Sunday Slugfest - Will Eisner Tribute

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas
EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m going to resist declaring “God is dead.” It would be an appropriate way, however, to describe the death of Will Eisner, the man who, for all intents and purposes, created the rules of comic book story-telling, elevated the comic book medium, and published the first graphic novel in 1978 (A Contract With God and Other Stories).

Instead I’ll describe Eisner as comics’ Moses. He brought us the rules of comic book storytelling, performed miraculous artwork, and sought to lead the comic book community to a promised land of artistic excellence and recognition. There’s a reason why the annual Academy Awards of comic book publishing are named the “Eisners.” The person receiving an Eisner has produced comic work of the highest possible quality, work of the quality Eisner himself published.

According to the Bible, Moses lived to the age of 120 but never actually reached the Jewish Promised Land. Eisner died at the age of 87 and whether or not we have been brought to the Comic Book Promised Land depends on what comic book writers and artists do with the medium from here on out. Until his death, Eisner himself didn’t seem completely satisfied with his body of work as he never stopped writing and drawing comic books. On the day after Eisner’s death Neil Gaiman wrote in his blog:

“I interviewed my friend Will Eisner a few years ago, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. At one point I asked him why he kept going, why he kept making comics when his contemporaries… had long ago retired and stopped making art and telling stories, and gone.

He told me about a film he had seen once, in which a jazz musician kept playing because he was still in search of The Note. That it was out there somewhere, and he kept going to reach it. And that was why Will kept going: in the hopes that he'd one day do something that satisfied him. He was still looking for The Note…

Will Eisner was better than any of us, and he kept working in the hope that one day he'd get it right.”

This week, in remembrance of the greatness of Will Eisner, our cadre of reviewers consider some of his works. You’ll notice the absence of Bullet ratings from these reviews. Just assume the work in question would have won an Eisner.

Bob Agamemnon

The Will Eisner Companion: The Pioneering Spirit of the Father of the Graphic Novel
Writer: N.C. Christopher Couch and Stephen Weiner
Publisher: DC Comics

Most readers of popular comics today entered the medium through such titles as Spider-Man, Batman, or the X-Men. And with the large volume of comic books bearing these names consistently on the market, it is easy to imagine a reader’s experience being neither broad nor deep. The passing of seminal artist Will Eisner this past week is an occasion for those ignorant of his enormous contribution, not only to the history of this distinctive medium, but also to its development as a literary form, to enrich their knowledge.

Sifting through the output of a seventy-year career, however, can be daunting. Thus, The Will Eisner Companion is a welcome guide for the novice. Framed by an historical essay by N.C. Christopher Couch and an afterward by Eisner’s longtime friend and publisher, Dennis Kitchen, the bulk of this slim volume consists of encyclopedic guides to The Spirit and the graphic novels that make up the latter half of his career. Also included are two color Spirit stories. A brief afternoon spent with this book will provide the inquisitive reader with a strong contextual grounding from which to dig into a volume of DC Comic’s The Spirit Archives, or one of Eisner’s graphic novels, like the ground-breaking A Contract With God and Other Stories.

If The Will Eisner Companion has a deficiency, it is its neglect of the third major part of Eisner’s career, that of illustrator of educational texts. While Eisner’s work for the U.S. Army and subsequent founding of American Visuals is acknowledged, a more exhaustive account (such as the “A-Z” guide devoted to The Spirit) would be a fitting addition. However, the book’s coverage of the comics and graphic novels is thorough and well written, and, as the authors note, this is not the Will Eisner “Encyclopedia.”

Hopefully, the tributes and commentary following in the wake of Eisner’s passing will spark new interest in exploring his work, thus encouraging comic book readers to venture outside of the weekly routine of the Marvel and DC “universes.” The Will Eisner Companion serves as an excellent point of departure for such expeditions.

Michael Deeley

The Spirit Archives: Volume 1
Publisher: DC Comics

This volume reprints The Spirit comics than ran in weekly supplements, from June 2 to December 29, 1940.

Criminologist Denny Colt appears to die while fighting the mad scientist Dr. Cobra. In truth, he was bathed in a strange chemical that put him in suspended animation. Awakening in a cemetery, Colt decides to remain “dead.” This gives him the freedom to fight crime outside the boundaries of the law. The criminal underworld soon learns to fear the name of The Spirit.

While this is not Eisner’s best work on the series, it is head and shoulders above anything else being done at the time. Eisner was already a talented artist and a respected professional when he launched The Spirit in 1940. His artwork was detailed and energetic. The characters almost leap off the page. The 7-page stories move at a brisk pace. Yet so much is happening, each one is as satisfying as a full-sized comic book.

From the start, you can see the qualities that would make The Spirit one of the greatest comics ever made. Eisner experiments with panel size and layout to create different moods. Characters frequently break through the borders, sometimes swinging around them completely! The title page varies, sometimes including the Spirit’s origin, sometimes just a single image, but always catching the reader’s eye.

Eisner also uses storytelling techniques unusual for comics. One story, “Slim Pickens,” is told by a felon to another inmate. It’s the story of his life of crime, cut short by his capture by The Spirit. Some of the best-remembered “Spirit” strips relegated the hero to a background character. These would become more common as the series progressed.

Women played an important role in the series. Ellen Dolan, the police commissioner’s daughter, often tries to woo the Spirit in Machiavellian plots worthy of Lois Lane. The chauvinistic Spirit usually blows her off. “The Manly Art of Self-Defense” sees Ellen get the Spirit good. “The Black Queen” features a female defense lawyer (rare in the 1940’s), who later becomes a criminal mastermind. She is the first of many criminal women to complicate the Spirit’s life.

These strips are a product of their times, meaning they are rife with the sexism and racism tragically common in the past. African-Americans are drawn as big-lipped stereotypes speaking in an outdated dialect. Ebony, the Spirit’s black sidekick, is often used as comic relief. Although he first appears driving a cab, he is later referred to as a youngster. I can’t decide if Eisner decided to change him from an adult to a teen, or if black people were treated like children. Out of respect to the late Mr. Eisner, I will assume the former.

While not the best work of the series, this collection is still as exciting and brilliant as it ever was. In one of the book’s three introductions, Alan Moore writes, “Within the standard superhero books that were my staple diet, you were more or less assured the same sort of story month after month. In the world of “The Spirit”, however, anything could happen.” That variety was evident from the start.

Will Eisner Millennium Editions: Police Comics #1
Publisher: DC Comics

The recent passing of Will Eisner will bring renewed attention to his work. Much of the focus will be on The Spirit, his most famous creation, his graphic novels, and his instructional books. But Eisner contributed much more to the medium. In addition to the Spirit, he also created the Golden Age heroes Uncle Sam, Black Condor, and Dollman. These characters were published by Quality Comics. Silver Age comics fans will recognize them as members of Freedom Force, a super team from an alternate Earth (discovered in Justice League of America #107 and #108). Modern fans have probably seen U.S., the “Vertigo-ization” of Uncle Sam painted by Alex Ross. The Black Condor has made sporadic appearances in DC Comics, such as James Robinson’s Starman. These heroes most recently appeared in Superman/Batman as the Freedom Force of a twisted timeline.

Sadly, few, if any, of these characters’ original stories were reprinted. And the few copies of their original comics are sure to go up in value. Perhaps these characters will be rediscovered and reprinted for new audiences.

But if you’re curious to see more Eisner work, something other than The Spirit and his graphic novels, track down DC’s Millennium Edition reprint of Police Comics #1. Police Comics featured stories produced by a studio founded by Eisner and Jerry Iger. Employed artists included Golden Age favorite Lou Fine and the legendary Jack Cole. Cole’s most famous creation, Plastic Man, debuts in this issue. Also making their first appearances are the Human Bomb and Phantom Lady--secondary, yet enduring characters.

Police Comics #1 (originally published in August 1941) has a six-page story written and drawn by Eisner called “Chic Carter.” In this tale of murder and a haunted castle, reporter Chic Carter becomes the masked adventurer The Sword to fight evil. This short story displays Eisner’s talent for inventive panels, action, expression, and mood. All the qualities that made The Spirit a ground-breaking strip can be found here. The masked Carter even bears a strong resemblance to Deny Colt’s alter ego.

Most of the stories in Police Comics #1 are the equal of Eisner’s work. The creators were among the finest talents of their time. They resonate with an energy that can still be felt today. Originally sold for $3.95 USD, it’s a bargain at twice the price.

Will Eisner Millennium Editions: The Spirit #1
Publisher: DC Comics

The Spirit was originally published as a 7-page feature in a comics supplement distributed through Sunday newspapers. Launched in 1940, it soon became a hit. Quality began publishing a Spirit comic book collecting these stories in 1944. Of the six stories included in the first issue, however, only one was written by Eisner. Eisner was drafted into the Army in 1942. From then to the war’s conclusion, most strips were created by his art staff in the states. These stories are selected from that time period.

The Spirit #1 (originally published in May, 1944) does demonstrate the strip’s continued appeal. Lou Fine does a “fine” job imitating Eisner’s style. Each character is drawn with character; their personalities broadcast on their faces. Eisner’s sense of humor is evident in a story about female cops. Another story about a hypnotist creates an eerie supernatural mood. Quite appropriate for a hero that faked his own death, and lives beneath his tombstone in a graveyard. And the supporting cast of Commissioner Dolan, his daughter Ellen, and black sidekick Ebony provide snappy dialogue and keep the plot moving in new directions. The combination of these and other elements ensured the success of The Spirit long after its cancellation.

But when you read “Manhunt,” the only story written and drawn by Eisner, you can feel the difference. There are more shadows, action is viewed from odd angles, and the ending is violent and tragic. This is a much darker world. The Spirit goes from laughing cavalier, ribbing Dolan’s stiff manner, to a raging, vengeful figure. Shirt ripped, (as it often was), he races into the sewers in pursuit of Dolan’s would-be killer. Dolan lives, thanks to an ironic bit of luck. The Spirit’s surprised look is priceless.

If you’re hesitant about buying one of DC’s expensive Spirit Archives collections, then give this comic a look. You get a small sample of Eisner’s genius, plus other entertaining stories. Originally priced at $2.95 USD.

I believe an artist lives as long as his work is enjoyed. Will Eisner will never be forgotten as long as his comics, his textbooks, and his novels continue to be read.

Here are two of them. Enjoy.

Jim Kingman

Minor Miracles
Publisher: DC Comics

“The Miracle of Dignity,” “Street Magic,” “A New Kid on the Block,” “A Special Wedding Ring”: Four tales of human wonder and survival set in Eisner’s beloved neighborhood along Dropsie Avenue, New York City. These collected rhythms of life are parables for young and old to read and cherish: the dignity of Uncle Amos, the street magic of Cousin Mersh, the mystery of the unidentified young boy, and the contented life of an elderly Jew, Shloyma Emmis. Many will find this hard to believe, but Minor Miracles was my first introduction to the graphic novels of Will Eisner. And it was terrific to be reading the work of a master storyteller for the first time. The narration on pages 102 and 103 of “A Special Wedding Ring,” detailing the final moments of a man’s life, is beautifully written; the artwork conveys the power of and isolation created by the storm that pummels the neighborhood. You feel not only the loss of a man’s life, but also his spirit. The neighborhood will no longer be the same, and, sadly, no one living in it will be able to explain why. With Minor Miracles, I felt as if I’d discovered something new, but that’s not quite right. I had known of Eisner for years. I was finally visiting his work, “listening” to his stories, and witnessing the life of a man from his own assured perspective. And, as it has so many times before over the years, it felt exactly like falling in love with comics all over again. While a legend has passed, Eisner’s legacy is accomplished.

Jason Sacks

The Spirit Archives
Publisher: DC Comics

When I first heard of the passing of the great Will Eisner, my first thoughts weren't of his outstanding graphic novels, much as I love and admire them. Instead, I thought of the Spirit, one of the most unique and human action heroes of the 20th century, whose adventures reflected Eisner's unique intellect and approach.

The Spirit is a study in seeming contradictions. He is a man with no special abilities or powers, yet he never hesitates to charge into a fight. He is officially an outlaw, a man without obvious roots, yet he is very much part of a tight family. He lives in New York (called Central City in the stories), yet he is a world traveler. He’s loosely affiliated with the Central City Police Department, yet he fights crime in exotic foreign locations. He is a masked hero, but his mask doesn’t matter and nobody in the stories ever comments on it. He is both a larger-than-life action hero and big as life as a man who was frequently hurt badly in his adventures. In the end, he is a unique human surrounded by other unique humans, and in that fact lays the real excitement of the series.

The Spirit is a vigilante of sorts, a kind of a police officer without portfolio in Central City dedicated to stopping crime wherever it exists. He is a rough-and-tumble figure who never minds a good fight and always seems to be surrounded by some of the most voluptuous, beautiful women in the world.

Plenty of characters fought crime, and plenty encountered voluptuous adversaries. What really made the series special was Eisner’s approach to these storylines. Only in the hands of a master like Eisner could the world of the Spirit come alive in such an original and compelling way. Eisner’s writing on The Spirit was startlingly original for comics, and his art propelled and amplified the tales. They worked together in the best of The Spirit tales to depict the most outlandish and outrageous events, depicting each story with great verisimilitude.

In a Spirit story literally anything could happen and almost always would. The spirit of Christmas was felt annually. A humble accountant named Gerhard Schnobble could fly. The Spirit would fly all around the world, even to the “Crime Capital of the World,” in his adventures.

He fought outlandish villains like Mr. Carrion, the Octopus and Sand Serif. He would be repeatedly shot, beaten up, tortured in almost any possible way. At the same time the Spirit was a man with whom readers can easily empathize. He had a family of sorts, with lovers and confidants, and he had very human failings and emotions. He is a hero, but definitely not a standard super-hero.

The stories are jam-packed with action and adventure - a seven-page Spirit story might have more action per page than any comic story in history. It was almost as if Eisner, with a nearly limitless store of imagination and curiosity, could never hold himself back from cramming as much story in as small a space as possible.

And perhaps that’s why The Spirit has been continuously in print for the last thirty years. It’s amazing that while DC’s Archives of Superman and the Justice Society and the Flash are thought of as quaint and charming, The Spirit Archives are as compelling as the days they were first published. Any collection from volume 13 onwards contains comics that are classics from any perspective.

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