Will Eisner’s The Spirit was, at its peak, circulated in about 20 newspapers nationwide as the feature in a 16-page insert. It was the newspaper industry’s answer to the fledgling comic book industry. The Spirit himself wasn’t like most of the costumed heroes of the day. He didn’t wear tights, he didn’t have powers, and he didn’t have wealth. His outfit – a blue trench coat with matching hat and pants, and striking red tie – was more like the pulp heroes of the day, such as The Shadow, or his comic-strip contemporary, Dick Tracy. Though the higher-ups protested, Eisner didn’t envision his creation as something to compete against the likes of Superman or Captain Marvel. However, he did concede in drawing a domino mask around the character’s eyes, making him technically a masked crime-fighter. And though The Spirit has had an undeniable influence in the comic industry, little attention is paid to his early work on the strip, in particular his work prior to World War II.
The splashy title pages and different configurations of “The Spirit” text is often associated with Eisner’s latter works. To be fair, it is his post-war work where the most celebrated of those title pages were created, be it “The Fox at Bay,” “The Last Trolly,” or “The Elevator.” However, the pre-war era of The Spirit is rife with experimental layouts that would become Eisner’s hallmark. The December 8, 1940 installment titled “The Haunted House” is arguably the first instance of “The Spirit” text being incorporated into the architecture of the scenery. “Goll Girder” from November 30, 1941 sees the title text used as an interactive component of the scenery.
Beyond the title splashes, Eisner’s early work on the strip is not too dissimilar from his later efforts. With a limited amount of space – only 8 pages – Eisner managed to cram in a full-length story. More complex than the happenings in the pages of Batman, Eisner targeted a more mature audience. This in part was due to newspaper distribution’s ability to reach more than the child demographics. Sultry femme fatales, mysteries, and death were ever-present in early The Spirit stories. Being included in newspapers, it escaped the scrutiny that its comic book contemporaries faced.
The limited page space forced Eisner to compress his storytelling, making frequent use of at minimum a 9-panel structure. Often, even more panels were required. But the additional panels aided in the story’s pacing. In the years since, this type of storytelling structure has been lauded. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen heavily features such a structure, as do more recent critical darlings like Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. As exemplified by the page above, Eisner’s use of page structure not only could be used for pacing, but also to convey motion through space.
Will Eisner’s influence on the comics medium is undeniable. However, it is clear that the elements of his work deemed influential can be traced back to his earliest efforts. While they may not possess the object creativity found upon his return from active duty in World War II, the quality of storytelling remains present. If the opportunity ever presents itself to track down these early The Spirit stories, be sure to take full advantage. Though dated by today’s standards, they remain an excellent example of sequential artwork.