Depending on the mood of the story, be it grim and dark or pure tongue in cheek-fun.

These first appearances collected here contain some of The Spirit's best confrontations, most memorable characters and Eisner's more human tales.

It's a groundbreaking comic series, where an author had been given free reign to do whatever he wanted basically. Turning this simple masked mystery man into more than a mere crimefighter. Eisner was a very innovative creator. One of the best writers and artists in American comic book history.

Now let's finally address the very visible elephant in the room. Ebony White.

Despite usually being shown as a very human, intelligent and helpful protagonist, Ebony was an apparent visually offensive stereotype. But DC decided to simply omit him altogether in this collection, this is like trying to hide part of history from the people. When dealing with some old historic material, one should never omit anything from its audience, be the content good or bad. That's both untrue to the source material and trying to solve a problem by simply ignoring it. Also by the early 1950s Ebony was mostly replaced by Sammy back then, serving a similar purpose, while Ebony himself was sent "off" to school.

Will Eisner's depiction of Ebony White was both a progressive and regressive move at the same time. You have to consider its context first. But on one hand the way Ebony looked and spoke was a huge throwback backwards, on the other hand you have to recognize he was also a smart, brave ally and a friend of our hero. Which was a first at the time.

It's kinda of a shame Ebony was simply avoided in this collection, and the few times he appeared Ebony was simply recolored into a blond caucasian, which was a terrible decision on DC's part, and kind of lying about the original material. I don't see why they couldn't simply add a little warning/preface, kind of like on those old Looney Tunes DVD releases. I feel like DC regressed back here more than anything.

But we do get a short appearance of the character, one panel used in the beginning of the book along other characters that appear in these other tales, and a short cameo at the end of Silk Satin's story left intact.

This was probably the only downside of this entire collection, the treatment (or rather, ignorance) of Ebony White. But since his role was relatively minor in the stories touched upon her, I guess it doesn't detract much.

The absence of Ellen Dolan is also kinda strange (even more if you consider the fact the Commissioner's daughter was even made Mayor of Central City in the later year stories!)

Overall, it's a great introduction to Will Eisner, his creation The Spirit and his general body of work.

Will Eisner's The Spirit is a legendary character, some even usually claim to be “The Citizen Kane of Comics.” And I wouldn't say that they are entirely wrong, despite the obvious hyperbole. It is certainly a landmark in the medium.

This "Best Of" was one of the first and best collections out there, despite covering so little ground in my eyes.

It's an already big book though (and in case that wasn't enough for you, there are the much better Archives collections out there too, containing Will Eisner's entire series collected in chronological order).

For about 192 pages of 22 classic Spirit stories, picking various stories from the original 1940 first story to the 1950 tale of Sand Saref.

It's a classic series that has been continuously revisited over the decades, including through other mediums such as the 1987 first smaller-budget film before the Frank Miller-directed awful lackluster adaptation of 2008.

Will Eisner remains one of the most influential creators in the medium of all time. Highly Recommended read!

I give it:
3 / 3 FlamingCarrots!

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