Tron Rants on the Spirit

Tron raves on Will Eisner and tells you why The Spirit is worth your time.

In June of 1940, Comics Luminary Will Eisner created The Spirit for the Sunday section of major metropolitan newspapers and with this simple format of 8 page adventure stories developed one of the longest-lasting and most influential strips in the history of the graphic medium. What separated The Spirit from other comic book heroes is Eisner was given the opportunity to write stories for adults, unlike comic books themselves which were “the ghetto,” according to Eisner, filled to the brim with costumed heroes punching each other in what essentially was the same story month after month. The Spirit allowed Eisner the ability to tell the types of stories he wanted to with complete freedom as the newspaper syndicates, while looking to compete with the comic market, had never attempted something like this before. The experiment succeeded mightily with The Spirit Section continuing through Eisner’s draft period of WWII and lasting until 1952.

The Spirit is the heroic persona of private detective Denny Colt. While chasing the evil Doctor Cobra, Denny smashes into a vat of Dr. Cobra’s strange liquid experiment which leaves Colt in a state of suspended animation. Presumed dead, Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery where he awakens and decides to use his newfound anonymity to fight the crimes the police cannot solve, funding his activities by using the rewards gained from capturing criminals. The Spirit’s adventures take him all around the globe as he encounters some of the most seductive femme fatales, despicable criminals, streetwise punks and evil masterminds, all the while using his talents to help the poor and misfortunate and bring justice to the big city.

Far more knowledgable people than I, such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, have all delivered breakdowns of what The Spirit means and written huge treatis’ on Will Eisner’s innovations within the graphic medium and his historical influence so the history is available. It remains to me, then, to point out a few of the things that hooked me as a reader. The first element that drew me in was the crime noir feel of the strip. Eisner’s Spirit comes from the same school of entertainment as Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, utilizing interpersonal storytelling techniques combined with the savagery and cruelty of life in the big city. Denny Colt, just like Sam Spade, is a man frustrated with the inability to see justice done. He is a white knight surrounded by treachery and deceit and must use his skills to ensure the concept of right doesn’t get buried in an increasingly more hostile urban environment. In some episodes, The Spirit is barely in the tale, Eisner instead focusing on the tale of the real-life drama played out in the streets, broken down tenements and smoke-filled pool halls; yet for all the criminal mischief and violence, Eisner brings a tremendous amount of humor and pathos to the mix, creating the best type of story – one that can entertain as well as elevate and communicate higher concepts, without destroying this precarious balance along the way.

The supporting cast is fully fleshed out and are crafted to support/stymie Denny Colt in his quest. Commissioner Dolan knows Denny’s secret and appreciates Colt’s help in police matters but is torn by duty seeing as The Spirit is still an outlaw; he also slightly resents Colt’s ability to bring in the bad guy quicker than his police force so there is often good natured one-upmanship as Dolan attempts to sidetrack Colt and “beat him to the punch.” Ellen Dolan is the Commissioner’s beautiful and brainy daughter who serves as romantic foil to Colt who, as The Spirit, is constantly besieged by beautiful and deadly women (such as former crook turned secret agent Silk Satin, for whom Colt has professed a unique admiration and the ruthless seductress P’Gell). Ebony White, dismissed by many as a blatant racial stereotype, is one of the most endearing characters. Acting as The Spirit’s chauffeur and assistant, Ebony utilizes his street smarts and bold attitude in innumerable ways, even headlining many Spirit tales as he attempts to break out of the poor, ghettoized shell Eisner draped him in and show that everyone has talents and abilities that can, indeed, make a difference. Ebony is funny, proud, smart, poignant and real; a far cry from a mere stereotype as well as more defined than many main characters today. It’s easier to think of Ebony White as Jimmy Olson, which paints a more appropriate view of his role in the series. Add to this core arch-villains like Dr. Cobra and the Octopus, as well as the aforementioned beauties plus legions more like Sand Saref, The Black Queen, Nylon Rose and Dulcet Tone and The Spirit is not lacking for a well-rounded world full of vibrant characters that a wealth of stories could be derived from.

Eisner also elevated comic book art (which, in fact, could be a whole different essay or two but this is just something I like) by developing the Splash Page, which would “serve as reader preparation and mood-setter to the story (Eisner, Archive 1).” Yet Eisner, always thinking ahead, also managed to make the title of the comic integral to the story setting. If Eisner was doing a splash page of a newspaper arguing the merits of The Spirit, The Spirit would be laid out in typeset across the top like a headline. In “The Manly Art Of Self Defense” (11/03/40), the title is on the cover of the same-titled book Ellen Dolan is perusing. It was this innovation with format, panel layout, passage of time and delivery of message (one story in verse, another pantomime, etc) that really won me over on The Spirit. His backgrounds really set the tone and mood of the tale he was telling, his women were always gorgeous, the enemy just despicable enough, the fight scenes always believable and it was this open world reality Eisner created for Denny Colt to live in that hooked me as a reader. After six of seven eight page stories you are totally immersed in The Spirit’s world and from then on, gentle reader, it is a frustrating and fulfilling road you are on, filled with grand adventure the whole way.

Will Eisner was a never-ending fountain of clever ideas, a tremendous draftsman, a brilliant re-thinker of the genre and it’s alleged boundaries, an innovator and straight up genius. His work, as I alluded to earlier, is rather hard to acquire on a modest budget. Warren Publishing and Kitchen Sink Press published between them 41 issues of The Spirit Magazine, which are obtainable but is like pulling teeth finding them for sale. DC Comics is publishing The Spirit Archives for $50 a pop (but obtainable for around $35 online and at comic stores world-wide) which are brilliant hardcover editions of every Spirit story in order, including the war years (vol.5-11) when the strip was continued by luminaries such as Manly Wade Wellman, Wally Wood, Lou Fine and Plastic Man creator Jack Cole. I have volumes 1,2 and 4 (mostly by complete luck) but at 26 volumes this is an expensive proposition, yet one that I am strangely committed to. Do yourself a favor and check out The Spirit and see exactly what I’m talking about and open yourself up to the wonderful talents of Will Eisner. You will soon be at the same point I am, madly scrambling to find more cheap Archive Editions and constantly on the lookout for the magazines.


The tally now stands as Volumes 1-4, 12-17, 24 (for Wally Wood) and the (un)official volume 27 from Dark Horse reprinting the 90’s series that Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Mark Shultz and others did.

Posted January 06, 2011 12:01 am
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