‘The Spirit’ Reboot Is Neo-Noir Comics at Their Finest
I can’t blame you for missing out on The Spirit, a 2010 reboot of the classic Will Eisner crime-fighting vigilante comic. It was pushed out with a flood of books as part of the First Wave line, which was outside of DC’s continuity, didn’t feature any major superheroes, and was off in another imprint, to boot. Despite that, and thanks to writer David Hine and artist Moritat, The Spirit ended up being a good comic full of low-key but exciting crime tales. In honor of the recent release of the first trade of the series, why don’t we take a look at what’s so great about The Spirit, piece by piece.David Hine’s got the writing gig for The Spirit #4-7, and you might be a little surprised by the story he tells. While Darwyn Cooke’s take on the character was noir-inflected, but overall light in tone, Hine’s work is best described more like Frank Miller’s work on Batman: Year One. The Spirit is a world that’s sticks pretty close to the major touchstones of films noir, and The Spirit exists outside the law, though he often works in concert with it. The law itself is morally compromised, as Commissioner Dolan has been forced to make a deal with The Octopus to keep crime under control in Central City. The women are just as hard, though drawn softer, and more than willing to pick up a lead pipe and handle business.
Despite the inky black tone of the book, there are still spots of classic adventure comics. The Spirit is still a charmingly handsome rogue of a man, but the city he lives in is dark. He tips his hats to prostitutes when assisting on arrests, gives a sheepish grin to his girlfriend when he messes up, and regularly argues with Ebony White, his best buddy. He’s a good hero, if a bit of a goofball. Even then, when things get for real in Central City, his warm heart turns cold.
Moritat’s art, featuring colors by Gabriel Bautista, is the other half of what makes The Spirit fun. Moritat’s art doesn’t look like anything you’ll see at DC. He doesn’t have the flash of an Ivan Reis or Frazer Irving, but he’s killer at body language, little details, facial expressions, and fight scenes. He’s more than mastered the basics, and as a result, he makes comics that look great.
Look at this panel of Spirit leaping out of a helicopter. Essentially, this is a man in a suit and a tie. We’ve seen it before, hundreds of thousands of times, so in and of itself, it isn’t anything new. When you start really looking at the image, though, little details start to pop out. His hair is flipping in the wind as he falls. That’s minor, but neat. Look at his shirt. It’s tight against his chest, and his tie has wedged itself up under his jacket. Kinda cool, right? The jacket is flapping hard in the wind, but it’s catching right around his shoulders and armpit, just like it would in real life. Let’s keep going, though. What else is in this panel? Look at his pants. He’s got an old-timey hem there, and an even more old-fashioned waistline.
And then there’s the composition of the panel itself. It’s snowy, lending the panel an off-white palette, which makes the Spirit and the chopper pop. The angle is interesting, too. Rather than show the Spirit jumping directly at the reader (for a first-person thrill) or directly onto an enemy (for a vicarious thrill), Moritat boils the action down to something different. We’re a third party observer watching the Spirit descend out of the sky before the action begins. This is the pregnant pause before the violence. We’re just bearing witness to his anger. This panel is practically out of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, isn’t it? It’s exciting.
I wasn’t reading this series until the critic Tucker Stone specifically spotlighted a series of panels (posted above) from the sixth issue. It leapt out at me, due to the art and writing both, and forced me to seek out the book. This brief taste spoke wonders. It’s clearly a series where hard people do hard things, but it’s no so mired in misery that your hero isn’t afraid to drop a great little one-liner in midst of the heat of his righteous anger.
In-story, we understand the Spirit to be deadly serious, and yes, he does go on to beat the bone marrow out of some gangsters. To us, though, from our perch above the book, it’s a little funny. It’s a line said with all the charm of John McClane, and inside, we love the Spirit for it. It’s a reminder that, while this comic gets dark, it isn’t so dark that good won’t win.
Everyone in The Spirit is cognizant of the realities of the town they live in, but the book has plenty of moments that serve to break the ice. An animatronic toy of The Spirit (think GI Joe-sized!) nearly murders Commissioner Dolan and The Spirit at the same time, leading to one of the most awkward situations a lady can find you in. There are children who run rampant through the book, serving as a kind of a Greek chorus. The tone in The Spirit seamlessly fades from dark to light, in part because the writing and art are on the exact same page.
Hine and Moritat make for an incredibly self-aware duo. The Spirit walks the line between straight-up crime comic and Indiana Jones-style humor without managing to tip too far over into either side. Moritat knows exactly when to heighten the action in a scene, and when to pull back and let the absurdity speak for itself. Hine’s giving us stories full of character types that we recognize, doing things that we’ve seen before, but still manages to make it feel like something new and exciting. That takes skill.
I said earlier that the tone is similar to Batman: Year One, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more of a logical extrapolation of what Year One brought to Batman. It takes the dark and dirty noir and shines it up a bit, making it a little more exciting and a lot meaner. You can see for yourself in The Spirit: Angel Smerti. It’s on sale now. Here are a few more reasons to pick it up: