Friday, June 11, 2010

Trade Waiting - The Best of The Spirit

They always talk about The Spirit and Will Eisner and I hate to admit that I’ve never read any of it, or him. I always heard good things but never got the opportunity to sample, until this week. I procured a copy of The Best Of The Spirit and I did not end up disappointed at all. Hit the jump to find out exactly why.

Written and Art by Will Eisner

I didn’t know what to expect going in to this. I knew Eisner wrote The Spirit before my mother was born and that was about it. I had no idea what sort of tone to expect or any ideas of the level of writing or art. So, I did what any good comic reader does; I went in blind and hoped for the best.

This collection showcases seven page short stories about the Spirit created between 1940 and 1950. The origins of the Spirit and Silk Satin came in the first two years but the majority of the good stuff comes from between 1946 and 1950. It’s pretty old stuff and the origin doesn’t help with a pretty flat story involving Dr Cobra and a vat full of green liquid. The science isn’t exact but we get the idea, the Spirit is born.

It seems that after the war Eisner really ramped up his experimentation of the medium and manipulation of storytelling devices. Where the first two stories are pretty simple, generally nine-panel gridded tales the third entry, The Last Trolley is something completely different. The opening splash brings us to a lifeless and deserted image of an industrial setting with one of the few lone lights coming from a small trolley making its way across the tracks. Papers floating by spell out the main characters name and the text up the top addresses up personally and lures us into the story.

The Last Trolley is almost like a locked room mystery as we follow the crumbling of a criminal as he rides this late night trolley and slowly drives himself into a state very close to insanity. It’s a gripping little read and I suddenly realized that this didn’t feel like a dated comic. This looked and sounded pretty damn good. My expectations were quickly exceeded. The tale ends simply and it’s all tied together well.

From here my eyes became really opened. The Spirit isn’t a dusty old strip that feels like it would crumble in your hands. It’s pretty damn hardcore when you think about the things being presented to the public over sixty years ago, women get hit, everyone pulls a gun, bullets sink through plenty of people, many die in the quest for among other things, money, and most girls manage to sleep their way out of any problem or situation. There’s rarely a moment that doesn’t dissolve into violence, death, bludgeoning, or all of the above. Eisner doesn’t dwell too often in the character moments if he can instead insert them into some of the criminal scenes instead. Storytelling on the fly, and he does it well.

Eisner had already blown me away with his storytelling subject but next he does it to me with his delivery methods. One tale, The Killer, shows a man’s history and what leads him to kill. Then, to best understand what happened and how, we have to see it through his eyes and that’s exactly what we get. Eisner draws the panels through the man’s eyes so that we see his eye sockets and even the eye lashes in front of that. It’s a gruesome idea but one that does put us firmly in the hot seat when it comes to the killing. That sort of thing being done today would look pretty revolutionary but I guess everything that can be done has been done before.

As the stories progress, the introductory splash pages become more intricate and fantastical pieces of art that set up the scene and the tone of the piece to come. A tale set in the sewers of the Spirits fair home town, Life Below, opens with a great splash of slimy letters that spell out The Spirit. It’s a great arrangement of simple art to really establish which world this tale with be set in. Sometimes the Spirit seems romantic, and other times a little goofy, and this time he’s grimy and dirty and a little horrific.

There’s also a beautiful little tale called The Story of Gerhard Shnobble. In it the eponymous character can fly, but he gets a crappy life anyway. We catch him towards the end of it where he inadvertently saves the life of the Spirit, costing him his own, and nobody present on that day even sees him fly. It’s a sad little ballad about one man and an extraordinary talent, and yet he still lives a very sad life. That life sucks seems to be a theme Eisner hits on more than once. Later on we get Two Lives, the inspection of identical men who both live trapped, one within gaol and the other under the thumb of his wife. It’s a sad exploration of a world where good men toil and are never rewarded for their efforts. Good men seem to descend too easily and too quickly into lives of crime and murder.

Eisner experiments strongly with the form when he presents a tale to the reader as an instructive set of pages. He details the exploits of a toy machine gun and manages to match it to the innocence of youth, before dastardly deeds become every day facts. The story looks like a junior reader with simple and large text even though he prefaces it as being for adults, but juveniles can peruse the pages as well. It’s an instructional indictment of comics in general, aim for adults but make it available for kids too.

I think my favourite tale is Visitor. In it Eisner shows that the Spirit can work in a sci-fi genre as well. Our hero comes up against a case where the lady in question confesses to being an agent from Mars. He tries to find out of the idea is true but the other agent he is after manages to fly off into the sky on a jet pack before he can be tied to the case. It’s a very intriguing and simple done-in-one story that reminded me strongly of The Outer Limits.

By the time I got to the middle of the trade collection I was really digging the small ideas and excellent execution being presented in each seven page burst. By the end of the trade I was completely converted. The Spirit is a very cool character, or at least Eisner always manages to put him into interesting little stories and manages to find new ways of presenting these tales of crime. No story felt like it had the same presentation as any of the others, every time a story opened it felt fresh. That’s a pretty handy skill to have over so many years. This one trade has variety of presentation, and genre, and I’m interested to read more Spirit when I get the chance.

This character felt like one of those classics that I’d always avoided, or at least never actively set out to expose myself to, because I had heard too much about it. There was far too much hype and I worried the reputation was something that was historical, something that people were afraid to change. But like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or Psycho, this is one classic that completely earns your respect and you cannot help but admire and love and realize that you completely agree with years of others’ thoughts.

Verdict – Must Read. I really didn’t expect to like the Spirit as much as I did. It’s awesomely presented and interesting in every tale. When you take into account that it’s also 70 years since it started then you should get these pages and study them like the bible. It might be cliché to say you like the Spirit, but some classic earn their reputation for a reason, this is certainly one of them. Go out and find out for yourself, it’s a clinic in making good, economical comics.

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Brian Dickey said...

Got this collection earlier in the year. Definitely a worthwhile purchase. It just makes me jealous to think that this was the kind of material you used to get in the Sunday paper. Brilliant, tight seven page stories that are still more solid than what I pay three bucks for on Wednesday.

Btw, that Life Below opening splash page looks like it was the page Steranko was trying to imitate for his career.

Ivan said...

That's one of the classics in my eternal "To read" list, along with Maus, Crumb's work, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and others.

Steven said...

Will Eisner is probably the only true master of the comic art form and certainly the first.

He basically pioneered the modern comic book format, page layouts, stylistic tropes that have become standards, etc. And what he didn't create he did so much better than anyone else that it was as if he was working in a different format completely.

And his Spirit stuff doesn't even represent the bulk of his work. He considered it very juvenile work. He spent the last half of his life pioneering the long-form graphic novel, producing some of the most profound, stirring comics work ever.

People toss around a lot of names when discussing true masters of the art-form. Miller, Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Sim. None of them can hold a candle to Eisner and I am betting that they would all agree.

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