Return of the Spirit

The Comic Book Reader

When Harvey Comics, publishers of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Baby Hucy, stopped reprinting early Dick Tracy strips, they became just another comic book factory, part of the creeping comic book decay of the early 60's.

Now, with the publication of The Spirit, Harvey swings back where the action is, and joins the comic book Renaissance started by Marvel Comics with Captain America, The Hulk and Spiderman.

Will Eisner, The Spirit's creator, was one of the best of the comic book artists of the '30's and '40's. He wrote his own strips, and drew them in a violent graphic style related to the German expressionist approach to moviemaking practiced by Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, and F. W. Murnau. Eisner's strip was filled with horrifying close-ups, weird shadows, and strange angles. Jules Feiffer claims that The Spirit's world looked "more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie."

The premiss of The Spirit is pleasently aboard. The hero is (quoting Eisner) "really Denny Cok, a young criminologist presumed dead by the public but who continues to assist sosociety behind the maskk of The Spirit. That he operates out of Wildwood Cemetery where he is supposed to be buried, is known only to commissioner Dolan, and his daughter Ellen..."

Although Eisner's plotting and characterization (he specialized in lush villainesses) made The Spirit an early comic book excursion into Terry and the Pirates-type-exoticism, The Spirit himself was a genial, middle-class fellow in a baggy blue suit and a Lone Ranger mask: hardly one of your invincible superheroes. Perhaps the magnetic appeal of Denny Colt resulted from Eisner's combination of a wholesome American hero and a sinister world of shadowy evil. In any case, Eisner and his Spirit were a tremendous influence on comic strip artists of the next generation.

The current version of The Spirit isn't Eisner's; the stories are new, although no efforts have been made to make the characters or the situations up-to-date. They are drawn by three or four artists, among them Wallace Wood and Jack Davis.

Wood and Davis helped create EC Comics (E for Educational) and were responsible for much of the art in Tales From the Crypt, Veuls of Horror, Two-Fisted Tales, and the original Med. Although the content in EC Comics was offensive enough to cause the formation of a national Comic Code Authority, the level of artwork was extremely high, with Eisner's influence visible throughout.

The current Spirit says true to its model. The drawing emphasizes the detail of light, shadow, and angular point-of-view that distinguished the dramatic visualization of sound effects: one superb panel shows a progression of muddy footprints on concrete, the words "click" and "clack" written in tiny lettering next to each foot puddle. With the possible exception of Leonard Starr's newspaper strip On Stage, The Spirit is comic strip art at its most inventive.

If your method of reading a comic book doesn't include careful analysis of the artwork, The Spirit is also funny and well-written. In the current issue, Denny Cok encounters a blonde named Lorelei who lures truck-drivers to their doom, and a Martian bank-teller named Miss Cosmek, who doesn't want to leave Earth. The next issue promises a run-in between The Spirit and a Parisian temptress who calls herself Plaster of Paris.