Sunday Slugfest - The Spirit #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Bailey, Rich Harvey, Kevin Powers, Jason Sacks, Ray Tate, Thom Young

Michael Bailey

Will Eisner’s Spirit stories are at the top of the list of comics I need to read at some point in my life, but for one reason or another I haven’t gotten around to them yet. The style and tone of the art work are so alluring, and it seems to be pretty much unanimous that they are some of the best examples of sequential art ever to be put on the page. I realize that may sound a little pompous and maybe a tad on the dramatic side, but there are times when comic book art will just grab me and not let go. I can’t explain why I haven’t tracked those stories down (though the fifty dollar price tag on those archives is rather daunting), but I know at some point I’ll seek them out and give them a go.

Because of that lack of previous experience with the character, I came into this first issue rather new to the world the Spirit inhabits and therefore can’t make a solid judgment call on how it stacks up compared to the myriad of Spirit stories that Eisner and others have produced over the decades. Usually, I look at this sort of thing as a handicap, but in this case I don’t think it made much of a difference on how I felt about the book. The Spirit has such a strong base as a character and concept that you don’t need the history of every cast member to enjoy a story about the character. It also helped that I picked up the Batman/Spirit special that Jeph Loeb, Darwyn Cooke and Jeff Bone produced, so I felt comfortable enough going in to not feel like I was going to get lost.

Outside of one very minor quibble I really liked this book.

I liked it a lot, actually. This is going to be one of those rare times where I believe that the art and writing have to come together just right or the series just won’t work at all. Sometimes a book can having really strong writing and art that might not be up to snuff and I’m cool because the story was good. There are other times (rare though they are) where the art was so phenomenal that the blasé writing didn’t both me much. With The Spirit I am going to have to insist that both complement each other to near perfection or I don’t think it will work.

Frankly, I blame Darwyn Cooke for this. He has proven in the past, especially with DC: The New Frontier that he is strong writer/artist and while it may not be fair, I’ve come to expect a lot from him. Thankfully, he keeps on delivering. From the iconic cover to the two page splash of the buildings being lit to spell out “Spirit” as the character runs past to the dynamic page layouts, this book was a ride from page two on. It was a tight story with an endless number twists and turns to make it seem like I couldn’t turn the page fast enough to see what happens next. It is refreshing to see this kind of story being told in the “decompressed” age of comics. The plot filled up one issue and didn’t feel like there should be any more or less.

It was also a lot of fun. I hesitate to call it old fashioned because I think that sort of thing is silly, but at the same time the tone felt like something from another era while simultaneously feeling fresh and new. Again, I commend Cooke for being able to produce such a sensation. Like the Batman/Spirit Jeff Bone did an admirable job inking Cooke’s pencils, giving the art a real polished look. The art was also enhanced by Dave Stewart’s colors. I’m mainly familiar with Stewart’s work from the coloring he’s done for Matt Wagner’s Dark Moon Rising mini-series (in addition to the phenomenal work he did on the Trinity mini-series) and the pseudo-retro feel that the Cooke’s art has meshes well with Stewart’s previous efforts.

The previously mentioned quibble comes in the form of the style of the art clashing with the technology and other trappings of the book. The art suggests the past, but again not in a bad way. The computers, cell phones and cable news network angle suggests the present, and I’m not sure if these two really mesh. Maybe I was expecting something else, which is entirely possible. I thought this was going to be a period piece, but in the end it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. This is why I said it was a minor quibble and not a problem or complaint.

In the end, I thought this was a strong opening to this series. Cooke and crew came out swinging and delivered a fast paced story that had grotesque villains, a damsel in a dress and a good bit of humor to balance everything out. This book seems like an odd addition to DC’s roster of titles, but it stands out as something different from the rest of what the company is publishing and will hopefully serve as a respite from my normal continuity heavy super-hero fare.

Rich Harvey:

This is the beginning of the anticipated new series featuring Will Eisner’s comic-icon from the 1940s. A few weeks ago, Batman and Robin joined the festivities in Batman/The Spirit #1 as Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke cracked the bottle of champagne on the “S.S. Spirit” with “Crime Convention.” Now Cooke assumes the responsibilities as writer and artist, appropriately enough since Eisner himself pulled double-duty as the Spirit’s auteur. The Spirit may work best with a single creator, walking the fine line between cinema-style comics and pulp-inspired prose.

NNN-News anchor Ginger Coffee promises viewers that she will expose Amos Weinstock, alias The Pill, a leading drug trafficker in Central City. Since this is a comic book, he is appropriately mysterious and – as we later discover – appropriately grotesque. He could have stepped right out of Chester Gold’s Unused Ideas file. A “special guest” will blow the whistle on a live broadcast – but Coffee is kidnapped and held captive, while the Spirit employs a variety of stealthy tricks to rescue her. Now they’re on the run, hoping the police will find them before the hired torpedoes. The chase goes over rooftops, through back-alleys and sewers, much to the perfumed Ginger Coffee’s distaste. To complicate matters, the reluctant damsel-in-distress undermines their escape attempt for the sake of a live exclusive. Bullets fly in this fast-paced, hardboiled thriller, and the chase sequence is exciting.

There’s a wonderful noir atmosphere, evocative of films like D.O.A. and Gun Crazy, which was desperately needed in the Batman crossover. The whacky hi-jinks of “Crime Convention” are dumped for more sublime humor, as Denny Colt faces off against criminals who are realistic and vicious. One jarring moment in the story, however, comes from one of the thugs. They’re far more realistic in this story, but I wasn’t expecting salty language. I assumed that Cooke would avoid PG-13 dialogue, in keeping with Eisner’s style. Well, this is the 21st Century …

Another concession to the 21st Century is Ginger Coffee, an African-American television news anchor. She’s a ratings-winner and quite spunky. However, her willingness to jeopardize her safety, and that of the Spirit, suggests that she’s not as street-smart as Lois Lane. Ginger probably gained her reporting chops by surfing the internet and sending the interns on latte errands. It’s hinted that she could become a recurring character. Ginger carries most of the story, and prepares readers for the first appearance of Ebony, the Spirit’s young assistant. This dreadfully unfunny stereotype was the one major blight on Eisner’s corpus. In this new series, Ebony is no longer an Al Jolsen-caricature, speaking fluent “mammy” dialogue. Now he’s presented as a competent, young African American sidekick who isn’t above ribbing the lead character. Some fans felt that he was an anachronism, but Cooke’s make-over seemed a no-brainer to me. At least, he doesn’t resemble Samuel L. Jackson – who, recently, seems to be the model for every black male in comics.

Having cleaned up the supporting cast, Cooke places the “Ugly Caricature” onto the villains. The Pill is a distorted version of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, covered with canker sores. He speaks in a courtly manner, before disposing of an interesting stoolie. Mr. Wang’s “memory-card” brain is mentioned in passing, before The Pill’s “acid touch” is demonstrated in passing. Unless these characters are going to surface in future Spirit tales, why did Cooke even bother? The standard “underworld boss” would have sufficed. For that matter, was it really necessary to kidnap Ginger Coffee? She boasts that she’s “the nation’s TV crimefighter,” but posed no more threat to The Pill than the weather anchor. Once Mr. Wang is fried, Coffee is a reporter with no story, forced to resume arresting internet predators on hidden camera. Besides, killing a beloved television personality, especially one as sexy as Ginger, is bad for business. There’s the possible public outcry to consider; on the other hand, there are the law enforcement officials who feel publicly humiliated.

After making a disparaging remark about The Spirit, one cop gets an earful from Commissioner Dolan, who is presented as far crustier than usual. He doesn’t appreciate witnessing crimes live via satellite, but there’s more than embarrassment behind his gruff exterior. A quiet moment in Dolan’s office demonstrates his concern for Denny Colt, the masked man who could have been his son-in-law. His paternal fear, and the mistrust of the other officers, suggests that these events are occurring early in The Spirit’s crimefighting career.

This series shows tremendous promise, especially Dolan’s quiet reflection on the Spirit and his daughter, in simpler times. Could Darwyn Cooke be planning to explore Denny Colt and Ellen Dolan’s relationship? If he can make Ebony more palatable to modern readers, perhaps Cooke can move past Eisner’s simpler characterization of her as the swooning, unrequited love interest.

This self-contained story is a straight-forward “hero-on-the run” plotline, but it’s also fast-paced and fun. Now that the Spirit has made the leap into the 21st Century, here’s hoping that he finds a new audience.

Rich Harvey’s Bold Venture Press specializes in pulp fiction reprints. He was a consulting editor on The Spider Chronicles, an anthology starring the pulp hero, coming in January from Moonstone Books.

Kevin Powers:

Will Eisner is a legend in the art of Comic Books. The most prestigious award a comic book creator can receive is an Eisner. The man who revolutionized the sequential art style of comic books in the 1940s will forever be remembered as long as comic books are in existence. He is on the level of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel when talking of comic books. With this in mind, it is only fitting that Will Eisner’s greatest character be brought back to mainstream comics for a sixth volume, The Spirit. Taking the reigns of Spirit is the perfect man for the job, silver age connoisseur Darwyn Cooke. Darwyn Cooke is a master storyteller, especially when dealing with classic characters. His art style reflects not only Bruce Timm, but a distinct style that can be manipulated to evoke both timelessness or a specific time period. The Batman/Spirit is a fantastic one-shot that is both fun and seriously entertaining.

With so many new ideas coming and going in comic books, it seems that revisiting a classic would seem inappropriate and old, a feeling of “been there, done that.” However, Darwyn Cooke doesn’t just give us the classic Spirit, he modernizes the Spirit and gives him the same timeless feel like is shared by the likes of Captain America, Superman or Batman. Rather than a period piece, this latest vision of the Spirit is set in modern times, and it is probably one of the single best comic book issues I’ve read in the past year. Darwyn Cooke captures the humor behind the character, he captures the tone of the story, it’s fun and it’s entertaining, all the while being serious. TV reporter Ginger Coffee (great name!) is abducted on air, moments before she interviews an informant who will no doubt put away crime lord Amos “The Pill” Weinstock. Hot on her trail is the Spirit who makes his first appearance in his new series cutting through the cushion of a back car seat. He proceeds to rescue Ginger Coffee, and in probably one of the most annoyingly entertaining scenes I have ever read in a comic book, Ginger Coffee tries to interview The Spirit while they try to escape through the sewers. Her cell-phone is open, and the chase is being broadcast on national television, thus leading the Pill and his goons right to The Spirit. In classic style, the Spirit makes his escape when his sidekick, Ebony White, pulls up in a taxi cab. The banter back and forth between Coffee and The Spirit is amazing and done wonderfully enough to the point where you start to feel bad for the Spirit for having to go through this. His only request to Miss Coffee is that she keep his involvement on the down-low. He doesn’t want a huge public profile, and he simply asks she don’t speak of his involvement. So instead she twists the story and gives her viewers the idea that she was the true hero of the escape! Brilliant! This title is fun, fast and energetic, and it has a timeless feel that makes it true to Eisner’s vision.

Darwyn Cooke’s art is beyond perfect for this series. He captures the tone of the book perfectly, a mix of noir and humor, classic and modern rolled into one. His artwork is very distinct, a “comic” version of Bruce Timm’s style but very distinct in its own right. I could not imagine anyone more perfect to give a rebirth to one of comicdom’s most fantastic characters. Even if you don’t read comics, you should grab this book for a great story.

Jason Sacks:

A first issue is, in part, a declaration. It’s a statement of intent about where a series will be going. The best first issues set up characters and settings, the style of a comic and its main characters, in order to tantalize readers for future issues. With that in mind, Darwyn Cooke makes some very specific choices in this first issue that indicate that this is both a classic take and an update to the Spirit.

It’s a classic take on the character because so much of the setting seems familiar. The Spirit of the 1940s and ‘50s lived in a very noir environment, one in which danger often lived in every shadow and in which a great darkness often seemed to permeate society. Cooke delivers that in this issue, taking great pains to show the great heroism and internal strength of the Spirit as he helps a kidnapped reporter. He also throws in several examples of the character’s trademark humor and weaknesses. Cooke’s take on Denny Colt, Eisner’s Spirit, is very much inline with Eisner’s take on the character.

At the same time, Cooke takes great pains to assert that this is a new take on the character. Obviously, the character of Ginger Coffee is a satire on the sleazy cable news outlets that are fighting for viewers’ attention these days. There are also references to Oprah, and a cell phone plays a key point in the plot. These are obviously conscious choices by Cooke that are intended to indicate that his fealty to Eisner only goes so far. Nevermind the nostalgia fest he delivered in New Frontier; Cooke is stating loudly that this comic will contain his take on the Spirit, not Eisner’s. The characters will be true to their roots but will also be updated. This is a comic that takes place in the here and now, not 50 or 60 years ago.

Therefore, I felt really conflicted about this issue, perhaps in the way a fan of the Jay Garrick Flash might have felt in 1956 reading about Barry Allen in his bright red suit. There’s no questioning that Eisner’s Spirit comics are true classics of the medium - almost no new Spirit stories have appeared since 1952, but despite that, those stories have remained in print for the last 30 years. Is that classic status a reason to stop creating Spirit stories, or is it a reason to create new stories?

Great creators other than Cooke have tried their hands at Spirit stories. Luminaries such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell, Dave Gibbons, Moebius, Paul Pope, Kurt Buseik and Brent Anderson presented their takes on the character in the eight-issue The Spirit: the New Adventures in 1988. For my money, few of those creators really succeeded in creating memorable stories. There were several good stories in the series - Buseik and Anderson’s story was as evocative and memorable as the best issues of their Astro City, but few of the stories really felt right to me. Even Moore and Gaiman fell short of their usual standards in that series. I think the problem was simply that the Spirit is a unique and idiosyncratic character. It’s often been noted that Denny Colt was sort of Eisner’s alter ego, and if that is true, then it follows that even the best creators might have trouble being true to the character’s background.

And Cooke is certainly a great creator. There’s no questioning the quality of his work in this comic. His artwork is gorgeous and moody, with intelligent use of camera angles and a really unique and dynamic sense of action to it. As a Darwyn Cooke comic, this is right up to par with his other work.

And yet, and yet...

Cooke stays tightly contained in standard page grids throughout this comic. Eisner quite often used unusual page layouts to convey his stories. Eisner’s stories were incredibly dense seven-page wonders, while this is a more relaxed 22-page “done-in-one.” Eisner created stories that felt timeless, while this one feels very contemporary. In so many ways, this is not Eisner’s Spirit.

But, Cooke is saying, that is the point. A first issue is a declaration, and this issue is a declaration to all of us purists who worship at the altar of Will Eisner’s creation and who have at least three reprints of “The Vortex” and “Gerhard Schnobble” and “Meet P’Gell” in our collections. Cooke is telling all of us to relax and enjoy the present. Eisner’s Spirit is a true classic, but Cooke won’t be slavishly devoted to recreating that classic. Instead, like Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino did in Showcase #4, Cooke opts to deliver a new Spirit for the current day. He doesn’t channel the ghost of Will Eisner, but the living energetic and thoughtful spirit of Darwyn Cooke.

Ray Tate:

This premiere issue of The Spirit is another Darwyn Cooke triumph. The Spirit, for those not in the know, is Denny Colt, a former Central City police detective and beau to Commissioner Dolan’s daughter. Left for dead by the criminal element, Denny Colt walked off what was really a bad case of suspended animation. Instead of reclaiming his past life, Colt decided to encourage the exaggeration of his death. He created a new identity as the Spirit and became an effective masked vigilante.

Darwyn Cooke’s version of the Spirit preserves the model stamped by creator Will Eisner. The Spirit tends to adapt to situations rather than plan for them. Consider him a poker player to Batman’s chess player. Such methods in crimefighting come to play in the relaunch. Darwyn Cooke dovetails panel after panel to depict inventive violence and cunning demonstrations of the Spirit’s genius at thinking on his feet.

Favorite examples of the Spirit at work in this premiere issue include his method of entry into the heavy’s car and a pragmatic experiment involving a file cabinet. The latter also embodies Cooke’s regard for slapstick humor.

The plot’s a simple case of kidnapping. An investigative reporter wittily named Ginger Coffee comes too close to exposing a repulsive godfather type criminal power. Rather than “shoot her now,” the villain opts “to wait until he gets home.” In addition, he wishes her to suffer. He forces her to witness the killing of her source, a harmless low-level criminal sadly out of date despite his prescience. Just as the villain’s about to turn on her, for he likes to do the deed himself, he finds himself confronted by a spirited argument against the action.

Ginger follows in the footsteps of an archetype created in real life by Nelly Bly and in fiction by Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday. Ginger is a sharp, fast-talking reporter who will do anything to get a story. This includes jeopardizing her own safety with an impromptu interview. Coffee’s news show is merely another extrapolation.

Cooke brings The Spirit up to date, but it’s neither through Ginger nor her hard hitting news program. Ginger and her show have always been around in some form. Cooke takes The Spirit into the twenty-first century through different means.

The Spirit encounters obstacles to his crimefighting that originate from a previously unfathomable immediacy of information exchange. The Spirit really is living in the time of wikipedia,, and though he looks to be an anachronism, he acts cognizant to the changes in technology. This awareness includes staying out of the range of an array of modern day weaponry. Even Tommy guns cannot compare to the rapid-fire inventions designed to kill through quality and quantity.

Cooke’s art is known to be retro hip. This is not to say that Cooke hasn’t experience outside The New Frontier. Indeed, he helped design the look and feel of Batman Beyond and Catwoman. The Spirit benefits from Cooke’s stripped down illusion of animation, and for this series, Cooke stays firmly rooted in the current period. The Spirit remains “Big Blue Average.” Cooke updates everything around the Spirit. The supporting cast, including those from the Spirit’s original time, wears clothing that’s thoroughly modern. There’s a definite recognition of women’s equality. Men and women comprise the police department as well as the news stations and other walks of life. The vehicles and accoutrements all bear the lines of today. Needless to say, Ebony White no longer looks like an embarrassing stereotype.

The look of the Spirit is not a superficial appeasement to readers who may feel alienated by the old-school charm of the original series. Cooke spells out the Spirit’s name in a two page sequence that brims with the hyperkineticism of manga. Blurred, fluorescent lit windows in a rushing backdrop of a speed-line haloed Spirit spell out his name. Ebony White isn’t just a supporting character. He plays an integral part in the plot and serves as the Spirit’s partner in a balanced double-act that resonates particularly well in the tag scene at the end of the stand-alone story.

I declare this first issue of The Spirit a success. It’s easy to enjoy and benefits from Darwyn Cooke’s superb artwork and galvanized writing that’s seven kinds of cool.

Thom Young:

Back in 1940, Will Eisner was hired to produce a 16-page weekly comic book to be inserted into the Sunday editions of newspapers. For the seven-page lead story, Eisner decided to create a tough private detective character named Denny Colt who would take on cases that would interest the adult audience Eisner was hoping to reach.

Rather than Siegel and Shuster’s Slam Bradley, Eisner envisioned his character more in the vein of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op (see Hammett’s Red Harvest). However, Everett “Busy” Arnold (owner of Quality Comics and the financial backer of Eisner’s Sunday comic book insert) wanted a costumed character with an appropriate pulp hero name.

To meet Arnold’s demands, Eisner added the domino mask, a pair of gloves, a secret subterranean lair beneath Denny Colt’s supposed grave, and the name “The Spirit.” Suddenly, the tough guy detective was a masked crime fighter, and Eisner began introducing satirical elements into his Spirit stories with the second installment. If he couldn’t have a Continental Op type of character, he was also going to make sure he wasn’t going to have yet another second-rate imitation of The Shadow.

Anyone who is extensively familiar with The Spirit can immediately tell that Darwyn Cooke has carefully studied Eisner’s stories—particularly his post-World War II stories, which were clearly Eisner’s best when it came to The Spirit.

In the earliest stories, Eisner made it clear that The Spirit is essentially a bounty hunter who’s not only interested in ridding Central City of crime, but also in collecting any reward money for the capture of the criminals. After all, since Denny Colt was no longer going to be working cases as a private investigator, he was going to have to make money somehow.

Cooke alludes to the bounty hunter angle of The Spirit in this first issue when the kidnapped TV news anchor, Ginger Coffee, asks The Spirit, “You figure on a big ransom or reward for doing this?” (rescuing her), to which The Spirit replies, “Actually, a reward would be grea--” (not finishing his sentence as he stops to listen to something).

However, aside from this slight allusion to Eisner’s earliest stories, Cooke’s Spirit is the more established post-World War II version of the character—albeit presented in a long, drawn-out story. I suppose in this age of multiple-issue story arcs, other reviewers will commend Cooke for creating a single-issue story. However, the fact is that Cooke took 22 pages to tell a story that Eisner would have told in seven pages—and would have told better.

Like Eisner, Cooke tries to provide humor by satirizing aspects of contemporary American culture. In this issue, Cooke’s target is the American entertainment and TV news media. Across the bottom of a TV news broadcast on his first page, Cooke shows the all-too-familiar TV news ticker that provides such significant information here as “Taliban rebels sign three-picture development deal” and “United Nations officials finally admit they’re ‘basically useless.’”

This material is obviously meant to satirize three aspects of our culture: TV news, Hollywood movie studios, and the United Nations. However, I find the satire to be too heavy handed for a Spirit story. It might work better in Mad Magazine or with a character like Plastic Man—works that are intended to be heavy-handed satire.

Similarly, Cooke has Ginger Coffee speak in “TV news anchor speak” as she and The Spirit are making their way through Central City’s sewer system. While fleeing from her kidnappers with The Spirit, Ginger Coffee secretly calls her TV network on her cell phone so that they can broadcast her live audio commentary.

The point of satirizing TV news was made after the first page or two of Ginger Coffee’s audio commentary, yet Cooke gives us a full eight pages of this TV news anchor speak—about the same number of pages that Eisner had for an entire story each week.

Cooke’s running gag, of course, is that the American entertainment and news media provide superficial content that is solely designed to make money or get ratings. His skewering of the American media is a worthwhile effort, and Eisner often used his The Spirit to point out the foibles of American society.

However, Cooke’s gags about the media are not significantly insightful. In fact, I would argue that the same skewering of contemporary American media was handled more effectively (and with more humor) by Frank Miller twenty years ago in The Dark Knight Returns.

I can appreciate what a daunting task it must be to have to measure up to a man of Eisner’s talents—not to mention his stature in the industry. Yet, of course, not all of Eisner’s Spirit stories were classics. His earliest efforts in 1940 as a 22-year old cartoonist are simplistic stories with crude illustrations that look to be drawn by a second-rate Lou Fine rather than the first-rate artist that Eisner eventually developed into.

Additionally, beyond Eisner’s later work, Cooke must also measure up to Alan Moore’s excellent Spirit stories that he created with Dave Gibbons during Kitchen Sink’s short-lived Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The New Adventures.

I really want to like Cooke’s new Spirit series, but I don’t see that happening as long as he turns in second-rate Eisner-styled stories. Of course, if a creator changes an iconic character too much, he risks alienating that character’s fans—so that becomes the other side of the tightrope that Cooke must walk here.

Moore, however, was able to tell an Eisner-styled story in eight pages while making it obvious that it was an Alan Moore story as well. With his first issue, Cooke was unable to make the story and character his own—and, unfortunately, the first issue of a new series is the one that has to be a homerun in today’s market.

I hope Cooke’s approach improves and that this series succeeds. In the meantime, though, I would recommend that anyone who is interested in Eisner’s character seek out DC’s The Spirit Archives (beginning with volume 12) and Kitchen Sink’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The New Adventures by Alan Moore and other top-level creators.

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