Though he's well known enough by genre fans in general for his body of prose and film work, writer Harlan Ellison is also one of the best known, most connected voices in the comic book community. As a fan, collector, commentator and occasional script writer, Ellison has made his mark on comics throughout his career, and one of the writer's strongest and longest comic connections has been to Will Eisner and his singular crimefighter, The Spirit. Over his years of friendship with the iconic cartoonist, Ellison learned the ins and outs of the cemetery-bound hero Denny Colt, even attempting to get the Spirit onto the silver screen. But it wasn't until this week that the writer was able to have a Spirit story of his own see the light of day with an 10-page black and white story in DC Comics "The Spirit" #2 as drawn by Kyle Baker.
"My personal connection to the Spirit is that, when I was a very little boy – maybe six or seven years old and we lived in Ohio – my mother and I used to go to The Breakers Hotel at Cedar Point," Ellison explained to CBR News, recounting the twists and turns that led to the new DC story. During the writer's youth in the 1940s, that luxury hotel was a crossroads for working class families like the Ellisons to live it up on an affordable budget (or as Ellison put it, a place for "people who wanted to act and think and behave the way those that had money did"). But for the young writer-to-be, The Breakers was less an outlet for beach-hopping and the amusement park Ferris Wheel and more a perfect kid's reading room. "I would get my funnies and lie there in the middle of the carpet – right in the middle of all these people dragging in suitcases and checking in and out and carrying dripping beach umbrellas. I was nothing but a clog in the aorta of that hotel, but they liked me. I was a jittery, jumpy kid, and they liked me. I would lie there, and I saw my first Spirit Section [a newspaper insert in the Chicago Sun], and I thought I would just lose my mind. I had never seen anything like that. For all the comics I owned and all the comics I'd ever seen, there was nothing like Will Eisner. He just exploded off the page.
"And as the years went by, I collected all the original Spirit stuff. I got all the comics and books, and then I met Will. I don't remember where I met him, but we became good fast friends. We would hang out. We'd go up to visit Mike Richardson in Oregon and hang out at Mike's house. Will Eisner was the great, funny uncle that I didn't actually have."
The friendship between Eisner and Ellison was more than a closeness between creators. Eisner also included Ellison – who he often chided for his inability to draw – in bigger media plans for the Spirit towards the end of the '70s. "I had done a film for William Friedkin who'd done 'The Exorcist' and 'The French Connection' and 'Sorcerer' – a really big director," Ellison said. "I had done a film for him that never got made. Universal had bought for Billy, or he had bought for himself, the rights to the Spirit. He was married at the time to [French actress] Jeanne Moreau, and they were living in Paris. Billy got rights to the Spirit, and he's really an aesthete. He's a very aesthetic and visually talented director, but he's kind of like kittens and babies. They only want to make two things in this life: they want to make what's moving stop and what's stopped move. Whenever Bill turns his head away, whatever bright thing is there captures his attention.
"So Bill bought the Spirit and didn't know what to do with it and didn't know who to write it, and so he asked Will. And Will said, 'Get Harlan Ellison,' and I wrote a full-length, two-hour Spirit movie for a studio feature. Billy then bought my story 'The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,' which had just won the Mystery Writers Edgar Allan Poe award. It was a very popular story at the time. And Billy brought me to Paris to work on 'The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.' I was put up right across the street from their apartment on the Rue de Cirque, and we talked about making The Spirit movie and talked to Will long distance."
Unfortunately for fans of the Spirit and Ellison's stories, both film projects fell apart due to an unfortunate turn in a dinner conversation. "I made the mistake of praising his film 'Sorcerer' which was a remake of the great film 'The Wages of Fear.' He had paid homage to it, and it was a great film. But because he had made 'The Exorcist,' everybody thought it was a fantasy story, but it wasn't. It was a story about men driving nitro trucks in South America, and the film died. He was just furious about it. It cost him years of jobs. And we were talking about it. We were sitting in this restaurant where Jeanne Moreau was the guest of honor to dedicate it, right across from Versailles. And Billy and I got into this furious argument where he said it was a piece of shit and it didn't make any money. And I said, 'What the fuck are you talking about? It's a great film. It's the best film you ever made.' And we go so loud we emptied the restaurant – emptied the fucking restaurant – and I left Paris the next day and never went back. Billy lost interest in doing the Spirit, and it languished forever."
While that was the end for Ellison and the Spirit on a creative level for a time, the writer later paid interior design homage to his friend. "My house is an outward manifestation of my inner self, my inner artist, whatever. I've always said success is reaching in adult terms – and that's a key phrase – the things you wanted as a kid. If you wanted to be a cowboy and you own a cattle ranch, you're a success. If you liked to play doctor, and you're a heart surgeon, you're a success. For me, it was to have all the toys and all the wonderful stuff I remembered from when I was a little boy back in the '30s and '40s. Everybody else was wealthy and had all this stuff, and I didn't have a Red Ryder BB Gun or a Captain Marvel standup. I listened to Captain Midnight on the radio, but I didn't have all those things. And now I've got it all. I've got a house with secret rooms and hidden tunnels, grottos...all manner of things. Well, one of those elements is Will Eisner inspired."
Ellison explained that one room of his house has been created to resemble Eisner's signature window of the Spirit's underground Wildwood Cemetery lair. This "Spirit Alcove" isn't just a piece of Ellison's dream home, however. It also helped inspire his new Spirit story. "I saw they were bringing back the Spirit. I had mixed feelings about that. Some of it I thought was quite good. Some of it I thought was not quite true to the Spirit of Will. There's a sensibility to The Spirit. It's like standup comedy. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work," Ellison explained. "I'm not trying to dis any creator, but there is one Eisner. All others are imitations of Eisner or homages to Eisner or thefts of Eisner or bad parodies of Eisner. I have no dog in that hunt."
So when DC editor Joey Cavalieri reached out to Ellison, knowing of his longtime friendship with Eisner, the writer took the homage route and cooked up a story that flipped Eisner's expansive visual sensibilities into the tight spaces of the ground beneath Wildwood. "I jumped instantly," he said of his reaction to the offer. "Will was very big on cinematic visuals. He would show you a guy falling off a bridge from the level of the water below and follow him down until it made the word 'Spirit.' He knew what he was doing and understood perspective brilliantly – taking the viewer inside the panel so that if you're of a mind, you can walk all the way around it. You can do a 360 if you can walk on walls. So this was his pal Harlan saying, 'I love you, Will.'"
While Ellison didn't want to spoil the ins and outs of the story for those who haven't been able to pick it up just yet, he did explain that its final form came thanks to the diligence of Cavalieri who helped pull the tale together in spite of the fact that Ellison at one point forgot the original plot he'd pitched his editor over the phone. One area that needed no extra work was the hiring of the artist, however. "I had just finished reading a few weeks before 'Wednesday Comics' and was very impressed. I'd sit on the floor and read it like at the Breakers Hotel! All propped up on my elbows reading the funnies! And there was Kyle Baker's Hawkman. I'd known Kyle had done the Spirit with Sergio and Mark Evanier, both of whom are friends and who I admire. And I said, 'Do you think you can get me Kyle?' Kyle said yes, and we were off to the races."
Despite a brief sick spell slowing him down, Baker delivered as Ellison imagined, using his computer to build the exact environ of the Spirit's home, helping the story expand to ten pages rather than the original eight and leaving Ellison "as happy as a clam with a calico cummerbund." And now that the story is on the stands, the writer can look at his work and say, "I was absolutely channeling Will. As I was writing the story, I was running the movie in my mind. And that movie treatment still exists. Maybe I'll talk Joey into doing that as a complete issue sometime. We'll see if he wants to throw it in. We'll see how Joey survives that working situation with me!"
"The Spirit" #2, featuring a main feature story by Mark Schultz and Moritat set in the "First Wave" continuity as well as Ellison and Baker's 10-pager, is on sale now from DC Comics.