“1948 was… a good year for both the shop and me. I had total concentration on The Spirit. I was giving it everything I had, shooting my bolt. I had a lot of ideas I simply had to get out. I was trying all sorts of techniques and experiments.”
– Will Eisner
There’s something about pulp heroes and heroes of the “super” kind that I have always had an affinity for. As a first grader, I proudly wore my Shadow ring by Kenner and would be regarded as weird when saying “the sun is shining, but the ice is slippery” as a customary greeting. The neighbors would stare in confusion as I would run into the house, yet exit wearing a hat and red scarf and run around the block looking to exact justice on any one that would cross my path. You would think that this kind of behavior is something that I would have grown out of but no. It was only amplified with age and the growth of my imagination. And in the spring of 2008, at my first comic-con, I went in search of a hero unlike any other. A killed in the line of action lawman, who returned from the dead, with a closet full of blue suits and red ties, a penchant for beautiful yet deadly women, a bigger heart than most other heroes – a hero known as… The Spirit!
As a boy of 19 years old, a lover of all good comic books, and an enthusiasm for whimsical and slapstick action, the then upcoming December 2008 Frank Miller directed film, “The Spirit” had my name written all over it. This film was the sole reason for my pilgrimage to the Jacob Javits Center for New York Comic Con and the start of my education in writer/ illustrator Will Eisner’s prolific career. Will Eisner, a Brooklyn born, cartoonist and writer, is most well-known for “A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories” which is widely considered as the first popularization of the term “graphic novel.” Despite his many contributions to the world of art and comics, his work that stuck with me the most is, undoubtedly, The Spirit. A hero unlike any other, a champion of New York City, and perhaps one of the better representations of Jewish culture in the medium – the character of Denny Colt a.k.a. The Spirit has left a remarkable impact on comic books, particularly the nature of many DC Comics.
Artists such as Darwyn Cooke and Dave Bullock have certainly been inspired by Mr. Eisner’s unique way of story telling through physical art, and anyone that has read the Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato run on DC Comics New 52 “The Flash” would testify to this. It was what struck me most about their choice of storytelling and page layouts that led me to enjoying The Flash above all other New 52 titles. In a post on Francis Manapul’s blog, the artist said “I’m a huge, HUGE Will Eisner fan. He was an absolute genius. Inspired by him, I wanted to create pages that not only told a story, but also worked as a title page.” Will Eisner’s experimentation with content and form in comic books has left a definite stamp on how one could tell a story that takes comic books to another level in the art world, and of how a story could transcend the medium generally seen as simple and adolescent. The first comic book marketed towards adults, and the first to aspire to cultural equivalence with other accepted art forms such as true crime stories and gangster movies. It was also one of the earliest attempts to a more novel like approach to telling a complete and functional narrative in the short story tradition. Each episode was a well crafted and self-contained short story that expressed more human drama and pathos than what was seen in comics at the time. The very logo of the series would change each week, speaking to Will Eisner’s dissatisfaction with the box of conventional comics frames. The panel borders would often be worked into the composition of the story itself, and such an artistic direction has clearly influenced the entire run of The Spirit and much of current comics seen today.
As seen in Will Eisner’s work, especially in The Spirit, you could easily detect a very cinematic quality to his work. Instead of using the simple, panel to panel story telling technique, Eisner truly was at the forefront of revolutionizing the medium. It was his authentic vision that brought his work to so many people’s attention and is continually recognized today. He also understood the importance of character within a story and using The Spirit as not so much the star of many of his stories, but as the catalyst for which the story unfolds around him. An otherwise simple direction of telling a story as seen in the vein of a children’s story, “Rat-Tat. The Toy Machine Gun” is an 8 page tale of a plastic toy gun that wishes he was real, just like “a real deadly weapon, like Max the Chopper.” Another story which hardly features The Spirit, and is a very poignant tale of the fleeting beauty of human life, is the “not a funny story” of Gerhard Schnobble. Cinematic storytelling is one of the most appropriate of descriptions for Eisner’s work, especially after his saying that “the big thing for me in any splash page is to secure control over the reader. The use of shadows establishes the mood, obviously. Light and shade in comics is really equal to music that’s used in other mediums.”
Will Eisner’s The Spirit is a monument and love song to a creative talent giving it his all. As in the quote “I had a lot of ideas I simply had to get out” – there is more than enough material found within all issues of The Spirit that makes it such an easy piece of literature and art that anyone could fall in love with. It’s magic in storytelling in it’s purest form. There are so many feelings I have for his magnificent work, “a lot of ideas” that could possibly warrant a blog devoted to just his work, but my sincerest hope right now is that maybe you will be teased and prompted just enough to go back and read some of Will Eisner’s work. And maybe, if you too, have a thing for good-looking gentlemen with sharp hats, and a taste for crime, adventure, and romance, you will be swept away into the intrigue which is the Spirit. And, maybe you too, will throw on a fedora and run around your neighborhood!