Thursday, October 22, 2009

Graphically Speaking: The Spirit: The New Adventures Archive

Words: Christopher Irving
“I’ve been hesitating until about now,” Will Eisner said about collecting his seminal comic series The Spirit into a collection of reprint archive books. “I finally consented, because I thought it was a kind of mausoleum, and I still thought of the Spirit series as being very much alive, because it has been reprinted in sequence over three times in this country alone. They just completed a complete run of four years in Spain, and just signed a company in Brazil to run a Spirit series. It’s still very much alive, as far as I’m concerned.

“I didn’t want a big mausoleum book to terminate the character. Denis Kitchen’s convinced me that it won’t, so I’ve agreed to do it.”

It was 1998, and Eisner’s seminal creation, the hat-and-mask type The Spirit had just been revived for the anthology series The Spirit: The New Adventures at Kitchen Sink Press, featuring rotating creative teams. I was a 21 year-old college kid who didn’t know damned near enough about the man to be interviewing him, but there I was, with his polite voice coming out of the other end of my phone receiver to be immortalized onto cassette tape.

“For years, Denis Kitchen has been after me, pushing and prodding for me to do another Spirit story,” Will said. “And I was never interested in doing it, because my plate’s too full with the new material that I want to do, and feel necessary to do. Finally, I agreed to allow him to do a Spirit story, provided he would get some top people in the field to do it.

“The only condition that I made was that they would not try to be Will Eisner, because every attempt I have ever seen of continuing a strip, like Terry and The Pirates, were a failure. I said that would be a failure if they were to attempt to be Will Eisner. I said if they were willing to do a series of stories based on their own interpretation and their own take, I would be willing to allow it. It worked out very well.”

Dark Horse Comics has continued the “mausoleum” series of Eisner’s Spirit work, started by DC Comics for 26 volumes, culminating in the DHC-published New Adventures for #27. With an identical dress to the DC progenitors, Spirit Archive #27 fits in nicely with the earlier volumes, a humble approach by Dark Horse in continuing the reprints.

The DC series of The Spirit from the past few years, kicking off with Darwyn Cooke’s initial yearlong run has been entertaining, but modernized with running story arcs and long-term stories.

What The Spirit: The New Adventures managed to do was maintain the titular character in his element through short stories that deliver an emotional and narrative whammy in quick order. While occasional stories, such as Jim Vance and Dan Burr’s “Sunday in the Park with St. George”, were no more than a retread of the character’s conventions, others shone with a power befitting Eisner’s earlier stories.

The highlight of the volume is in the entire first issue: three stories, hardly intertwining with different versions of The Spirit’s tragic origin, by the Watchmen team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Moore understands the balance of humor with action and suspense, while Gibbons taps into the panel structure and other visual devices of Eisner. Moore’s other story, “Last Night I Dreamed of Dr. Cobra”, follows an immortal Spirit revisiting the ancient ruins of Central City and doesn’t just deliver that emotional whammy – but a resonating chill, as well.

Neil Gaiman and Eddie Campbell’s “The Return of Mink Stole” follows the tried and true Spirit device of telling the story through the eyes of an observer, while Campbell, Marcus Moore, and Pete Mullins play with the perspective of an inanimate object for “The Pacifist”.

Paul Chadwick’s “Cursed Beauty” tackles race relations with Ebony White (Spirit’s much maligned and stereotyped black sidekick) against the backdrop of a scandalous murder. A marriage of Will Eisner’s crime fighter with Sam Spade, it surprisingly pulls off being a Spirit despite the somberness of the tale.

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake, Scott Hampton and Mark Kneece, Jay Stephens and a more subdued Paul Pope of a decade ago, Mike Allred and Michael Avon Oeming…it’s a veritable who’s who of comics talents that walk through this volume. They fortunately hit their mark more often than not; when they do, they deliver primal takes on a primal character.

“The only limitation I set is that, first I would not edit the material or be involved in the creative process,” Eisner said. “The second condition that I made was that I would review all material to be sure that they would not warp or defame, or otherwise alter the basic concept of The Spirit character. The rest of it was their take on The Spirit, and that’s what it is really all about…

“I think that what we have here in The Spirit, at least now that I’m able to look at it with a little more perspective now than when I was doing it, is that we have something like the Sherlock Holmes series, where the period is not important, it’s the story that is important. In account for the survival of the character himself, as far as The Spirit is concerned; he’s real; he’s not a superhero. Consequently, his reality is what survives, or his believability, if you will.”

Reading The Spirit: The New Adventures reinforces Will’s assessment of his own creation, and hopefully prophecies Denny Colt’s longevity.