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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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01/05/2008 Archived Entry: "Comic review: The Spirit, #1-6 Hardback"

Will Eisner's The Spirit
Art: Darwyn Cooke with J. Bone and Dave Stewart
Story Darwyn Cooke (Spirit #1-6), Jeph Loeb (Batman/The Spirit)

Review by Chad Denton

Arguably Will Eisner's "The Spirit" was the definitive prototype of the modern superhero, perhaps even more so than the protagonists of pulp novels like Doc Samson and Tarzan. Guided by the eclectic imagination of Eisner, the "Spirit" strip, which ran through the 1940s up until the early 1950s, deftly transcended genres in much the same way as the contemporary superhero tale. Unfortunately, while "The Spirit" has remained a popular classic, the title character, a masked vigilante who has allowed the world to presume the death of his civilian self in order to have the anonymity he needs to fight crime, has been overshadowed somewhat by his successors. Even compared to his peer Batman, who was created near the same time, the character of the Spirit lacks a certain melodramatic complexity. However, I think there is the charm of this character, and the reason why, in the era of a superhero genre hobbled by over-indulgence of its fan base and obsessed with its need to present "dark" and "edgy" stories, Darwyn Cooke's revival of "The Spirit" actually looks like something entirely new and revolutionary.

Somehow Cooke has managed to successfully recreate what made the original series such a breakout hit in 1940. In his scripts, Cooke juggles the comedic and the dramatic without a pause as he presents an urban backdrop that manages to appear pulpish (there are female leads with names like Ginger Coffee and Silk Satin, after all) and yet feel modern. Part of the latter surely comes from the fact that Cooke, while incorporating Eisner's vision of the character and his world, has also made the series his own, particularly with all too relevant satires of 24-hour network news, United States foreign policy, and corporate advertising. Cooke's pacing is tight and he strikes a perfect balance between crafting self-contained stories and teasing out a broader story arc. The Spirit himself easily comes across as a complex and realistically likable protagonist with a well-matched supporting cast. Really, I think there's a good many writers of serial comics who should be forced to take a class with Cooke's "The Spirit" as the only textbook.

It is worth mentioning that Cooke does acknowledge and deftly handles the more problematic aspects of the source material. The Spirit's sidekick, Ebony White, was in the original series a racial caricature typical of the period, but is thoroughly updated. Even the Spirit's femme fatale nemesis, P'Gell, is, like Darwyn's other female characters, a multi-faceted creation. As for the art, Cooke's clean retro-style transitions easily from detailed cityscapes to action scenes to the Spirit's eclectic rogues gallery, which includes an obese mobster who secretes acid, a tall, Ichabod Crane-esque man pursuing an unorthodox affair with his vulture Julia (yes, really), and a Russian crimelord who styles himself after an eighteenth-century Cossack general.

The hardback also concludes with the Batman-Spirit crossover written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. It's an understandable addition, although, since it was released before the series proper, there's several very minor discontinuities between the crossover and the series issues contained within. It's a good read, although it suffers from the common crossover sin of trying to cover too much ground too quickly.

Fans of not only classic adventure and superhero yarns, but also of the medium in general, should find this collection worthwhile and a pleasant introduction to both Cooke's series and to a classic comic book character.

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