Quarterbin Follies #28: Getting into the SpiritOctober 26, 2015
So, I suppose all you, faithful pilgrims to the shrine that is “QuarterBin Follies,” have waited with a fervor-like expectation for today’s article. After many, many months I have finally sat down to scrawl a note about The Spirit. Mark it on the calendar, kids. It is a big day. (Also, Happy Hallowe’en)
I did not grow up reading Will Eisner comics, or ever really knowing who The Spirit was. As I took my first steps into superhero comics in the 1990’s, it was actually a time when comics printed letters in the back from fans and readers. These columns of tiny print discussed the monthly on-goings of your favorite spandex avengers, and that is where I first heard of The Spirit; but it was not until 1996 that I actually had the chance to see Eisner’s is work.
1996 was a hard here for me. I was a high school senior who had been taken from his Western Nebraska home and dropped in the middle of big city Denver, Colorado. In a tale that is not worth the telling here, I found myself skipping school and wandering about Lakewood (a Denver suburb); and there in the library I found a copy of Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. Now, at this point in my life I had already decided I wanted to make comics–I already designed my first comic book universe (it’s still pretty awesome)–but I had never been exposed to such a practical, thoughtful approach to comics from a structural view. Greatly impressed I was, but I had still never read The Spirit.
Will Eisner was one of the first professional comic artists, getting his start as a boy in New York City. Before creating The Spirit, he had already made a name for himself at Eisner and Iger Studios, where they produced original material for up-and-coming comic books companies such as Quality Comics and Fox Comics; and where Eisner created such characters as Black Hawk and Doll-man.
Enter “Busy” Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics. It seems that in 1939, the newspaper syndicates were looking for a way to cash into the comic book boom. Arnold approached Eisner with the opportunity to be the guy and create the superhero to save the newspapers. Eisner left his profitable gig at Eisner and Iger to join the task, and created the masked detective and resident not-dead -guy The Spirit!
Back to my story. For the next nineteen years, I read about The Spirit. I read single pages from Spirit stories, and I even had the chance to read stories featuring Midnight, Will Eisner‘s less-than-serious copycat character for Quality Comics, but I have never actually read a Spirit story. So it was with some excitement that I got my hands on a copy of The Spirit # 9 from Kitchen Sink . It was back in the 1980’s that Kitchen Sink began to reprint old issues of The Spirit weekly as a monthly book format; and #9 was published in 1985. I received #9 as a gift from my pal Andrew Grant, I think
There are five stories in this issue, ranging from the absurd “Distinguished Men Prefer Borschtbelt’s Buttermilk,” which essentially follows the same plot as the Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy vehicle “Trading Places;” to the graphic and violent “The Vortex,” which a study of mental illness, greed, and power. For me, the stand out story is “Smugglers Cove.”
“Smugglers Cove” is a tribute/pastiche of the boy’s adventure sub-genre of American pop-fiction. In this particular episode, The Spirit’s youthful ward Ebony and adventuring toddler P.S. Smith head off to find adventure on a raft, accompanied only by Ebony’s portable transistor radio. This story is without spoken dialoge, the perfomer on the radio narrates a pirate story calling boys of all ages to adventure. It a very interesting twist to watch the boys take off on their own adventure in Rounding up some modern-day casino-pirates to the narration of the radio program.
I want to take a moment to jump off the rails and discuss the character Ebony. For those of you unfamiliar with The Spirit, Ebony is a young African American boy who is Spirit befriends early in his career. Eleven year-old Ebony is first shown driving a taxi in the Big City and making a living for himself. The Spirit finds him resourceful and clever, and takes him under his wing. That description is all well and good but the portrayal of Ebony has been somewhat disturbing, for while he was portrayed as intelligent and quick witted and kind, Ebony was drawn in black-face, and spoke with speech peppered with misspellings and malapropisms. These stereo-typically racist emblems were intentionally used by Eisner to poke fun at the idea of racial stereotypes. His intention was to demonstrate that regardless of education or upbringing or public opinion, a person is important and valuable, and capable in whatever he or she would whole-heartedly set themselves. It is the strength of the Individual, not the limitation of biology or history that truly matter. Ebony is most certainly an example of this, and routinely displays capacity, whit, and courage without compare.
And it is easy to understand why The Spirit and his stories have had the staying power for almost 80 years. It was also very interesting to see what they did to stretch the genre of comics and sequential storytelling, especially for not being printed as part of the traditional comics magazine industry. In some ways, I suppose it might be said The Spirit was an original precursor to modern web comics, in terms that its delivery was intended for everyone. It was comics delivered to the common man.
While I really enjoyed Will Eisner’s ears tongue-in-cheek style (both in art and In storytelling), it is his precise yet truncated or compressed writing style that continues to impress me the most.
If you enjoyed hearing about in The Spirit, stay tuned here to QuarterBin Follies, where I’m going to be reviewing some modern “The Spirit” offerings in the next few Weeks. Stay tuned, and as always, happy reading.