For me, the secret of enjoying the current Sergio Aragonés & Mark Evanier The Spirit lies in the idea of severing a connection to my opinions of everything that’s come before. That’s a tall order that requires a lot of concentration on my part, since I adored Will Eisner and Darwyn Cooke brilliant takes on the series. Those two creators cast long shadows over this current series.
The Spirit is one of my all-time favorite comics characters and series. Heck, it might be my favorite comics series ever. Will Eisner’s work on this series in the ’40s and ’50s was groundbreaking, literally a textbook on comic art and story techniques. Eisner’s stories were epics in seven pages. For several years Eisner produced some of the most intellectually and emotionally involving comics of all time. He left a very high standard for this character.
I’ve made an effort to collect every piece of Spirit work Eisner ever did, which means, among other things, that I have an absurd number of reprints of stories like “I Am P’Gell,” “The Vortex” and “Gerhard Shnobble.” It also means that I’ve always had trouble with the idea of other artists taking on this character. Even while it was still running as a new strip, substitute artists just never could fill Eisner’s shoes.
The only creator to come close to filling Eisner’s shoes is the amazing Darwyn Cooke. Cooke delivered the impossible, melding his own unique and prodigious storytelling abilities with those of Eisner in earlier issues of this series. Cooke’s twelve Spirit stories stand on their own as unique comics, full of brilliant storytelling and fantastic stories. But they also serve as tributes to Eisner’s work in the best ways, using the master storyteller’s work as a starting point, and broadening and deepening his characters.
By the end of Cooke’s run, readers were able to see Eisner’s characters from the 1940s in a very 2000s light. Under Cooke, the Spirit is a real hero and his villains are real villains, but user Cooke’s adept eye they gained a richness and complexity that transcended both men’s work.
Which brings me to the Aragonés and Evanier version of the character. It’s fair to say that their take on the Spirit isn’t about transcendence or about paying tribute to Eisner as much as it’s about creating a fun little sitcom action comic. Their take on the character is to play it loose, have fun, do conventional stories that amuse rather than stimulate. In other words, they are all about making the Spirit like a normal comics character.
Therein lies my struggles with this comic. So much of my love of this character comes from the transcendent nature of the stories that feature him. The Sprit and his supporting cast have always been placed in amazing stories that broaden the artform. Here, though, they’re in relatively ordinary stories intended as cute little throwaways.
That’s not actually a complaint about the work that Aragonés and Evanier do here. It’s their intent to present something fun and light, and they do just fine at that job. My problem with their take on the comic isn’t their work, it’s in my perceptions of it. Aragonés and Evanier aren’t aiming to create a comic that will get five bullets in the Comics Bulletin rating scale; they’re shooting to produce a fun little three-bullet comic. And in this issue, at least, they succeed in that goal.
“Nor Prison Walls” is a cute little story about a crime boss whose henchmen kidnap the Spirit’s girlfriend Ellen Dolan in an effort to get himself freed from prison. In the hands of Eisner or Cooke, it’s easy to imagine a plot like this being the cause for an intense tale of prisons and criminals, perhaps with a personal connection to the Spirit that makes everything seem more complex or poignant.
Here, though, Aragonés and Evanier take the light road and create something truly unique: a silly and effervescent crime story in which smiling faces far outbalance intense fighting. It’s a supremely odd tale, but also one that works for what it sets out to do. The creators somehow manage to carry their light tone through this whole issue in way that somehow seems heroic. No matter how dark the subject matter, it appears that Sergio ‘n’ Mark will make it light.
In its own way, this comic is oddly transcendent, just in a completely different way than what I had expected. I had expected a crime story to be intense and complex; instead, the creators seem to be saying, “Loosen up! It’s just comics! Have fun with things.” There are smiling faces on most every page, and a silly sitcom sort of ending. Let it go, we’re being told subliminally, and just ride along with the silliness.
This is not a great comic book, but that’s kind of the point. There are very few comics these days that are workmanlike entertainment. The Spirit is such a comic. And there’s nothing really wrong with that.