Comic Fodder

DC Comics You Should be Reading: The Spirit

A few months ago this DC reviewer opined that more people should give Checkmate a chance.

The fact that so few DC Comics readers had taken a chance on Greg Rucka's re-launch of Checkmate didn't surprise me too much. No Batman in Checkmate. No Jim Lee on pencils. Just Greg Rucka, who wrote some of the best Superman stories of the Berganza era of Superman, and penned the best defined Wonder Woman since Perez left the title, while also spinning out some phenomenal stories. Both series were, of course, largely ignored.

So while I have your attention turned toward "The Spirit", I thought I'd mention why I don't review either "The Spirit" or "Checkmate" alongside those other titles. The answer doesn't make much sense, but I keep planning to put together a separate review of stuff I liked enough that I know my critical eye goes out the window, and file it under "commentary" rather than "review".

I have been too lazy to launch this column within a column... until now!

So in addition to being a column on my adoration of Darwyn Cooke's "Will Eisner's: The Spirit", this column also marks the beginning of DC Comics You Should be Reading (sound the trumpets and release the doves)

The savvy reader of comics should have been skeptical when they heard that someone other than Will Eisner would be taking on the task of bringing Will Eisner's signature creation to the comic page. For those who aren't familiar (and I'm no Eisner scholar, so somebody stop me and correct me if I'm wrong), Will Eisner developed the character for a newspaper insert circa 1940 (DC has collected the series in the Archive Edition format). Aside from a stint when Eisner went to serve in WWII, he was responsible for the art and story in each 8-page insert until 1952. Since that time the original Spirit material has continued cult popularity and has been reprinted.

The original title pages of each episode of "The Spirit" were true works of art.

Eisner's work was unusual for a strip, perhaps taking a dash of the surrealism of Windsor McCay and applying it to an impossible urban landscape riddled with the most bizarre of the Warner Bros. gangsters. His stories always featured The Spirit, but shifted perspectives to villains, innocent by-standers, dreamers and even toy guns. The art reflected the fanciful mood of the strip, as well as the based-in-reality crimes perpetrated by The Spirit's rogues gallery with tough guy goons and sexy molls.

For more on Will Eisner, here's an obit run at this winter.

While the new Spirit book was already underway when Eisner died in December, and while he had publicly provided his blessing to the new work, it was a bit difficult to imagine anyone filling in Eisner's shoes.

DC readers may best know Darwyn Cooke from either his groundbreaking run on the re-launched Catwoman series (still running), or from his phenomenal series/ graphic novel The New Frontier.

With the end of the Elseworld's line of books, an unusual format (each issue was around 64 pages, i believe), an unproven writer/artist, and a period of lackluster sales and marketing at DC, New Frontier fell into an odd spot at DC. Despite critical acclaim, fantastic visuals and an imaginative storyline incorporating the wildest and best of DC's silver-age, the book didn't find the audience it might have.

DC obviously has terrific faith in Cooke, handing him an issue of the now sadly defunct title "Solo", and that faith was confirmed in handing Cooke a book everyone probably wants to try, but of which nobody wants to stand in the long shadow.

And Cooke has acquitted himself well. Very well.

Rather than try an imitation of Eisner's style, Cooke and inker J. Bone have managed to recreate the world of the Spirit with The Spirit's supporting cast seemingly intact (with necessary updates. Commissioner Dolan (probably an inspiration for the eventual interpretation of Commissioner Gordon in Batman) remains mostly unchanged, as does his spunky daughter with a complicated romantic relationship with the Spirit. Ebony the cabby has been updated from a Stepin Fetchit side-kick to The Spirit to a precocious young man who is becoming the fiscally minded Robin to the Spirit's Batman.

P'Gell: Proof that wimmin's ain't nuthin' but trubble

Other familiar characters to already appear are P'Gell, The Octopus and Silk Satin, all reasonably updated by still untouched at their core.

The occasional dreamy look of The Spirit has been replaced with a more conventional comic book feel, and Cooke's action-oriented plots haven't yet suggested anything as curious as "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble" or "The Story of Rat-Tat the Machine Gun". That said, as Frank Miller peddles a rated-R, Sin City style "Spirit" to movie producers, Cooke is modernizing The Spirit with an eye on how this might work on the big screen.

Darwyn Cooke's style has been a big-screen adaptation of Kennedy-era cartooning sensibilities. Big panels to show action, with smaller, well designed panel layout for the talky scenes. Every character features a unique design based upon Eisner's concepts, but all unmistakably Cooke's spin on the idea (including Cooke's hour-glass figured women. No, I do not mean Michael Turner bad girl art).

The stories are mostly self-contained and episodic, making each issue so far a great place jump on board. But that's also a bit in the mode of the original Spirit newspaper inserts which Eisner prided himself on telling a complete story in each issue (at eight pages, no less). Thus far each issue has been a great mix of action, mystery solving and a lot of fun (I assume this is how Bully would have it). The threats are real, but there's something about the guy in the domino mask and fedora that suggests the reader not take the threats all that seriously, and, instead, just sit back and enjoy, even if the criminals get away to menace the Spirit another day.

The Spirit's relationship with the ladies is somewhat complicated...

Sure, it's a bit of retro-style fun, but as DC's heroes slog through the rebound of the editorial mess of 52/OYL and Marvel attempts to turn every title into some extension of The Avengers, there should be room on the shelf for a legacy character whose been given this kind of new lease on life, and stories of the sort of quality we're getting here (and without stretching out over 6 issues to get a single story done).

Perhaps because DC has spent so much time and energy this year on their flagship titles, 52 and wrestling with missed deadlines and DOA re-boots, a fun side project like The Spirit seems to have fallen by the wayside when it comes to DC's promotional efforts. Currently the series is selling something just over 20,000 copies (ICV2 says March's issue sold 24,000 copies and came in at #85, selling ,for some reason, 9000 fewer issues than Ion).

This reader suggests giving The Spirit a chance, starting with either issue 6 or issue 8 (issue 7 is done by several guests, and we can't vouch for that one).

So have you read The Spirit? What did you think? Are older licenses just a bit of vanity and nostalgia, or is there a place for comics like The Spirit on the market?

Come on, I can take it.