Wednesday, 22 July 2009


Will Eisner's Spirit remains the standard by which all comics should be judged, story-telling that defined the form for generations of writers and artists to come. Eisner's stories were humorous little moral tales, a cross between O. Henry and Issac Bashevis Singer, told in a cinematic style that emphasized the tongue in cheek nature of the masked detective while treating the story-telling very seriously indeed. It remains a difficult combination to imitate.

What is best about these of stories from DC Comics' revival of the Spirit is the playful tone, and the way they've updated him. Most telling is the way he's present in all circumstances, in his mask and costume, and no one seems to find it unusual, which is one of the character's best conceits. Interestingly, in the Frank Miller film, which I haven't seen, the trademark blue suit and mask are replaced by a literally darker black, signifying Miller's own vision of the character. The comics have updated the taxi-driving Ebony, now more Wire than minstrel show, naturally, but Ellen Dolan, always a bit of a feminist in her day, seems somehow more strident now, or maybe it's just that the Spirit is a little more beleaguered.

Originally, DC had Jeph Loeb writing, but this third collection of stories comes later in the series, written by the team of Sergio Aragones (creator of Spy v Spy in Mad, whose playfulness is very similiar to the Spirit) and Mark Evanier. Their first story, 'The Medical Murders' is probably the best. It's drawn by Mike Ploog, who comes closer in feel to the original Spirit, with darker backgrounds and more adventure in the layouts than the rest of the book. Of course, the tradmark of Eisner's design was the splash page, in which the tone of the story would be set, the credits given, and the Spirit title incorporated into the design; Eisner was years ahead of movie title sequences, as you can see in the example on the left. The plot is serious, and remarkably similar to Hakan Nesser's Woman With Birthmark (which I reviewed for Crime Time and which you can link to here).

Paul Smith is the artist on most of the tales, and 'Stand In For Murder' is probably the best of those. He's generally aiming at a more humorous presentation, subsituting dynamic movement for active layout design. This brings out the comedy element, but in 'Fish Tale', for example, there's almost a flatness to it that doesn't quite fit.

Aluir Amancio works in a similar style on his two stories, but also plays a bit more with the Spirit and women; in what is probably the best and most Eisner like of the splash pages, he's like a flirty private eye with the secretary of the insurance boss who hires him (see right) but back to his stunned haplessness when Ellen shows up, in bikini stretched across three panels, on the cruise ship where he is sent on assignment.

Paul Rivoche is the artist and colorist for 'The Comic Book Killer', where his heavy inking suggests EC Comics and which challenges 'The Medical Murders' as the best of the bunch. That tone is perfectly suited for an EC-type tale in which a comics writer is murdered, and which uses the old saw of all his collaborators wanting to take credit--particularly the artist, who goes insane ranting about how the writer's words filled the panels and made it impossible to draw the story. There's a lovely panel, almost entirely a dialogue balloon, in which the Spirit explains why he thinks a comic book can't have too many words! There's also one story drawn in a more modern cartoony style by Jason Armstrong, which somehow doesn't seem to fit. You can see what he's trying to do, but wonder if there's a reason for trying.

The collection may be uneven, and maybe not as compelling visually as the originals, but it's always entertaining, and it's probably the best tribute to Eisner's genius that one can still see the character's possibilities almost 70 years after it was created.

The Spirit Volume 3, Titan Books 2009, £12.99, ISBN 9781848561458
this review also appears at

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