The name “Will Eisner” is practically synonymous with “comics,” and even “graphic novels,” which he did so much to champion as a medium. In spite of that, however, I can’t claim any familiarity with Will Eisner’s very popular creation, the Spirit, one of the comic book superheroes to come out of the 1940s. Eisner retired the Spirit to move on to other things before I was in my first comic-reading phase, and it was only in the 1990s that he allowed a group of writers and artists to create a series of new adventures for the resurrected detective.
This collection is simply that, a collection of various adventures with a cast of ongoing characters — the Spirit himself; Ellen Dolan, the police commissioner’s daughter and the Spirit’s ongoing love interest; Commissioner Dolan, the only person who knows the Spirit’s true identity; and an appearance by Ebony White, the Spirit’s old sidekick, in his incarnation as a cabbie. Some of the villains are from the original — Sand Saref, the Octopus, Dr. Cobra. Some are new, or seem to be — the seductive Fatima from “Swami Vashtibubu,” for example — while others are not really villains at all, just poor schmoos who get caught in bad circumstances. (It’s also interesting to note how many of the “bad guys” are women.)
In spite of the caliber of the contributors — Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell, Dave Gibbons, Bo Hampton, to name just a few — the stories, with one or two exceptions, are less than memorable. The aim seems to have been to remain firmly fixed in 1940s escapism (although “The Weapon,” by Michael Allred, Matt Brundage, and Michael Avon Oeming, does acknowledge World War II, complete with caricature Nazis). If, as Denis Kitchen points out in his introduction, Eisner gave the writers and artists carte blanche (aside from a few basic rules concerning the character himself), why isn’t there more meat here? (Kitchen notes that Eisner himself was never all that satisfied with the Spirit, seeing him as “a contrived character from the start.” I can’t see that the writers and artists of the new adventures pushed that envelope at all.) I mean, you have a crime-fighting superhero who was presumed dead and buried with full honors but who happens to have been in a state of suspended animation (the genesis of which is related in the lead story, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “The Most Important Meal”) and who has, to all intents and purposes, been brought back from the dead but can’t let himself be known for who he is. Seems to me a readymade setup for a lot of existential angst, which is notably missing.
It seems Eisner was right — the Spirit is contrived, and that, regrettably, is a characteristic that has carried through to these stories: there’s a decided lack of psychology here beyond the most elementary surface motivations, and to someone who has gladly embraced the post-1980s “adult” comics (“adult” in terms of depth of character and realism of portrayal), it’s a real disappointment, particularly since there is so much potential for the kind of edge for which so many of these contributors are known.
It’s a nostalgia trip, no more or less, complete with terrible puns and even take-offs on what were, in the 1940s, still big news items — in this case, the kidnapping of “Baby Eichbergh” (with, of course, a happy ending). It’s the sort of collection that will be fun for fans of early superhero comics, but in a world where even Green Lantern has begun to see the gray areas between good and evil, it’s a bit flat for the rest of us.
(Dark Horse Books, 2009)