Best of the Spirit (1940-1946)
Writer/Artist: Will Eisner
Publisher: DC Comics
Even though he featured in comic strips rather than monthly comic books, The Spirit, created by a twenty-three year old Will Eisner during the Golden Age of Comics, became one of the most influential superheroes ever. Eisner could tell a complete mystery/adventure/action story in seven to eight pages with characters that were (for the most part) well-developed and interesting. Unlike some heroes of the time, like Superman and Doctor Fate, The Spirit wasn’t ridiculously overpowered and occasionally got outwitted. The closest comic book superhero analogue to The Spirit was Batman, but he didn’t share Bruce Wayne’s wealth or angst. If there is one thing that the strips in Best of the Spirit have in common, it’s that The Spirit doesn’t take himself too seriously and neither does Will Eisner. He doesn’t talk down to his audience, but still tells an entertaining story.
The thing that surprised me most about The Spirit is its sense of self-awareness. It revels in its pulp roots with reckless abandon, with a multitude of secret passages, narrow escapes, and brushes with death. With the exception of the incredibly racist portrayal of The Spirit’s ward Ebony White, the caricatured drawings of the supporting characters are quite humorous, and Eisner draws detailed (if a bit over the top) facial expressions. Some of the characters and situations are parodies of crime fiction/superhero/insert genre tropes here. For example, private detective Denny Colt “becomes” The Spirit after he is hit with a chemical that puts him in suspended animation. This is similar to The Joker’s origin a few months earlier in Batman 1, except that The Spirit isn’t a villain and doesn’t have any special facial features. Another entertaining parody is when recurring character and femme fatale Silk Satin smooches our hero to avoid detection and fools the other characters, including her own gang. In retrospective, this scene pokes fun at the (future) romance comics genre (E.g. Young Romance) that paid Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s bills after superheroes slumped in popularity after World War II. Will Eisner may have been responsible for the creation of a lucrative genre in a single eight page comic strip.
Even though Eisner struggled with some racial stereotypes, his female characters (though mostly evil) are effective and well-rounded characters. The aforementioned Silk Satin holds her own in a fistfight with The Spirit and even captures him, but lets him go because she’s “in love” with him. The flirt/fight sequence was brimming with sexual tension that rivaled a Batman/Catwoman throwdown. Silk Satin gets a redemption arc and becomes an ally of The Spirit working for the UN after World War II. P’Gell is another well-written female villain, who doesn’t get a redemption storyline. She is a crime kingpin in Turkey, who uses her husbands to get wealth and power and tempts The Spirit to join her. Eisner illustrated her innocent and evil side by contrasting a plain typeface with a more arabesque one. With brains and sex appeal, the ladies of The Spirit could hold their own with any Bond girl preceding the novel Casino Royale by thirteen years. (A character even refers to Spirit’s arch-nemesis The Octopus as “Octopussie”.)
Even though Eisner excels at writing film noir voiceovers and throws in the occasional pun to keep things light, his greatest strength is as a visual storyteller. Each strip of The Spirit has a distinct visual style depending on the type of story being told. In a story about a trolley line, Eisner arranges the panels in a “shaky” way to show the effect of a bumpy ride. The title of each story is a unique, gorgeous splash page that hints at that contents within, such as “The Postage Stamp” which is an envelope complete with stamps and address. Eisner knew how to make his stories stand out in the midst of a Sunday comics section. His fight scenes are well choreographed for the pre-kung fu days and remind me of the action and chase scenes in the Indiana Jones films. Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg read The Spirit while growing up. Some of the roots of modern superhero comics and action adventure films can be traced to this comic strip which ran from 1940 to 1952. And the character is still getting accolades. In 2007, Batman/The Spirit (written by Jeph Loeb; art by Darwyn Cooke) won an Eisner Award for Best Single Issue.