Darwyn Cooke’s run on The Spirit has been absolutely spectacular. Cooke wraps up his run on the title with perhaps his finest issue yet. The Spirit #12 is amazing tour de force, the perfect demonstration of why Cooke was an inspired choice of a creator to have work on this title. Cooke does a brilliant job in this issue of fusing his outlook with that of the great Will Eisner, presenting a story that is partially a tribute to the great artist and partially a demonstration of the chops that Cooke has. But above and beyond the artistic merits of this issue, it’s also an amazing comic book story, full of action, romance and sadness.
This issue brings Cooke’s take on the reunion between Denny Colt, alias the Spirit, and his former paramour Sand Saref. Under Eisner the pair had a beautiful love/hate relationship, and under Cooke the relationship has an even more tragic feel. The pair knew each other as kids, and a budding romance between them was cut short by horrific events. One day Denny’s uncle decided to have some friends, including Sand’s beloved father, over to his place for a poker game. He makes the mistake of joking with a customer in his garage that “two hours from now this place’ll be full of high rollers.” The customer decides to crash the poker party, looking to steal the players’ money. Of course, the players were only playing for nickels and dimes – you get the feeling that in this neighborhood, nickels and dimes are all that people can spare – which enrages the would be robbers. You can guess the horrible events that happen next – in a rage, Sand’s beloved father is murdered, and that murder leads her down the path to getting involved with some very evil men.
The three-page section that depicts the tragic murder of Sand’s father is one of the finest segments that Cooke has illustrated in his esteemed career. He does a brilliant job of paying tribute to Eisner while also displaying his own artistic abilities. This entire scene takes place in a sepia-toned urban landscape, clearly drawn as a tribute to some of Eisner’s later works about New York. The cityscape in the first panel of page four seems to be channeled directly from New York: The Big City or The Building. The panel shows Manhattan shrouded in fog, hovering over what I presume to be Brooklyn. Between Manhattan and Brooklyn are the El tracks, and below the El tracks is an intriguing urban neighborhood. It’s a breathtaking image on its own, a perfect scene-setter, but is all the more remarkable because it feels like Cooke is actually channeling Eisner’s vision.
As the scene unfolds, we see young Denny and Sand meeting each other in the neighborhood. Panels tumble one over the next as the scene unfolds, mixing words and silence before a gorgeously simple final pane. It’s interesting that where Coke channeled Eisner in the first panel in this sequence, he takes his own direction on the rest of the page. Cooke uses a wonderfully unconventional page design on this page, a design that accentuates the cuteness of the kids and also subtly indicates why they developed such closeness to each other.
As the scene unfolds, we see echoes of the panels on the first page. The cascading panel design continues throughout, but the sepia starts to fade away to a dark and forbidding night. By page seven, when Sand’s father is killed, the city is shrouded in darkness, where the only illumination is the card game at Denny’s father’s garage. Two characters run away, their shadows long and pitch black against the open garage doors. The physical shadows are as dark and long as the metaphorical shadows they will cast over the lives of Denny and Sand.
Cut to the modern day. Sand has become involved with international terrorism and chemical weapons. She’s also in league with the Spirit’s greatest enemy, the Octopus. Readers can feel the irony as Denny’s first love becomes the opposite of everything he stands for; yet, at the same time, she is also a woman who has a strong hold on Denny’s imagination. It’s clear from further flashbacks in the story that Denny never stopped loving Sand even though she blamed Denny for her father’s killing: “Her father was her whole world. When she found out that her dad had been killed because of something stupid my uncle had done, I was dead to her.” But Denny never stops trying to contact Sand, to revive their connection, even when she goes out of her way to tell him to stop trying.
Finally, though, Denny and Sand rediscover each other on a dark, foggy night as the Spirit tries to defeat the Octopus’s nefarious plans. When the couple finally meets again, and Denny emerges from the squalid Central City Harbor, dripping wet and having failed to defeat the Octopus, the pair finds themselves back in each others’ arms again. The old magnetism proves to be too strong, and Denny and Sand finally consummate their love amidst lies that they have to tell each other.
Of course the affair is all over in one night. What else could possibly happen to this star-crossed pair? Denny burns the note that Sand leaves him and wanders off to fade into a raging thunderstorm that reflects the emotions roiling inside him.
There’s so much to love in this comic. If you’re a longtime fan of the Spirit, you can see echoes of Eisner’s work on nearly every page. Many panels seem to be direct tributes to the work of the late comic master, none less than the gorgeous last full-page illustration that sums up the story. But more than that, the whole issue is a tribute to the spirit of the great Will Eisner. (pun definitely intended!) The plot of this issue reads like a slightly grander and more modern version of many of Eisner’s greatest Spirit stories. In his previous ten issues on the title, Cooke made a point of going in his own direction, but in his final issue, he seems to have wanted to pull out all the stops to sum up both Eisner’s and his run on the title.
And that implies the real reason this issue works so well. Much as he did on The New Frontier, Cooke does a fantastic job of quoting previous creators and channeling the charm and passion of their original stories while also making the stories his own. If you’ve never read a single page of a comic by Will Eisner, I think you’ll still love this comic simply because it’s beautifully written and drawn.