Will Eisner is a genius, plain and simple and his genius extends to far more than his work on the Spirit. Eisner was only 19 when he and partner Jerry Iger opened the Eisner & Iger studio to produce comics for comic publishers. Among the artists they recruited were legends Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, and Eisner's high school friend, Batman creator Bob Kane. Then in 1939 Eisner was approached to produce a weekly comic supplement that would be syndicated in numerous Sunday newspapers. The shrewd Eisner agreed as long as he could keep the copyright to the characters, including the main feature of the supplement, the crime-fighting Spirit. This was quite a coup for Eisner as he knew he would never be able to get the same rights if he had his work published by an actual comic book publisher. And as the owner, Eisner also had creative control which other artists and writers of the day didn't have. Thus Eisner was decades ahead of his time.
This collection from DC comics includes 22 eight page Spirit adventures beginning with the Spirit's origin from June, 1940. Eisner would lose a few years to World War II but returned to his strip when he got back home in 1945 and continued with it until 1952. The Spirit is Denny Colt, private investigator and criminologist. While tracking down the devious villain Dr. Cobra, he is saturated with experimental chemicals and goes into a state of suspended animation, making him appear to be dead. He crawls from his grave and dons a simple mask and the moniker of the Spirit to battle crime in Central City. The cast of the Spirit includes Police Commissioner Dolan and the Spirit's sometimes sidekick, the orphan African American kid Ebony White who provided some comic relief.
Eisner loved sexy, beautiful, bad girls and women were the Spirit's antagonists as often were men. In "Postage Stamp he tussles with the beautiful thief Dulcet Tone and later with a spy called Satin as he tries to locate a secret letter filled with the names of war criminals. It's often said that artist Jim Steranko introduced pop culture and cinematic art to comics, but Eisner did it long before Steranko. Eisner often cleverly utilized the Spirit logo on the splash page making it part of the story. He lettered his text in creative ways such as pyramid or circular forms, not seen in other comics of the times.
Eisner used true cinematic vision in laying out his panels, like a meticulous film director. He used downward perspective and other interesting angles that are still innovative today. What truly sets the Spirit is that while comic books were written for kids, Eisner clearly aimed the Spirit at an adult audience, employing sly, sometimes tawdry humor that would be over the head of most children. Another interesting device Eisner employed is that quite often the Spirit would barely make an appearance in his own stories. A good example from this collection is the story "Christmas Spirit of 1948". At the state prison, convict Basher Brains is sick of hearing about Christmas until he receives a visit from Santa Claus himself who says that even Basher is on his list. Basher's request is to get out of jail and borrows Santa's outfit to escape. But Basher would soon learn the true spirit of Christmas from some street kids. The Spirit does not make an appearance until the final few panels.
It's utterly amazing that these stories were produced at a time when comics were churned out as quickly and mundanely as they were. Sixty years later they have lost none of their potency or their humor. This is a marvelous collection, especially if you are new to the Spirit. My highest recommendation! By the way, I am uploading a picture of the actual book cover, which is not the one Amazon displays.
Reviewed by Tim Janson