The Life & Loves of Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Tue, December 23rd, 2008 at 1:08pm PST | Updated: December 23rd, 2008 at 1:09pm

Comic Books
Brian K. Eason, Guest Contributor

The Spirit began as the star of a newspaper strip

Coming this Christmas from famed comic book creator turned filmmaker Frank Miller is a movie based on The Spirit. While not as famous as the Batman or Superman, among comic book aficionados, The Spirit is a hero that holds great weight, being the signature work of one of the industry's greatest creators, Will Eisner. Join CBR as we take a look at the history of Denny Colt, The Spirit. 

The Spirit made his first appearance not in a comic book at all; rather, he debuted in the pages of the "Spirit Section" of the Register and Tribune Syndicate of newspapers on June 2, 1940. The "Spirit Section" was the lead feature of a 16-page tabloid sold as part of the newspaper. The feature eventually grew to encompass twenty Sunday papers with a readership of about five million households. To put that in perspective, that's a weekly readership greater than Time Magazine enjoys today and about 50 times as many readers as Superman had at the height of his popularity.

The "Spirit Section" ran as a weekly eight-page strip and typically included two other comics and assorted filler. Creator Will Eisner served as editor as well as author and artist, though some uncredited work was done by artists Jack Cole and Wally Wood and writer Jules Feiffer. 

Will Eisner (March 6, 1917–January 3, 2005) was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants. He began his art career working on his school newspaper and yearbook before his high-school friend, future Batman co-creator Bob Kane, suggested that Eisner get into cartooning. Beginning with "Wow, What A Magazine!" (which lasted for four issues), Eisner moved worked for Fox Publications. Fox owned Quality Comics (later acquired by DC Comics) and were the publishers of characters including Phantom Lady, Uncle Sam, The Ray and Black Condor. For his part, Eisner is credited with having created the Blackhawks and Dollman during his time with the company.

Spirit artwork by Will Eisner

In 1939, Quality Comics publisher Everett M. "Busy" Arnold approached Eisner about producing Sunday tabloids, as the newspapers were eager to tap into the booming comic book market. In a 2004 interview in "Alter Ego" #48 (May 2005), Eisner related the events of that meeting: 

“Busy” invited me up for lunch one day and introduced me to Henry Martin [sales manager of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate, who] said, “The newspapers in this country, particularly the Sunday papers, are looking to compete with comics books, and they would like to get a comic-book insert into the newspapers.” Martin asked if I could do it. It meant that I'd have to leave Eisner & Iger [which] was making money; we were very profitable at that time and things were going very well. A hard decision. Anyway, I agreed to do the Sunday comic book and we started discussing the deal [which] was that we'd be partners in the “Comic Book Section,” as they called it at that time. And also, I would produce two other magazines in partnership with Arnold.” 

Eisner and Arnold contracted with the syndicate and Arnold copyrighted the character of The Spirit. In the contract, however, it was specified that The Spirit was the intellectual property of Will Eisner, and later negotiations with the Arnold estate (after his death) granted Eisner copyrights over the backup features “Mr. Mystic” and “Lady Luck” as well.  

The Spirit himself was as unique as his creator. Denny Colt was a detective who, while battling the villain Dr. Cobra, was soaked by a chemical that placed him in a state of suspended animation. But the world believed Denny was dead, and he was buried at Wildwood Cemetery. Colt awoke in his own grave 24 hours later and, donning a mask, took on the identity of The Spirit.

Spirit artwork by Will Eisner

Originally set in New York, the stories were eventually moved to the fictitious town of Central City. Not unlike the more dynamically costumed Batman, The Spirit protected his city with the blessings of his local police chief, Commissioner Dolan. The Spirit operated from his headquarters under Wildwood Cemetery and his identity was only known to two people, Commissioner Dolan and The Spirit's sidekick and driver, Ebony White.

The typical Spirit story was anything but typical. The action and adventure ranged from horror to comedy to hard-boiled crime to lighthearted fare, sometimes combining several elements into an amalgam that defied genre and type.

Then, of course, there were the women. 

Beautiful and often dangerous girls were a common fixture in “The Spirit.” Dr. Ellen Dolan (daughter of Commissioner Dolan) was the would-be love interest of The Spirit. Ellen made her first appearance in the second Spirit adventure, when she was kidnapped by Dr. Cobra. The Spirit came to the rescue, defeated Dr. Cobra again, and was rewarded by a steamy kiss from Ellen. This moment of passion had two principal impacts on her character. Ellen called off her engagement to a gentleman by the name of Homer Creap, and she began fixating on winning the heart of The Spirit. This infatuation manifested itself in dangerous ways. Ellen would purposefully put herself into dire situations just so The Spirit would rescue her – which is not to say she was genre fiction’s stereotypically hapless female.

Ellen Dolan

Ellen Dolan was a doctor, a free-spirited woman, and was much more likely to go down swinging than many female characters of the period. Over the years, while The Spirit was a notorious bachelor, it was obvious that his heart only belonged to Ellen Dolan, the only woman tough enough to tame The Spirit. 

Sand Saref first appeared in January 8, 1950. Denny Colt's childhood sweetheart, Sand grew up and turned to a life of crime. Sand's father was a policeman who was a friend and protector of Colt's father (who was often targeted by criminals). Officer Saref was killed during a robbery that The Spirit's father had been a part of. The criminals left the elder Colt standing over the body of his dead friend, and The Spirit's father took his own life as a result. Sand, without a father to guide her, became involved in underworld activity and then traveled abroad. When she returned to Central City, it was as an arms dealer, smuggling germ warfare weapons. After a reunion with The Spirit, she fled the city.

Sand made a number of recurring appearances as part of some crime or another. While there was always sexual tension between she and The Spirit, the two could never rekindle their childhood spark with Sand on the wrong side of justice. Sand's name was, of course, a reference to the printing term sans-serif, which indicates a typeface or font that does not have the small features called serifs at the end of strokes. 

P'Gell was one of the first femme fatales in comics. Seductive and sly, we learned in her origin that P'Gell married Hans Dammit (yes, Dammit), a Nazi officer. The pair escaped the Allies by heading to Turkey. There, P'Gell killed her fugitive husband for the reward money and used her newfound wealth to finance a criminal empire and continue on a black widow-esque path of marriage and murder.

P'Gell

In her first appearance, P'Gell attempted to gain immortality by seducing the inventor of a youth formula, but was thwarted by The Spirit. After this initial run-in, P'Gell moved from Turkey to Central City to bedevil The Spirit and attempt to seduce him with her feminine wiles, a practice that always failed. Despite all of this, there was a strong attraction between the pair and they developed a strange friendship while still remaining enemies. 

Of course, not all of The Spirit's encounters were with the ladies. One of his longest friendships was with the controversial character of Ebony White, The Spirit’s African-American sidekick and driver. In his earliest appearances, Ebony was portrayed as a caricature in blackface, with huge white eyes and thick pink lips. This characterization has been virtually the sole criticism of The Spirit work as a whole, and Frank Miller felt so strongly about it that he chose to leave the character our of the film version entirely. But while Ebony's appearance was plainly a racial stereotype, Ebony himself was portrayed as a deeply likable and a competent aid for the masked hero. Eisner said the character of Ebony was often praised by African-American groups of the time as being a black character that was depicted neither as stupid or cowardly. Later interpretations of Ebony were brought in line with modern sensibilities. 

Of The Spirit's many adversaries, one stands above the rest as the hero's arch-nemesis: The Octopus. A master of disguise, the villain's face was never shown, although readers would often see a pair of distinctive gloves. In his first appearance, The Octopus went so far as to disguise himself as his own mother to bait The Spirit into a trap. At the end of many stories, The Octopus would appear to commit suicide, only to return again later.  

Darwyn Cooke modernized The Spirit to great acclaim

Despite the end of the tabloid comics in 1952, The Spirit would return to the four-color pages again and again. In the 1960s, a five-page Spirit story appeared in an article about the character in the New York Herald Tribune (January 9, 1966). Harvey Comics (of "Casper the Friendly Ghost" fame) produced Spirit reprints in two giant-sized comics in October 1966 and March 1967, and both editions featured new covers by Will Eisner. In the 1970s, Warren Publishing and Kitchen Sink Press released a series of reprints, both as black-and-white magazines and as trade paperbacks. Eisner also created two new Spirit adventures for Kitchen Sink during this period: "The Capistrano Jewels" and "The Invader." Both of these stories were added to Kitchen Sink reprint editions. Kitchen Sink followed up this run in 1996 and 1997 with a series of new Spirit stories by such comic book luminaries and Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and Neil Gaiman. The last piece of Spirit artwork by Will Eisner appeared in "The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist" #6 (April 2005), by Dark Horse Comics. 

In 1987, The Spirit received a small screen treatment with a TV series pilot starring Sam Jones ("Flash Gordon") as The Spirit and Nana Visitor ("Star Trek: Deep Space 9") as Ellen Dolan. The show was written by Steven E. de Souza  ("Die Hard") and while it kept much of the lightheartedness of the comics, it failed to deliver the (if you'll pardon the expression) spirit of The Spirit. The film is not available on VHS or DVD, but can be found in bootleg form at many comics stores and conventions.

"The Spirit" opens December 25

In January of 2007, DC Comics brought The Spirit back to comics with "Batman/The Spirit" by writer Jeph Loeb and "DC: The New Frontier" illustrator Darwyn Cooke. This one-shot was followed by an ongoing series written and illustrated by Cooke and inked by J. Bone. In this series, The Spirit was brought firmly into the 21st century, though the theme and tone of the book was true to Eisner's original work. Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones took over the writing chores with “The Spirit" #14 (March 2008), and a wide variety of artists have worked with the new writing team including Paul Smith, Chad Hardin, Wayne Faucher, Aluir Amancio and the legendary Mike Ploog. 

With an ongoing series from DC and the new film from Frank Miller, Will Eisner’s Spirit remains eternal, and is now accessible to a whole new generation of fans thanks to numerous archive volumes and other high quality merchandise. Like Denny Colt himself, The Spirit has indeed risen again.

TAGS:  the spirit, will eisner, frank miller, darwyn cooke

 
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