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The Spirit #18

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2008
By: Jon Judy

Sergio Argones & Mark Evanier
Paul Smith & Walden Wong
DC Comics
ďCurse of the MummiesĒ

This is another title I wanted so badly to like, but just canít seem to.

When it was announced that Darwyn Cooke would be creating a new series of Spirit adventures, I was all a-flutter with fanboyish excitement. I knew that at the very least, the series would look good, even if it didnít make for a good read.

Unfortunately, I was right. The series looked good but didnít make for a good read.

Ah, but Iím not here to bury Cooke, Iím here to criticize the latest issue under the new creative team and then get to burying them.

Ach, but how can I? How can I be overly harsh of anything involving Sergio Argones?

But I have to do it. This is not up to Argonesí standards, which is true of his earlier Spirit issues as well.

Of course, itís hard to judge an Argones effort that doesnít involve his art Ė we donít know how much of the final story product is his and how much is Evanierís, except that Evanier usually handles the actual scripting chores Ė so Iíll get back to him and assume that Argones handled the plot. Well if thatís the case, thereís just nothing special here from Argones. The Spirit gets embroiled in a case involving some missing mummies being brought into the States, then foils some counterfeiting scheme involving the Octopus.

The end.

Itís just a meh story Ė even less than meh, in fact, when one starts asking logical questions about it. For example, why in the world would the Spirit go to bed before firing off an email to the Egyptian museum? And why would the Octopus need to smuggle fine linen out of Egypt before counterfeiting Egyptian currency on it? And how could expert Egyptologists not notice the ancient mummy wrappings had been exchanged for modern linen when they gave the mummies such a thorough examination, even going so far as to x-ray them?

Now you may be thinking that Iím taking this too seriously, that Iím thinking too much about it when this is just a fun, silly read.

Well, youíre just wrong.

If DC just wanted a plain, unentertaining, vanilla comic book with no sense of interior logic, thatís fine. But by resurrecting The Spirit, one assumes they were aiming for more, and indeed they owe more to his fans. Eisnerís stories, or the ones created under his watch, always adhered to an interior logic, even if that logic was silly or bizarre or whimsical. Still, the stories made sense, at least within the confines of the Spiritís world.

Furthermore, Eisnerís stories rarely just laid there limply. They boasted O. Henry-worthy twist endings, laugh-out-loud visuals, gorgeous art that popped whether in color or in the old Kitchen Sink black-and-white reprints. Hell, sometimes Eisner even managed a little tear jerking, and you got all of this on a weekly basis and in seven pages per installment.

So, yeah, I think if youíre going to use the character, you owe us a little more than mediocrity, and make no mistake about it -- this story is mediocre.

OK, so how about Evanierís scripting? Well Iím baffled at how such a competent comics veteran could make so many stupid mistakes. For example, in an Egyptian curio shop the Spirit spots the Maltese Falcon up for sale and eyes it pointedly. Cute, right? Well Evanier sees fit to have him thinking, ďI saw that movie.Ē

Oh. OK. Really brought the ha-ha there, eh, Mark?

How abut two panels later, when he then eyes an ugly lamp and says ďIím thinking thatís the ugliest lamp Iíve ever seen in my life. Where do I get one for Dolan?Ē

Haw! The hilarity! IÖ waitÖ why would he ask where he can get one for Dolan when he has spotted it in an antique shop? Shouldnít he kind of know where he can buy one? But Evanier was so desperate for a laugh here Ė see, he thinks itís ugly but he wants to get one for Dolan! Ė that he went with a line that made no sense. And if you donít see the callback to this lamp coming at the end of this issue, you need to be very careful at railroad crossings.

And why is that callback funny, anyway? So what if Egyptian consulate sent the Spirit an ugly lamp? Why would he bury his head in his hands over it, and why would Dolan and Ellen and Ebony laugh so over it? Why wouldnít he just toss the thing out?

Of course, thatís a plotting issue, so Iím assuming Argones is to blame on that one, and Iím picking on Evanier now. So where was I?

Oh, yeah, how about this beauty of an addition by Evanier: in one panel, the Spirit hovers over the shoulder of an unaware hoodlum. In the next, the hoodlum is clearly beginning to look over his shoulder, aware that someone is there, and Spirit is smiling as if to say, ďGot me!Ē

Naturally Mark assumed we wouldnít understand this moment Ė even though it was told perfectly by the visuals Ė so he gave the hoodlum the essential thought balloon, ďSomeone behind meÖĒ

Well thank God we know what he was thinking now!

Sadly, there are other moments like that, such as when Evanier attempts to elicit cheap chuckles on more than one occasion over the fact that the Spirit wears a mask in public. Thatís a joke Eisner rarely went for, instead allowing the fact that he wore the mask to be itís own joke. The Spirit never had to think to himself that itís odd no one even notices he wears a mask Ė as he does in this issue. Instead the joke was simply there Ė we could see the Spirit on elevated trains, on street corners, in planes and on cruise boats, see that he was always wearing the mask, and see that no one noticed. It was subtle. It demonstrated a certain confidence Eisner had in his work. But calling attention to it more than once in one issue in a desperate attempt for a laugh? Weak.

Speaking of weak, the adjective could arguably apply to Smith and Wongís art. Itís not bad, but itís not good, and if youíre going to play in a sandbox with Will Eisnerís name on it, you had damn well better aim for something better than not bad. It would be less distressing if Smith wasnít such a good artist and capable of so much more. Pick up Leave it to Chance to see how good he can be in a ďcartoonyĒ story.

As I was kvetching over this issue with a friend of mine, I was startled to learn that he had never read any of Eisnerís Spirit stories. I crawled into the fetal position and wept upon learning that someone would call themselves a comics fan without having read one of the five greatest accomplishments in comics' history Ė hell, you can even be hyper-critical over it and youíd have to put it in the top ten.

Anyway, after I had a good cry, and counted myself lucky to know that no one with such a gaping hole in their comics knowledge could ever join the hollowed ranks of the Comics Bulletin staff, I dug out some of my old Kitchen Sink Spirit reprints, and some of the old collections like The Spirit Casebook. I came across the January 2, 1949 installment of The Spirit, in which our hero uncovers a clever smuggling ring. Itís funny and a visual feast and it has a novel crime. In short, itís everything The Spirit #18 tried, but failed, to be.

And therein lies the best thing I can say for this issue: It may be a mediocre comic at best, but it may very well lead you to spend a few hours with some really good ones.



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