Review by Frank Plowright
The Spirit is a landmark series, originally published as a series of newspaper supplements, but since the 1950s more at home as comics and graphic novels. An 80th Anniversary Celebration may seem unduly hasty after the large 75th Anniversary collection, but there are good reasons to have both on your shelves.
In 1940 Will Eisner came up with the idea of a masked detective in a trenchcoat who’d access places Central City’s police couldn’t, and although cartooning was the prevalent style of art, the Spirit didn’t emerge unscathed when confronting thugs. It’s the strips from 1946 onward that are most fondly recalled, when Eisner and collaborators hit a real groove, introducing exotic villains and building stories around memorably eccentric supporting characters, some almost entirely without the Spirit. Others prioritised themes as the mood skipped effortlessly from comedy to drama to the supernatural. As a body of work the post-war Spirit is essential reading for any comic fan, best appreciated in the desirable, but expensive Archive editions. However, this is the ideal primer.
Denis Kitchen first published Spirit reprints in 1972, and provides a publication history, after which a selection of other knowledgable comics industry specialists write a brief introduction to the story they’ve selected as a favourite. These aren’t the household creative names, but people like Dean Mullaney, Diana Schutz and Craig Yoe, whose behind the scenes influence as editors and publishers has been vast, and who are greatly respected by creators. Their perspective is enlightening, and elevates the stories, many of which don’t stand out when surrounded by other gems, but look at them individually and through the eyes of the folk recommending them, and the curtains are parted. Beau Smith points out how ‘Gold’ (sample spread left) is ostensibly a Western, yet so effortlessly incorporates elements of other genres, and just take a look at that cinematic storytelling.
That’s highlighted a little more by four strips being presented in black and white rather than colour, a choice not explained, but not detrimental. Laura Martin and Jeromy Cox colour five strips between them, generally very sympathetically.
As a selection, the stories are fundamentally representative in covering the many moods of The Spirit. You’ll see the Spirit encounter the legend of a remote Pacific island, learn the strange confession of Mrs. Paraffin and meet the man who learns how to construct an atomic bomb. It’s coincidence, but two strips deal with cartooning, while a third is associated by parodying other newspaper strip characters.
Because the stories are personally selected rather than curated, they avoid some of the Spirit’s better known supporting cast. Commissioner Dolan is frequently seen, while Ebony, Sammy and the Octopus appear once each, but there’s no Ellen Dolan, nor do many of the famous foes put in an appearance. That’s almost irrelevant, and the only thing that would really improve this 80th Anniversary Celebration would have been an overall introduction, explaining why some strips are coloured and others not, and importantly giving credit to Eisner’s collaborators on some stories, notably Jules Feiffer as writer or co-writer on later stories.
These are quibbles. The best explanation of the Spirit and his world is provided by diving in to read a story, and this affordable collection opens the door to a world of wonder.