Sometimes as a reviewer you take on reviews of books that are incredibly hard to rate.
This book reprints the final ten months of “Spirit” stories from 1952. As you probably know, “The Spirit” is one of the greatest comic book series of all time, and is perhaps the most ambitious and influential comic of its era.
Well, for much of its run, “The Spirit” fit those descriptions. By 1952, however, it had fallen from its pedestal.
By that time, creator and comics genius Will Eisner had basically removed himself from the strip in order to pursue other professional work that paid better. A string of assistants were responsible for much of the work in the final few years of “The Spirit,” and the series that appeared in the early 1950s was a far cry from the groundbreaking work that Eisner crafted after World War II.
Howevr, right at the end of the series, immediately before its cancellation, an amazing thing happened: for a brief shining moment the series became transcendent once again. Suddenly all the power and energy was back, the art shone and the stories became insightful once again. The reason for this re-emergence of glory is simple: the presence of Wally Wood.
If you don’t know who Woody was, shame on you. It’s time to study up on your comics history. Wally Wood was an amazing cartoonist, a man whose lush and intense style was the perfect thing to jump-start “The Spirit.”
Woody came aboard for a short, 50-page sequence in which the Spirit went to the moon with a group of criminals–and those 50 pages are as intense and magical as any work that Eisner ever did on the series.
In those years, Woody was an ambitious young man–and you can see his ambitions in every brush stroke he applies to the page. He employed every trick in his arsenal to convey emotions as well as the alienness of the moon.
The characters in these stories always have intense, brooding eyes that seem to look towards infinity. They also have deep inner lives, filled with massive hurts and disappointments. The stories have an almost operatic intensity to them, as the hubris of these men inevitably causes their falls.
Take the story “The Man in the Moon” as an example. In the previous story, the Spirit and his companions have left the moon to return to Earth. One man opts to stay behind. Dutch, one of the criminals, is obsessed with a harebrained scheme to take possession of the moon in order to get rich. This story focuses just on Dutch’s experiences on the moon. The desolate beauty of the moon contrasts with the bleak and ever more maddening thoughts of the criminal.
As he experiences ever more loneliness, Dutch slowly goes insane.
Wood and writer Jules Feiffer convey Dutch’s emotions through the simple but effective method of merely focusing on Dutch’s face. We can read his emotions in every moment as he progresses through confusion, fear, and (finally) acceptance of his situation. It’s a remarkable story by some brilliant creators.
The real conundrum as a reviewer is that the rest of this book is nowhere near the level of quality of these final fifty pages. In fact, the book kind of lulls the reader into a false sense of complacency from which the “Spirit on the Moon” stories violently yank the reader.
The first 200 pages of stories in this volume span the gamut from rotten to interesting. While none even approach the glories of the Wood stories, several are at least interesting.
“Five Hundred Papers,” for instance, is an interesting story about a newspaper cartoonist past his glory days who hires an assistant that achieves glory where he could not. It’s an entertaining yarn that conjures up its time period effectively. Like many great Spirit stories, the title character appears in it for just a millisecond.
Or there is “It Kills in the Dark,” an intense story in which the Spirit rescues a man trapped in a coal mine. The story has a nice, if predictable, twist towards the end.
However, too many stories are either forgettable or plain rotten.
In the latter category is “L’espirit”, a tale told in doggerel French with absurd English subtitles. Perhaps the idea for this story seemed funny over a few beers late at night, but it’s horrible in execution. Worst of all, the ridiculous storytelling approach completely detracts from the story. Due to the way it’s told, readers feel a real distance from the story itself.
“Design for Doomsday” is an especially annoying episode. It postulates a story conference in which the idea is proposed of doing a “Spirit” story in which the Earth is getting closer to the sun. The story seems to be an excuse for nothing more than showing lots of death and destruction. Those are always dramatic elements in any story, but here they feel completely gratuitous.
Hence my dilemma. There are several stories in this book that merit one bullet, several others that merit three bullets, and a final, transcendent few that merit five bullets. Which way does a review rating go?
Actually the decision is easy. The final fifty pages are so outstanding that they merit giving this book five bullets. Skim the first half of this book, but don’t miss the “Spirit on the Moon” stories. They are some of the finest comics of the 1950s.