Saturday, January 23, 2010


I was recently looking for a few books to round out a checkout from the Willow Glen library.  They have a really nice browsing section set up, similar to most other San Jose libraries (and I'm guessing increasing numbers of public libraries across the country).  A substantial portion of the books in the library aren't shelved in their traditional Dewey Decimal or fiction-by-author's-last-name sections, but instead are placed on shelves, generally with the cover facing out instead of the spine; these tend to be grouped by subject (mystery, cooking, finance, etc.), but otherwise are unordered, making it really easy to laterally drift and stumble across something you might not otherwise have seen.

That's the theory, at least.  Sometimes I get good finds, often things that I'd meant to read years ago but had long ago forgotten.  Other times nothing really grabs me.  This time, I ended up walking away with two comic book collections, both of "The Spirit," both likely reprinted to tie in with the horrible movie that was recently released.

I knew next to nothing about The Spirit, but I was at least somewhat familiar with its creator, Will Eisner.  Eisner seems to be the grand dean of the comics world; he had an incredibly long career, starting in the 1930's and continuing until his recent death.  He had a profound influence on multiple generations of comics creators, and seems to be lauded for his warm personality as much as for his great skill.  The Eisner Award is the highest honor that can be given to comics.

I realized that the two collections were radically different.  The first was "The Best of The Spirit," covering highlights from the original DC comics run.  This starts with The Spirit's origin story around 1940, and continues through the end of World War II and in to the 1950's.  The book begins with a great introduction by Neil Gaiman, who accurately observes that the stories in this collection stand the test of time really well; when he first read them in the 1970's, he had no idea that they were over thirty years old, and they felt more fresh and relevant than the contemporary comics he read.  I will observe that the comics ARE fairly dated when it comes to racial attitudes... these are far from the worst that I've seen, but they do observe some prejudices that seem pretty ugly to us today, particularly the African-American characters. 

The series in general has a lot of fun with ethnic humor, and most supporting characters speak in phonetically transcribed dialect.  So, yes, an Italian gangster might say "Whatsa matta you?" and a refined French criminal may murmur "Thees ees a plassure, madame."  I generally dislike dialect, but for whatever reason it doesn't bother me as much in comics as it does in novels.

Other than ethnicity, the most obvious characteristic of The Spirit's cast is the large number of attractive women.  Femme fatales occupy nearly every story, and there's a regular mixture of "good girls" and "bad girls," just like in a Bond movie.  Also as in Bond, these tend to be pretty strong characters: The Spirit almost never rescues a helpless woman (and is actually more likely to need rescuing himself), but he faces formidably crafty female criminals, and trades wits with secret agents and other occasional allies.  I suppose it's all mildly exploitative, but it doesn't seem to have the same patronizing aspect as other works of this era.

I have to say that The Spirit himself is a pretty dull character.  He isn't really a superhero... he wears a mask that protects his identity, but sometimes I need to wonder why.  What exactly would the problem be if the criminals realized that he was Denny Colt?  He doesn't seem to have a family, and his closest friends are all cops anyways and already on the radar of his enemies.  He has no super-powers, and there aren't any super-villains here either.  He's a detective, a better-than-average fighter (he always uses his fists, sometimes a handy prop, but never a gun), and can take an amazing but not superhuman amount of punishment. 

His personality makes up for his uninteresting background.  It isn't flashy - he doesn't have a catch-phrase or lots of running gags - but he's sincere, confident without seeming cocky, and somehow able to charm a multitude of women without ever seeming lecherous. 

His enemies are a more varied and entertaining lot.  Most often these are gangsters or criminals of various sorts: jewel thieves, embezzlers, stuff like that.  I was struck when reading this by how relatively tame the stories are, at least in terms of violence.  Gunshots will often be fired in the climax, but only rarely are people killed.  A typical story will involve someone stealing something, The Spirit chasing them, then recovering the item and sending them to jail.  And yet, due to the skill of the writing and the art, it will be more interesting and rewarding than some over-the-top story about saving the world from an alien invasion.

The Spirit does sometimes face more exotic foes: Nazi war criminals, spies, mad scientists, even (in one very odd story) aliens from Mars.  These stories feel more interesting, but still fit nicely into the overall pace of the series. 

Where the matchups may seem conventional, the style is anything but.  I was frankly surprised by how many interesting, innovative techniques were used in this collection.  I had sort of assumed that Will Eisner had broken a lot of ground, but that since everyone else had copies him, a modern reader like me wouldn't even notice that what he was doing was interesting.  I was wrong.  There's some great stuff in here, like one story that is told from the murderer's point of view; you actually peer out of his eye sockets in each panel, which is a very creepy yet thrilling touch.  There's a story told like a children's book, with the tale of a toy tommy gun, the cutest weapon you've ever seen - it even has a face!  The shape of panels is regularly reworked for dramatic effect; sometimes a large section will jump out with more action, or they'll be divided into very thin slices to convey a kind of slow-motion effect.  He also experiments with a huge variety of framing devices, like a clock that ticks off the ten minutes that a story takes.

The second book of The Spirit comes from a modern continuation of the series that DC put out in recent years (I believe about 2007-2008).  This was, frankly, bizarre.  The first couple of issues felt great, like modern updates of that classic Spirit style, down to the somewhat hokey plot (an actress smuggles jewels into America).  Even there, there's some stuff that's just bizarre, like when The Spirit says (I kid you not) "heezy fo sheezy."  Really?  C'mon.

There's a wider variety in art styles in this collection than in the classic Spirit.  Most of the issues capture the original's look with sharp, clean lines and vibrant coloring.  Early on, though, there's a shift to a much more impressionistic style for one issue, which also brings with it way more gore and open sexuality than before.  I felt really weird defending the integrity of a series that I didn't even really know about until a few days before, but I thought that they TOTALLY disrespected their legacy.  :-)  Not that I have any problem in the slightest with telling that kind of story; it would have fit right in with modern Batman or Sandman.  But I just couldn't see The Spirit acting the way he was here.

There were exceptions.  Hands-down my favorite story in this collection is a straight retelling of the Sand Saref story from the original run.  The key components of this story stay the same, with some very minor modernization and slight shifts in tone.  It perfectly captures the wonderful feel of the original, while feeling like it has something worthwhile to say.

The major arc in this collection is about El Morte, which doesn't belong in The Spirit's universe at all.  El Morte is a zombie, a criminal who was raised from the dead by voodoo powers, infects hundreds of other criminal corpses, and then starts a rampage of terror across Central City.  Again: in other circumstances, I wouldn't have any problem with that story.  It just isn't a story for The Spirit.  He feels shoehorned in there, like someone put this together in a Mad-Libs experiment, and the way he's forced to respond to this forces him to constantly seem out of character.

There's a TRULY BIZARRE issue about cable news personalities, and I'm still trying to puzzle through how I feel about it.  I totally agree with the writer's underlying point, that our modern dialog is too strongly polarized between left and right, we thrive too much on conflict, and we need to spend more time listening and less time shouting.  As told, this story is filled with characters who clearly model real-life counterparts: Trust = Rush Limbaugh, The Flobert Factor = The Colbert Report, and so on for Hannity & Colmes, Bill O'Reilly, Anderson Cooper, Geraldo Rivera (herein Mustachio Hernandez).  I must admit, I did like the corny names.  That's something The Spirit has always had going for it: its joyful and utterly shameless use of absurd names like Bullit, Pizza, and so on.  Anyways.  The cable personalities start dying off, in comically over-the-top ways.  I laughed, I got a kick out of it, but at the same time I need to wonder: is this a little too contemporary?  Fifteen years from now, how many people will remember Hannity & Colmes?  (True, I would have posed the same question fifteen years ago about Rush Limbaugh.)  Again, part of what was so delightful about the Eisner run of The Spirit was how timeless it felt.  Yes, even despite the Nazis and the tommy guns, you could track everything and enjoy it.  But this is so much part of the moment, down to embedding the YouTube player interface into the panel structure.  It feels like transient, like it's slipping away as I'm watching it.

I'm pretty curious how I would have felt if I had read the more modern creation first.  After all, my favorite comic, Sandman, is a re-creation of a classic Golden Age comic that COMPLETELY tosses out everything about the character and creates a totally different personality and world.  You don't see me complaining about how Gaiman betrayed the legacy of classic Sandman... would it have bothered me - at all - if I'd read some of those original comics from the 1930's? 

I can't say that the new collection isn't well drawn, or well produced.  It just rubs me the wrong way.  Take of that what you will.

So, that's that.  I enjoyed my time with The Spirit, but I think I'm done now.  DC has put out the entire original run of The Spirit, and while I'm sure they're good, it isn't SO amazing that I feel like I must track down and read all of it now.  There are plenty of other comics out there that I need to read first.

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