Few creations have had the impact on the comics medium that Will Eisner’s The Spirit has. Straddling the line between comic strip and comic book by virtue of its nature as a multi-page newspaper insert, the stories were often intended for an older audience than traditional comic readers, and as a result Eisner frequently broke new ground in terms of artwork and narrative. But with over a decade of experimental storytelling, determining which one story captures everything about The Spirit is an impossible task. Some are grounded, while others are fantastical. In some, the Spirit plays a major role while in others he’s little more than a cameo. Some are straightforward while others play around with narrative structure. However, on the eve of Valentine’s Day in 1949, The Spirit Section of newspapers would feature a story that captured everything that made The Spirit a class above its capes and tights peers.
All memorable The Spirit stories begin with a full page splash, and “Visitor” is no different. Eisner superimposes the Spirit’s face – in profile – onto the moon. Surrounding this is a beautiful depiction of outer space with stars, nebulas, and other moons thrown into the limited remaining space. In addition, on a smaller moon-shaped object stands a woman in a red and gold dress who’s facial expression gives readers the assumption that she will play the role of femme fatale – a common trope of Eisner’s stories. Eisner’s covers do a great job of cluing readers in on what to expect in a given story, and this is no exception. However, as the story unfolds, Eisner manages to subvert expectations while still delivering on the promises of this image.
Flipping into the story, the first page is stunning in its use of space and layouts to fully set up the story. Keep in mind, most Spirit stories were 7-8 pages in length, so Eisner’s creativity in layouts is a necessity in efficient storytelling. Eisner employs 3 different storytelling methods on the same page, and they work together flawlessly. Exposition straddles the top of the page free of the confines of traditional narrative boxes – a common occurrence in Spirit stories. Meanwhile, along the left side of the page stretches a black border with red text that accompanies three sketch-like images depicting an attempted robbery gone wrong. But that’s not all, as Eisner is also able to include images of The Spirit and several police members investigating the aftermath. In the hands of a less capable artist, this page would either appear messy and cluttered or be spread across multiple pages – something which the format wouldn’t allow.
From a technical standpoint, Eisner pulls out all of his tricks here that would be innovations for the medium. Text bubbles blow through the panel borders. Classic page layouts are eschewed in favor of dynamic panel structures. Sometimes a panel will creep over another, or a panel border may not exist at all. Outside of a few special artists such as Wally Wood (who would work on some of the last Spirit stories), these techniques would be abandoned by mainstream comics until the likes of Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld would “rediscover” them four decades later to much fanfare.
“Visitor” would also lean heavily into the comic’s noir tendencies, with a heavy use of black throughout to darken scenery and provide shading. The color’s usage can be attributed to the resources of the newspaper industry. Famously, Bob Kane and Bill Finger planned for Batman to be portrayed in a black cape and cowl, but were forced early on to shift the color scheme to blue as black was just too expensive. [This is the reasoning that Frank Miller gave for why he changed the Spirit’s appearance in the much maligned 2008 film, but given how freely Eisner was able to employ the color, it’s more likely that Miller was just full of shit.] But despite having carte blanche to use black throughout Spirit stories, every drop is used judiciously. While noticeable when looking with a critical eye, Eisner’s usage does not stick out or detract from the reading experience, but rather feels like an organic element of the story’s coloring.
The story itself combines elements of detective noir and science fiction with hints of absurdist comedy, all of which can be viewed as hallmarks of The Spirit. While there admittedly is not a lot of action compared to other Spirit stories, Eisner does weave in a couple explosions throughout a mostly investigative tale. The Spirit’s detective work takes him to the home of a Miss Cosmek (a play on the word “cosmic”) in which a tied-up victim is vaporized. Miss Cosmek is depicted as one of the Spirit’s many beautiful femme fatales, who reveals herself to be an agent of Mars. This is just one of several storytelling twists, as the issue’s final pages become a veritable roller coaster.
Throughout its twelve years of publication, The Spirit was not just a superhero comic strip but a testing ground used by Eisner to develop and deploy new techniques for the comics medium. In examining “Visitor,” it is evident why The Spirit is often credited to doing for comics what Citizen Kane did for cinema. It is a story which showcases Eisner’s pioneering artistic prowess while also mishmashing genres into an enjoyable, entertaining story that stands the test of time.