Today In Comics History: The First Appearance of Will Eisner’s The Spirit
Today in 1940, newspaper readers in Philadelphia, Chicago, and a handful of other major US cities opened their newspapers to find something unusual --- a new color comic supplement that, rather than appearing in the usual tabloid dimensions of the Sunday funnies, was effectively a comic book unto itself. A dapper gentleman in a blue suit grinned out from the first panel, his visage floating over a graveyard and a distant cityscape.
The story that followed was a quick read, the tale of Detective Denny Colt who is apparently killed by the villainous Dr. Cobra, but cheats death thanks to being soaked in some mysterious chemical, and brings the evildoer to justice as the mysterious Spirit.
The rest of the pamphlet contained a mix of other features, but The Spirit was clearly destined to be the star --- author/artist Will Eisner was also the editor of these special sections, producing and selling the entire package to the Register And Tribune Syndicate for national distribution as an addition to their traditional weekend fare.
The following Sunday, Eisner's lead story took his character out of the shadows, and in order to maintain the central conceit (everyone except for the police chief thinks Denny Colt is dead), added a blue domino mask to his costume. The art was still less than spectacular, the plot was nothing to write home about, and the supporting cast made little impression (save for the troubling racial caricature of Colt's newly-introduced sidekick Ebony), but it was a step up from the previous week, and the opening panel, which incorporated the title logo into an action shot, gave a glimpse of what was to follow.
Because now that the foundation was established, The Spirit was finding its footing, and what began as an undistinguished by-the-numbers mystery series would develop into one of the most groundbreaking, trendsetting comics of all time.
Denny Colt was an everyman in minimal costume, a nice guy who fought the bad guys. And unlike most of his heroic peers of the era, he was in no way invulnerable --- he suffered each time he took a punch, endured bruises and batterings, and got knocked out cold and left for dead on a regular basis.
Over the following months, Eisner's art and storytelling evolved at a phenomenal rate, and he was soon turning each week's story into a mini-masterpiece of mood and graphics, using the total creative control he enjoyed as license to experiment with all manner of techniques. Different camera angles, weird pacing motifs, new methods of lettering, use of light and shade, interwoven parallel plot threads, and countless other tricks were employed in the service of the narratives, moving beyond simple costumed hero action and into a world of filmic perspective that remained the comic form on every page.
And though he was drafted to serve in the US Army in 1942, he left his creation in the hands of a team of assistants, then returned after the war and picked right up where he left off.
By the late 1940s, Eisner was operating at the peak of his powers, turning out tales where Denny Colt himself played less and less of a role, operating more as a catalyst than the central figure. Each installment was a new surprise, telling stories pitched somewhere between O. Henry, Damon Runyon, and Lester Dent.
One week's story would follow bit players around city streets, blending ground-level characterization with elements of the absurd --- the next would bask in globe-trotting adventure. The title character moved to the outskirts of his own domain, increasingly doing walk-on appearances in the feature that bore his name. And through all this, Eisner served as both mentor and taskmaster, keeping on a team of assistants to operate under his watchful eye, all helping to bring his vision to the page.
As the Golden Age of comics passed, circulation dropped, Eisner's attentions turned elsewhere, and after twelve years, "The Spirit section" was phased out. The series' final run retooled the concept entirely in a last-ditch attempt for continued viability, enlisting writer Jules Feiffer and artist Wally Wood to take Denny Colt out of his native urban environment and shoot him straight into outer space.
The final installment of the original series was published in October, 1952.
But The Spirit was far from finished. Jules Feiffer's groundbreaking 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes reprinted a classic Eisner-helmed Spirit story, the character starred in a pair of giant-sized reprints from Harvey Comics in 1966 and 1967, and Warren Publishing and Kitchen Sink press kicked off a full-scale Spirit revival in the 70s, bringing Eisner's classic works to new audiences, and occasionally even enlisting the maestro himself to contribute new stories. And in the years since, DC published a comprehensive series of hardcover Archive editions, collecting the complete series.
Will Eisner's tales continue to serve as fodder for comic creators and scholars, and have gone on to be rediscovered by each new generation of readers, but the character himself has proved less durable, more endearing than enduring. Different publishers have attempted revivals with different creative teams, but have never quite managed to recapture the same magic that Eisner and his compatriots managed in the initial run. Attempts to carry the character into other media (including a 1987 TV adaptation and Frank Miller's 2008 Spirit film) have suffered similar fates, with reception ranging from tepid to lukewarm.
Because the problem is, despite his inherent likability, the character of Denny Colt isn't why people still care about The Spirit. The essential element was Will Eisner himself, the way he juggled personalities and plot threads and visual devices and, even when working with numerous helping hands, told stories that pushed the boundaries of the comic medium in new directions each week.
And Eisner's idiosyncratic explorations of form, his visual and narrative innovations, and his gift for penning slightly-skewed slice-of-life short stories… Those aren't elements that can be recaptured. Those who pick up the mantle of the series can offer their own takes on the core concept, they can shoot for the pulpy mood and the wild characters, but they can't effectively evoke Eisner's vision.
So today, that's what we celebrate. Not the well-dressed bemasked undead detective Denny Colt, but the stories that he served in, and the artistic voice of their creator, Will Eisner. That's the spirit of The Spirit, a singular vision that has made the character stand the test of time.