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Will Eisner Delivers a Christmas Miracle in “The Christmas Spirit of 1948”

Will Eisner Delivers a Christmas Miracle in “The Christmas Spirit of 1948”

Christmas Spirit of 1948 by Will Eisner

Basher Bains isn’t a nice man. Caged like an animal in State Prison, he cannot stand the Christmas music that is being piped into his cell over the prison’s P.A. system. If there is anything this con wants to hear on this Christmas, it isn’t “Silent Night.” That is until he hears a noise from the ventilator shaft and looks up to see a jolly old man, dressed up in red and with a sack full of presents come bursting into his cell. Checking his list, Santa finds Basher’s name on the bottom of his list. What gift could Santa possibly have for Basher? It turns out that Santa could use a little break and gives Basher his outfit and a way out of the prison for a night which Basher plans to use as his get-out-of-jail card so he can go and kill the Spirit. With his freedom in sight, Basher is determined to get his revenge until he meets a trio of boys, one of whom is blind.

Will Eisner truly was one of comic books greatest storytellers. No one before or since has been able to use a comic page to tell a story like he did in just seven pages. In “The Christmas Spirit 1948” (originally published in the weekly Spirit serial on December 19th, 1948) he told a rather simple tale of a man who discovers the holiday spirit (no pun intended) and uses his underworld connections to get the blind boy a surgery to restore his sight. It’s a small, quick story but Eisner fills it with a lot of heart as he exaggerates every characters’ emotions, including Basher. A big mountain of the man at the beginning, he’s so big that the panels can barely contain him as he rips the P.A. speaker off the wall. Basher is obviously not a kind, jolly man and even when he puts Santa’s outfit on, Eisner draws him as as just another con in a slightly different outfit.

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But when he meets those kids, Basher changes. As Eisner builds his pages with four central panels, one long horizontal panel and two strips of white space, Bashes world lives and breathes within those varied spaces. Each page is laid out the same way but Eisner uses the different elements of the pages to focus us on the transformation of Basher from a felon to actually being Santa Claus for these three children. Basher may not be the bad man we thought he was from the first few pages and Eisner shows us a part of the meaning of the holiday as Basher begins to realize that there’s more to the world than himself and his petty schemes for revenge.

As with the best of Eisner’s Spirit stories, “The Christmas Spirit of 1948” doesn’t rely on the rock ‘em, sock ‘em action that he could so easily pull off. The center of this story and so many of Eisner’s best Spirit stories, is the heart that Eisner gives to his characters. A gift he would continue to display even into his latter works, Eisner could make you feel genuine empathy for his characters only in a few pages. As he draws stunning pages, the likes of which we never saw before or since, he also creates characters like Basher, capable of really surprising us in how he reacts and changes during the story.  In Basher, we see a rebirth of the man as he encounters these children and realizes that there is more to this world than his prison walls and his thirst for revenge.

In the end, Eisner is not really telling a Spirit story. The holiday spirit overtakes his tale as Eisner reminds us about the joy of helping our fellow brothers and sisters and how we need to look out for one another. Even Santa was part of this because he gave Basher just what he needed; the gift of freedom. It may be a bit simplistic but that’s what it took to get Basher on the road to helping those children. Eisner delivers a yuletide story that was about the spirit of Christmas.

The Christmas Spirit of 1948” was most recently reprinted in 2005’s The Best of the Spirit from DC Comics.

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