The Spirit Strikes Back
There was only one great comic book in the ’40s and ’50s, the days when comic books were in their first muscular prime. It was set in a place called Central City, which was obviously New York, and it was filled with darkness. Great dark Gregg Toland shadows, men standing in Fritz Lang pools of light, women with dark hair and inviting bodies. “My name is P’gell,” she said, staring with brutal directness from the splash panel, “and this is not a story for little boys…” The comic book was called The Spirit, and in the last year, as always, The Spirit has risen from the grave.
The old Will Eisner classic is back in a series of handsome buck-a-copy reprints published by Warren Publishing Co. The covers are new, beautifully drawn and colored, and, thankfully, the stories are old. The hard coloring of the ’40s comic supplements and comic books has given way to handsome gray Bendays, which emphasize the lush blacks of the drawings and give the stories a feeling of some old Warner Brothers film, caught forever in the ambiguous light of late afternoon. The stories are brilliant — Jules Feiffer was one of Eisner’s writers — and the artwork is the most expressive ever practiced in comic books — among Eisner’s assistants were Wally Wood, who found his own style in the early Mad, and Alex Kotsky, who now draws the newspaper strip, Apartment 3-G. But more than anything else, The Spirit contained great characters, starting with the lead character himself.
In the first episode of The Spirit, published as a newspaper supplement on June 2, 1940, a young private detective named Denny Colt challenges the police commissioner, a knuckle-faced character named Dolan to find one of those arch-fiends of the day, a mad scientist named Dr. Cobra (the comics, even before the atom bomb, napalm, herbicides, and the founding of the military-industrial complex saw that warped science might be our greatest danger). Pursuing the mad doctor, Colt gets in a fight, has a vat of chemicals spilled on him, and seems to die of heart failure. Dr. Cobra gets away, and Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery. But Colt is not dead. He rises from the grave, visits Dolan, announces that he will stay legally dead because “there are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but The Spirit can reach them!”
It was a hoary beginning — even down to the stiff, crude artwork — for something that would later become a glory of the cultural backwater known as comics. Now, 23 years after the last Spirit comic, the masked man is back.
I went to see Eisner recently and talked to him about the comeback.
“I kept hammering him back into the box,” said Eisner, a neat 58-year-old New Yorker with precise features, a trim mustache, and a businessman’s style. “He kept coming out. I was the head of a firm that marketed educational materials, social studies enrichment material, and I was heavily involved in that until suddenly… well, not so suddenly, something started to happen. Over the years, there had been European reprints of The Spirit, and gradually I began to get a lot of mail. Guys wrote in asking for originals, which I never sent, and then they asked for old proofs, and then there were requests for interviews. Suddenly I became aware that there must be something going on out there. Then, two, three years ago, somebody out of a clear blue sky asked me to attend a comics convention, to give me an award. Hell, even from the plumber’s convention an award is good.”
Eisner laughed, doodled with a pencil.
“So I went down there. Burne Hogarth (the best artist Tarzan ever had) was down there and I gave a talk, and I suddenly became aware of the enormous underground market. You must understand that the underground concept is very close to me. I started as an underground sort of artist, although it wasn’t called underground in those days. My whole origin came from breaking into established markets from the outside. Original comic books were practically non-existent when I started. It’s hard to claim that you’re the first of anything, because you never know what the guy across the street is doing, but certainly I was among the first guys to make original comic books, with original art, rather than reprints of newspaper stuff.
“It was, let’s see, ’37. 1937. My first work was sold to something called Wow Magazine, which was an attempt at a broad juvenile magazine, and it very promptly went broke… But it made me aware that there was a potential there. So I formed a partnership with a fellow named Jerry Iger. I was like 19 years old, but very entrepreneurial.
“At the time, something else was happening: the pulp publishers were going broke. Popular Publications, Street & Smith, Muncie were all dying. They started looking for new things to publish and some of them were even putting comic strips inside the pulps. So we hit on a publisher and convinced him that he ought to publish comics. He said yes, but that he had no way to get comics. At that time, the comic books — like Famous Funnies — were just daily strips pasted into a sequence. So I said, ‘We’ll do original work.’ He said okay, but he would only pay the rate he would pay for proofs from newspaper syndicates, $5 a page. So we told him we had five artists as Eisner and Iger, which wasn’t true. And I turned out five different scripts in five different styles.” Eisner laughed: “There’s a lot of stuff around with names like Willis Rensie, which is my name spelled backwards, and Spencer Steel. Spencer Steel: I always like to be called Spencer Steel. Especially where I come from. It had a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it.” (He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)
“I soon had a staff of 15 guys working an operation that looked like a galley ship. I sat in the center and along the oars were the pencilers and paste-up people and inkers and so forth. I was writing the stories, and passing them down, and drawing the heads or something. At $5 a page, we made about a buck and a half net profit, which added up, strangely enough. Later on, as the publishers got smarter, they insisted on owning the properties, so that features we owned, like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, ended up with a separate life.”
By late 1939, after Superman and Batman had taken off, some newspapers started inquiring about having ready-made comic books of their own. Eisner teamed up with a man named “Busy” Arnold, a former newspaper press salesman, and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.
“You know, we were just emerging form the depression,” Eisner recalled, “and there were a lot of new ideas generating, and newspapers were beginning to smell death at the time. Technology was improving, offset was coming in, and all of these things were having an impact on the publishing industry. Anyway, after some discussion, we formed a partnership. Newspaper delivery systems, as you know, are very inflexible, with six-weeks lead time, and you need someone producing the material who is dependable. I had that reputation. We had a big package deal, that included Police Comics and Uncle Sam comics, and Busy Arnold and I became partners. His real name was actually Everett, and I don’t know why he was called ‘Busy,’ because he wasn’t always that busy. Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much in my hands, including the editorial judgement, which was a tremendous break, especially when you’re 21 years old and full of beans. I had no idea what I’d do, except that you always have something on the back burner that you want to do if you’re let loose. For me, that was The Spirit.”
Eisner knew from the beginning that the key to its success would be its stories. Most comics at the time were simple-minded versions of movie serials. Eisner’s work had to be self-contained, and so he focused on the short story as his model.
“I was an avid short story fan, but more importantly, I suppose, I was a frustrated serious painter and a frustrated serious writer. I could do both reasonably well, but not well enough to make a name for myself in either media by itself. But with the euphoria you bring to something when you know it’s the big time, I attacked it as if I were a young Dostoevski. I also equated myself with Ben Hecht and some of the pulp writers, who were my heroes at the time. Short stories are sort of dead now, but they were very big in the ’30s.
“The title — The Spirit — was the result of about 15 names I’d listed, and I really had no intention of making him a ghost. I didn’t want him to be a super-hero, because I had been grinding out super-heroes, and knew what super-heroes were all about. But at the same time, I knew that I had to have an identification; there were certain perimeters you stayed within, or accepted formulas that would augur success. The syndicate salesmen were selling a product, and they wanted it to look like a product they could sell. I promised them a detective. That was fine: a detective could sell. And I promised them a complete story every week, and that was novel, because most people had to wait six weeks to finish a story in a newspaper strip. So we tried to get as much plot into a single episode as the dailies got in six or eight weeks.”
The first 16-page weekly comic book featured The Spirit and two other features. Eisner decided that the load was too much and sold his interest in Eisner and Iger (which was still free-lancing comic art to other publications) so he could concentrate solely on The Spirit.
“When I think back about it now, it was an enormous decision,” Eisner said. “But when you’re that young, you know, you feel impervious. It’s like young pilots in Vietnam, saying: ‘What do you mean I’m going to get killed? No one can kill me: I’m 21 years old.’ I remember Iger trying to dissuade me, saying that The Spirit might not sell in the newspaper business, it could be dead in a year. I said, “I’m immortal. I’m Superman. I’m going to do it.’ ”
The high quality of The Spirit was probably traceable to the oddity of its being a newspaper supplement, rather than a newsstand comic book. Eisner said that in those days the average comic book was written for an eight- or 10-year-old mind.
“But I had a totally different audience. When you’re writing, you’re writing for someone: you, or a little old lady in Brooklyn, or whomever. I was writing to adults. I was writing to college students. I was writing to kids. We started with three papers and grew to 19 or 20, and I also knew that I had a Bible Belt out there to worry about. If you spent a dime on Superman it was because you wanted Superman. But here was a comic that came into the house on Sunday because Pop went out and bought it for the news.
Eisner quickly discovered an enormous freedom and range in possible stories.
“I could pull out the stocking and I could make mistakes,” he said. “If I did a lousy story this week, it was only that week, and I could do a good story next week. And I did have ups and downs, because there are weeks when you go dry. In the beginning I had more good ideas than I could produce, but as time went on, of course, I used them up. Then I started generating new stories out of the newspapers themselves. That went on for a year and a half, and in 1942, I was invited to join the armed forces.”
In the army Eisner was an aide on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, and later started doing cartoon instruction strips for a magazine called Army Motors; he still maintains an interest in the use of comics as an instructional device. The Spirit continued, with Lou Fine drawing it for a while, along with the great Jack Cole (famous in his own right as the artist of Plastic Man and then as a Playboy cartoonist in the magazine’s early days).
In early 1946, Eisner came back to New York and The Spirit and, from 1946 to 1950, had what he calls “four glorious golden years.” It was at this time that Jules Feiffer went to work for Eisner. “We’ve had a remarkably good relationship over the years,” Eisner said of Feiffer. “There’s a tremendous empathy between us. Psychologically we’re very much alike, philosophically we’re much alike… Those were the vintage years for me… A lot of collectors are into the early, pre-war Spirit, but as I look back now the drawing is very, very crude. I think what attracts the collectors or so-called historians is the obvious fact that I was experimenting so vividly, so aggressively. There just was nothing like The Spirit in existence. King Features came out with an imitation called ‘Red Barry’ or something, but it died in a couple of months. It just didn’t have… I guess the word is elan.”
The post-war Spirit was the world of lush blacks, unusual angles, great humor, all of which had been present in a cruder form in the earlier version. The difference, Eisner said, was that the war had matured him — and his work: “The early Spirits were done by a young kid barely out of high school, who lived a very cloistered life, when you consider that most cartoonists live a cloistered life. I mean, 90 per cent of a cartoonist’s time is spent at a drawing board in a fantasy world. Occasionally you get up and tell the plumber, ‘Yeah, the pipe is over there,’ or whatever it is, and you do go out and buy lunch. But one of the great occupational hazards of this life is that an artist spends an enormous amount of his life in the nice soft womb of a studio. Now with the rates higher, it might be possible to spend six months on one book, as if you were writing a novel. In those days, I was functioning the way, say, a TV series writer works, and you don’t expect great masterworks under the circumstances. Of course, I was functioning as the writer and the director. I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and I keep telling the students that you’re the actor, you’re the author, you’re the screenwriter, you’re the cameraman, you’re the director, and you’re the cutting editor. I hold to the idea that the comic strip author should be writer and artist.
I asked Eisner how much he had been influenced by movies.
“My early life was spent in the Brooklyn movie houses, those marvelous temples of fantasy. That’s where my life experience came from, by and large, with the exception of a couple of street fights. As a kid, I used to go and look at Man Ray movies, all the experimental films that the New School used to run in the ’30s, and in high school I very seriously considered going into theatrical design. I was very theatre oriented. The answer is yes: I was always motion picture oriented. I thought of a comic strip as a movie on paper. Or put another way, movies are comic strips made to move.”
Eisner loved Fritz Lang’s movies: his cartoonist heroes were Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Popeye’s E.C. Segar, and George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat pages ended up in museums. But he said he didn’t consciously steal from anyone.
“There’s no such thing as stealing, really. There’s a difference between stealing and imitation or slavish emulation. If you’re emulating a guy, and you’ve got a strong personality of your own, you’ll always develop your own style anyway. Some artists serve as jumpoff points for other artists. For example, George Herriman showed me that you could develop odd and abstract backgrounds without any realistic relation to what was going on. It isn’t much of a jump to say, ‘Ah yes, he showed me the way and now I’m going to improve on the idea.’ Writers showed me. Conan Doyle, for example, helped me tremendously in writing balloons. Balloons are like writing telegrams. You’re constricted in space, you have to make every word count. You learn there’s a dynamics of words, that words have visual impact. The word ‘shit’ on paper doesn’t look as horrible as it sounds, so you have to find another word to make it sound as horrible. ‘Glak!’ sounds like a man choking or dying when you write in on a page, but it doesn’t sound the same when you say it. Conan Doyle’s style was largely dialogue, three or four pages of crisp back-and-forth dialogue where the reader knows exactly what is going on, and even knows how the man feels. So I learned from that. And combined with pictures, it becomes an art form in itself.”
The Spirit revival started when Eisner granted a man named Dennis Kitchen the right to reprint some old Spirits in an underground comic, for which Eisner drew a new cover. It sold out. They did a second and that too sold out. Meanwhile, a magazine called Tin Tin in France was also publishing the old Spirit stories, with Eisner’s permission, and “soon I was back in the Spirit business.” Then several New York comic publishers offered to revive the strip. But Eisner started talking to Jim Warren, who wanted initially to do a Spirit poster, then to scatter Spirit stories through existing publications, and finally agreed to a full-scale revival in a magazine entirely devoted to The Spirit. “I know Warren,” Eisner explains, “and we have a philosophical compatibility. But if someone asked me why I gave it to Warren, I’d say, because he cares.”
Eisner had saved all the original artwork, which was in good shape “except for a coffee cup stain here or there.” Warren hired a fine underground artist named Rich Corben to color the first two issues: Eisner and an assistant did the coloring in the six that have followed, and he has also directed the application of the gray Bendays that have given the strips such a handsome texture. There are 240 old stories, and they will start to run out in 1976. So Eisner is preparing to write new ones. Where will the new material come from?
“The newspapers,” he said. “I did that from the beginning. I remember, back in 1941, they were building the Lincoln Tunnel and there were a lot of stories about sandhogs dying and so forth, so I used that and built a story around it.” I mentioned a fine Spirit story of 1947, based on the great blizzard that year, in which The Spirit is trapped in a sewer because he can’t raise the snow-covered manhole covers. All of the stories seemed to draw on the life of cities.
“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Only a city dweller can be aware of the real significance of a snowstorm. A snowstorm in the country is really something to ride over, you know. It’s part of the landscape, no different than the rocks and the mud. But a snowstorm in the city is the equivalent of dropping the atom bomb. Think about it for a minute. If you and I were mad scientists here, and we were going to tie up the city of New York… Let’s say it’s a military exercise, so that the people of the city of New York couldn’t get out of the city of New York. You wanted to capture New Jersey, but you wanted the people of New York to be immobilized for 48 hours or more. Well, you could bomb all the bridges at the same time, but they would still get across the river. But settle 14 to 20 inches of snow on the city! It does things like immobilize manhole covers, it immobilizes traffic, it’s a real thing! Only a city kid, only a person who’s lived in the city and learned how to survive in the city and regards the city as his jungle, so to speak, can be aware of how enormous that would be.”
Eisner’s work at its best contained a kind of urban poetry, and I asked him if the lyric strain had come from the same things that had produced similar qualities in such diverse Brooklynites as Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.
“We were doing different things, but sure! What we were doing, all of us, was weeping inside the ghetto walls. ‘Outside the ghetto walls was another world,’ we were told. But I mean ghetto, inside the walls of the city, a kind of medieval city in which you’ve grown up. Your plan is really to climb one of those walls. Some guys do it by marrying a nice blonde Gentile girl and living up in Westchester with her family. Some guys do it by becoming a basketball player, or a boxer: in those days everybody was going to be a boxer. Or the other guys say the hell with it, I’m going to join the mob and I’m going to make it. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. From the time I was eight years old! So guys go to movies, read books, they know there’s another world out there, and how things could be. You learned from everything. You lived in the tenements and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cohen living together. As a kid I could watch him banging her, or him beating the shit out of her. Now, television does that. It’s like a window into somebody else’s house, from which you glean what life is about. Even television. It shows you a world that doesn’t have a sense of realism, but from which you draw some of your life experience.”
Eisner is clearly enjoying the increasing interest in The Spirit and the realization that some of the strips approached art.
“Sure, most of it was crap,” he said. “But when I grew up, along with my peers — the Jack Kirbys, the Jack Coles, the Siegel and Shusters — we were learning the merchandise. We were cobblers, not shoe designers. When I was at the Art Students League, I was taught that art was synonymous with one or two mediums. An oil painting is art. An etching is art. A mural is art. But a comic strip is not art, or was not art. This seemed always to me a great injustice. But we were making art. I prefer to call it sequential art. Daumier, Goya, the people who made 13th-century broadsheets: they were making sequential art. I think we’re poised now to treat other kinds of subjects. More sophisticated subjects. Comics have dealt with only one theme for the last 30 years and that was Crime Does Not Pay. Yes, there were Jiggs and Maggie subjects, or A Monster Is Going to Take Over the Earth. But it’s still ‘crime does not pay.’ My one condescension to the medium — the way I had to pay my dues — was to make The Spirit a crime fighter. Your new people will be touching on subjects that are more sensitive, if not more serious. Me: I’d like to do a novel in this medium. I’m at a stage of affluence where I can afford to do it without worrying whether it will sell or not. The trouble is that it’s a two-year project, because the fastest anybody can move is about a page a day. At least that’s as fast as I could go. But even then it’s not so much the length and the physical limitation, it’s the story, the plot. It would have to be serious stuff. What I’m talking about is that instead of doing ‘Crime and Punishment,’ by a fellow named Dostoevski, I would have a story by Will Eisner.”
Eisner smiled, and doodled.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 16, 2020