Monday, July 27, 2015

Guest Review: Getting In the Spirit

Doug: Hey, welcome back, friends and fiends! Today we've got a Golden Age goodie for you, courtesy of Redartz. As we've said time and again, Karen and I are so grateful to our guest writers for bringing some content to our happy little blog that might not otherwise get the notice it deserves. While I think it's safe to say we all know of Will Eisner and of his significance in comics history, many of us may not ever have partaken of his talents. Today Redartz follows on the heels of Edo Bosnar in exposing all of us to Eisner's work -- and this time it's his most famous creation, the Spirit!

The Spirit (Warren Magazine) #3 (August 1974)(cover by Eisner with colors by Rich Corben)
Art and story by Will Eisner

Redartz: Greetings everyone! Recently, during several different conversations, several folks have recalled Warren's Spirit magazine . It seems like a fine time to give this deserving title some attention, so: today we will look at a book that absolutely knocked me out when I first bought it lo, those many years ago. Upon re-reading it for this review, for the first time in years, I found it even better than I remembered. So, with no further delay, let's have a look.

To begin with, this magazine was loaded with goodies. It featured 8 individual stories, with the dates of original publication included in some cases (don't know why this wasn't the case with all; some stories simply noted “Copyright 1974 Will Eisner”). The stories included: “Black Alley”, “Fox at Bay”, “Surgery”, “Foul Play”, “Paraffin”, “The Embezzler”, “The Last Hand” and “Lonesome Cool”. All the stories are presented in beautiful black-and-white with gray wash, except for “Paraffin”; which was reprinted in full color. This was the standard for this magazine: mostly b/w with a color story each issue . Additionally, there was a two-page letter column and a one-page feature: “Will Eisner Interviews the Spirit” (more about which will follow shortly). All the stories in this magazine are enjoyable; but in the interests of brevity we will look at one: “Fox at Bay” (by the way, my apologies for the scans; the gray tone seemed to create patterns upon scanning which were frustratingly resistant to correction).

At this point, I would note that much and more has been written about Will Eisner; and by folks far better qualified than I. However, I must note a few observations about Eisner's work in general:

First, his artwork is peerless. Eisner's drawings read like stills from a classic film. His use of shadows, his dramatic composition and unusual perspectives literally pull you from panel to panel. His pen linework is stunning, and he virtually defines expressive characterization. Each face, each figure just bleeds emotion. Then there is his lettering, and his famous penchant for incorporating the logo in so many different ways into the splash pages of his stories. It is with good reason that Will Eisner is considered a giant in the history of  comic art.

Second, his writing cannot be underestimated. As noted above, each story here was powerful, Eisner blends  high drama, comedy, and an almost EC-ish (does that sound right?) bit of horror. Some stories are  light hearted and gentle; some quite humorous, some stories can be quite violent; Denny Colt ( our hero, the Spirit) seems to be constantly getting his head bashed in. Our chosen story falls into the latter category.

“Fox at Bay” opens with one of those  logo plays for which Eisner is known. We follow the Spirit past watchful police, past a trail of sprawled bodies on the ground, The text tells us that the Fox, Reynard, has already left numerous victims and awaits in his lofty hideaway. The Spirit enters a phone booth and proceeds to dial (yes, this certainly sets our timeframe) Reynard's number. We see Reynard himself busy ignoring the ringing phone as he types away at his typewriter (another remnant of yesteryear). It seems Reynard, portrayed through his dialogue as a man of some intelligence, is performing an experiment of sorts: having established himself as a multiple killer, he wants to gauge his reactions (as a perfectly sane man- his words, not mine) to being pursued and cornered by the law. Upon reading this, I found him eerily relevant today, considering the heartbreaking deeds committed by some elements in the news recently. 

At this point, Commissioner Dolan (the Spirit's friend and foil on the Central City Police ) calls up to Reynard to surrender. Reynard answers with a burst from his machine gun, then answers the phone. He requests the Spirit stop calling, as he is becoming a distraction from the experiment. Reynard then inventories his supplies, while below Commissioner Dolan is ready to fire the tear gas. The Spirit convinces Dolan to give him a count of 200 to stop the Fox on his own, and so the countdown begins.

Eisner builds the suspense as he switches the viewpoint back and forth between the Spirit (working his way to the skylight above the Fox) and Dolan; both keeping up the count. We get a peek into Reynard's head as we see his typed page, describing slight regret for the families of his victims (but not much, they were all part of the experiment, after all). Reynard notes that the police have been quiet, and decides to draw their fire by shooting off a few rounds. This results an officer being hit, and said officer's distraught comrade shoots back. Unfortunately, his shots hit the Spirit (still lurking above the skylight) . The panel showing the Spirit's pain as the bullets hit his legs is almost excruciating in itself. He then falls through the skylight and ends up on the floor, right in front of the Fox!

Below, Dolan and his officers see no option as yet other than to keep up the count. Upstairs, the Fox considers the Spirit to be helpless with his leg wounds, and offers to let the Spirit 'sit back and watch'. The Spirit is having none of that, however. He tries to convince Reynard of the futility of his situation, while struggling to gain his feet. Reynard's reply is a swift whack to the head with the butt of his rifle. Two panels later the Spirit has gotten hold of Reynard's typewriter and hurls it at his captor, all the while keeping the count in his head ( can this guy take a beating, or what!?).
Having lost his typewriter, Reynard decides to make his final journal entries by hand, and then to kill both the Spirit and himself. However, our relentless hero has dragged himself across the floor and secreted himself behind Reynard's chair, which he then upends; spilling the Fox to the floor (just as the count reaches 200, of course). Thinking he has the situation settled, the Spirit tries in vain to reach Dolan by phone to prevent a rush of police fire. As he begs for an answer to his call, the still-treacherous Fox has regained his feet, and his weapon. Just as Reynard raises his rifle to bludgeon the oblivious Spirit,  a rain of bullets from the broken skylight ends the Fox's threat once and for all. Dolan has arrived, and helps the wounded Spirit from the Fox's lair. The final panel shows them passing beside the same “Spirit” logo that was used in the initial page, as the phone in the booth keeps ringing, ringing...

After finishing this story, I was struck by the level of intensity , and by the Spirit's ability to take a licking (and a few bullets, a head clubbing, etc). Denny Colt reminds me of Batman in this regard, as he lacks superpowers or invulnerability. Actually, the Spirit doesn't even have Batman's level of training or weaponry. Denny Colt is just a guy, a very resilient, tough guy who keeps on smiling despite his current circumstance. Incidentally, there was a wonderful one-shot several years ago published by DC, featuring these two : Batman/the Spirit. Presented by Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke, this book offers loads of good reading, and a fun tour through both heroes' rogues galleries.
All through this story, Eisner's artistic skills are evidenced. For example, the second story page; note the dramatic lighting on the wall both highlighting the bullet holes and obscuring the police officer's face. Note any of the faces in the story, where with even but a few lines Eisner captures the character's emotions effectively. Then there is the beautiful composition displayed in the 6th. Panes of page 18: the Spirit is framed visually by the shards of the broken skylight through which he just fell. Almost lost the edge is the thin face of the Fox, also framed but obscured by the intact glass. If one is inclined to choose a comic to leaf through just to admire the drawing, an Eisner book is a perfect choice.

Finally, there is the Eisner/Spirit interview. The author questions his creation about crimefighting, his relevance to contemporary society, and his attitudes about women (even going so far as to bait the Spirit about the possibility of having him married). The entire interview is handled with cleverness and humor, and is accompanied by small face shots of the two speakers. Eisner casts his keen eye upon himself here, and the results are both thought-and smile-provoking.

These Warren editions of the Spirit were a great introduction to Will Eisner's work. The larger size allowed the artwork to be more easily admired, and the color sections with their higher quality stock were a big plus. Collecting this series led me to explore some of Eisner's other work; including his graphic novel “A Contract With God”. I even found one of his issues of P.M.; a maintenance periodical he did for the army (featuring a lot of his Eisner wit, among the drawings). I also was led to hold a great respect for a man who remains, always, a comics legend.


Humanbelly said...

This is delightfully good stuff-!
I know for a fact that I always eschewed (Issued? Achoo-ed?) Eisner and THE SPIRIT during the height of my heated collecting years based solely on the fact that his style was so "cartoony" to my eye (at the time)-- and, in the way that so many fanboy snobs both then and now are apt to do, didn't hesitate for a nano-instant to make a sweeping pronouncement on an entire body of work based simply on my knee-jerk impression of a few cover images on the shelves of the LCS back then. Oh, how embarrassing to have been THAT boob. . .

Honestly, this looks like something I would utterly love now. I have a particular fondness for noir radio detectives, and (minus the requisite gal Friday) the story you've reviewed here could just about be transferreded directly to that format as an adventure with the Green Hornet or Boston Blackie or Richard Diamond. The only tweak would be that the radio guys were almost universally at odds w/ their respective police representatives. And art-wise---- would this kind of story even work if done in a "realistic" style? I don't think so. I think we're able suspend a heck of a lot more disbelief about the implausibilities in the narrative when the visuals have that "once removed from the real world" feel to them-- even though they don't sacrifice any dramatic impact in doing so. You're right-- this is really, REALLY good comics work--!

Hunh-- and you know who I also see in Eisner's work here? Or possibly, I see Eisner in them? Jack Cole (original Plastic Man creator), and Jack Davis (MAD Magazine, and a zillion other things-- particularly in the interview thumbnails.) I wonder how the three of them in particular crossed paths?

Thanks much, Redartz-- great review!


Edo Bosnar said...

Yeah, great job, Redartz, and fantastic topic. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of both Eisner and the Spirit. And I recall reading this story, as I had the good fortune of reading most of the Warren Spirit magazines, borrowed from an older fan back in the early 1980s.
You pretty much hit the nail on the head across the board: these are wonderfully crafted stories, and Eisner was a master of the craft. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that even while comics were basically in their infancy back in the 1940s, he had already demonstrated the full potential of the medium as an art- and storytelling form.
By the way, I have to say that the Warren magazines are arguably the best reprints of the Spirit stories. I currently have one of those "Best of the Spirit" tpbs (which is fine), and I've had the opportunity to flip through some of the other soft- and hardcover reprint editions, but somehow none of them beat this magazine format. And I also like all of the little extras contained in the magazines, like the text pieces by Eisner.
(One minor quibble about some of your observations concerning certain things that date the story: I recall that rotary dial phones could still be seen in people's homes, and sometimes even in phone booths, well into the 1980s.)

Martinex1 said...

Thanks Redartz, like HB I dismissed this back in the day, but it intrigues me now. Very cool. I spent a few minutes just gazing at the splash page. That is just awesome and fun; the use of the script as setting is just an added level of creativity that was not necessary but adds a dimension (so to speak) to the art.

Also, in just looking at the pages you shared, the use of shadows and grey tone is very well done. It is really striking and I think color may diminish it a bit; unless the color was a monochromatic wash. I find more and more that I like looking at uncolored art.

I cannot add much more than what HB and Edo already commented on… other than my parents just replaced their rotary phone about two years ago, so I place this adventure circa 2010! I miss the days when all the hoods and thugs wore fedoras and suit coats.

William said...

Nice review, Retardz. I absolutely love Will Eisner's work. In contrast to Humanbelly, I have always been a big fan of the more "cartoony" styles (after all, they are called 'cartoonists'). So, I was immediately drawn (no pun intended) to Mr. Eisner's art from a very early age. However, when I was a young-un, I found his writing style a bit to grown-up for my childhood tastes. The Spirit wasn't exactly as flashy as Batman or Spider-Man. But now that I'm… 'ahem'… a bit older I can more fully appreciate the entire scope of Eisner's genius.

No doubt he was the master. I mean he literally wrote the book on comic storytelling.

And heck, they even named the Comic Book Academy Awards after the man. So, it's pretty hard to argue his importance to, and impact on, the medium.

On a more personal note (that I've mentioned on here before), I took Will's class, "The Comics And Sequential Art Workshop" several years ago, and I can honestly say that he was a great guy. A kind and generous man of the sort they don't really seem to make anymore.

He was also a great teacher, and his class was awesome and super fun. Our textbook was the book that I posted a link to above, and I got him to sign the inside for me. I still have, and cherish, that book. He also gave me a piece of original artwork that he drew and inked as a classroom demonstration. After he finished, I half jokingly said that I wanted it, and he happily signed it and gave it to me. (Much to the envy of the rest of the class). I showed it buddy, who owned a comic book store at the time, and he almost fell off his chair.

I have several reprints of some of the old Spirit stories, as well as the trade paperback, "The Spirit Casebook" which reprints 18 classic comic noir stories from the 1940's. Including the one reviewed here today. Think I'll pull it out and read it.

Redartz said...

Thanks for the great comments; everyone! A few mid-day (here in southern Indiana, anyway) notes:
HB- Eisner did some work with Jack Cole, but I don't know if he and Davis ever did.
Edo and Martinex1- good points about the phone! I personally don't find such elements in a comic story (or film, or tv show) to be dated, but some younger readers might notice them a bit more (said the man who had to explain to his son how a rotary phone worked)...
William- the chance to study with Eisner must have been an incredible experience! I'd have loved to meet him. That original drawing would make a centerpiece in any display of comics art; great story!

Anonymous said...

Cool review, Redartz. I've always been curious about the Spirit comics, but never got around to reading any. Also, A Contract With God has been on my reading list for a long time...I guess I should actually get to it one of these days!

Mike Wilson

Anonymous said...

Yeah like HB I was not initially a fan of Eisner as a kid, thinking his style was a little too cartoony for my taste. However, he's one of those artists whose impact becomes more apparent as you get older and your tastes mature. Boy was I missing out all these years!

- Mike 'now we need a review of the Shadow next!' from Trinidad & Tobago.

B Smith said...

After the one story reprinted at the end of Volume Two of Steranko's "History Of Comics" this was my first exposure to Eisner's work, and mighty impressive it was too (in fact, it was the first Warren magazine i'd ever purchased too - how I hungered for all the goodies advertised in the back pages!)

I seem to recall reading somewhere years later that Eisner had actually gone over and reworked the artwork fairly heavily for the Warren reprints- can anyone confirm or refute that?

Redartz said...

B Smith- I have heard that too , particularly in regards to the addition of gray tones; but I don't really know the accuracy of this. Anyone else?

Graham said...

I think this was my first introduction to The Spirit as well, Redartz. I loved it, and as I got older and read more comics, I saw what a huge influence he was on other artists, like Frank Miller with Daredevil. I've been able to go back and read a lot of Spirit stories over the years. Just amazing.

Those Warren issues were so cool. I liked the ads for books, movies, etc... as I did the stories.

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