Retro Review: The Spirit #1 (October 1966)

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The art form known as comics has been through a lot in a little over a century, but did you know one of the most widely beloved heroes of the 1940s didn’t originate in comic books at all?  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of The Spirit #1 awaits!

TheSpirit1CoverTHE SPIRIT #1
Writer: Will Eisner/Jules Feiffer
Penciler: Will Eisner
Inker: Will Eisner/Chuck Kramer
Colorist: Jules Feiffer
Letterer: Joe Rosen/Abe Kanegson
Editor: Leon Harvey
Publisher: Harvey Comics
Cover Price: 25 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $120.00
Previously in The Spirit:  Denny Colt was a private detective and crime fighter in Central City, tragically killed in action (in his very first appearance, no less.)  Fortunately, he was only MOSTLY dead, and awoke to find the world considered him a dead man.  Setting of a base of operations in the very cemetery he awoke in, Denny became The Spirit, a two-fisted force for justice with a square-jaw, a quick wit, and a mean right cross.  Unlike most of his masked compatriots, The Spirit’s first adventures weren’t in the form of a comic book at all, but as weekly adventures in the Sunday paper, alongside the likes of Pogo Possum and Gasoline Alley.  Back in those halcyon days, a 7-page adventure strip in the funnies seemed like a great idea, and The Spirit outlasted the Golden Age of Comics, appearing well into the 1950s.  But, what is The Spirit’s story?

Glad you asked!

TheSpirit11This issue begins with a reprint of the Spirit’s origin from his very first comic strip appearance way back in 1940, as young private eye Denny Colt tracks the evil Doctor Cobra to his lair, only to get spotted by the Doctor’s goons.  Though he manages to heroically break in and temporarily take down Cobra’s henchman, Colt is stopped by a hail of bullets to the torso.  On the plus side, his retreat behind the curtain to join the choir invisible is followed shortly by Cobra himself, thanks to the selfsame gun that shot Denny…

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Commissioner Dolan and his daughter Ellen are devastated by Denny’s death, giving him a hero’s burial in Wildwood Cemetery.  Of course, clever readers will realize this can’t be the end of the story…

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Explaining that, as a dead man, he has a unique ability to investigate and solve all the unsolved cases, and by wearing a disguise he could work outside the law to help Dolan and his department with the hard cases.  The irony of this comes in that creator Will Eisner only added the mask to The Spirit’s attire as a compromise with editors, to make sure people understood that this was a superhero book.  Even the name came from editor “Busy” Arnold, who evidently thought he was getting something entirely different from what Eisner intended.  What Eisner wanted to do was tell the kind of stories no one else was doing, and though it took some time, he got to do so.  By the end of the 1940s, The Spirit’s 7 pager was less a superhero tale and more an open forum for whatever tales took Eisner’s fancy.  Witness the second tale in this issue, the story of Lorelei Rox…

TheSpirit14Taking advantage of the lack of a cover, Eisner used the opening panels to incorporate the feature’s logo in more and more creative ways.  This first page is full of mood and suspense, and that final panel of The Spirit’s haunted eyes leads into the story of Lorelei, a young woman whose hypnotic voice may (or may not) have driven men to criminal acts.  By the time her possibly-hypnotized beau begins hijacking trucks, The Spirit gets involved, posing as a trucker himself, but falling afoul of Lorelei’s voice (and the years-ahead-of-their-time trippy visuals Eisner uses to illustrate her power.)

TheSpirit15The brevity of the Spirit section also served Eisner well, as he became skilled at paring his stories down to the most important elements, always having to choose the most economical way to get his point across.  This issue features a brand new (for 1966, anyway) short Spirit story which illustrates exactly what I mean…

TheSpirit16No wasted effort on setup, Eisner starts us in media res, putting together a clever premise and executing on it quickly and amusingly.  It’s clear from this story how much influence Eisner had on the original Mad Magazine team (and vice versa, it would seem) and, being a very short story even by Spirit standards, it ends with a moment that is as funny as it is unexpected…

TheSpirit17By 1948, The Spirit serves almost as a framing device for the stories told in his sections, allowing Eisner to do things that the comics page had never seen before, breaking genres and doing pretty much whatever he wanted.  After a reprinted tale that turns the old ‘Prince And The Pauper’ fable on its head, and a science fiction-tinged story (that doesn’t give a hard answer about the existence of Martian double-agents) we find Eisner at his most creative with the storybook of Rat-Tat, The Toy Machine Gun…

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Even having read this story a number of times (this issue wasn’t the first Spirit comic book, nor even the first reprint comic featuring Eisner’s sort-hero), I’m fascinated at the use of space on the page, with the vertical channels totally changing the way you read a comic strip, and the cartoonish anthropomorphic toy gun as our central character.  Rat-Tat gets accidentally stolen by a low-rent criminal, who gives it to a young boy who idolizes the gangsters, and accompanies them in a robbery that leaves a police officer shot by a REAL tommy-gun…

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The boy is quickly caught by The Spirit himself, and boy he and Rat-Tar realize that they’re not cut out for the criminal life, breaking down into tears after their ordeal.  The real criminals, unfortunately, find them and shoot The Spirit, engaging in a running battle that breaks open the thugs barrel of gasoline.  Thanks to his change of heart, the formerly criminal lad and his toy try to step in and save their hero from certain death…

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The Spirit serves mostly as set dressing for that story, and his battle with armed thugs, which might have been the centerpiece of a straightforward crime comic, is a small part of a very cute and touching short story.  The best part of it all is that complete rejection of tough-guy archetypes and clichés in favor of unusual storytelling.  Indeed, the reason we’re Retro Reviewing this issue is another perfect example of that theory in action, a story that I’ve loved for years, but had a very hard time finding.  The Spirit sections, being simple newsprint, without even the saddle-stitched protection of a cover, are MURDER to collect, and finding a particular week from the fall of 1948?  Forget it…  But, I’ve always remembered this particular Spirit story, and so we get to “The Life Of Gerhard Schnobble.”

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Eisner’s unique naming conventions (Schnobble joins the likes of Carboy T. Gretch and Cranfranz Quayle in this issue alone) are another of the things that fool people into believing that they’re reading goofy childish frippery, but there’s real emotion and pathos to be found in this story, starting with the earliest signs that young Gerhard was something special…

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In a moment that resonates with me, a moment full of meaning, Gerhard’s parents forbade him to ever fly again, fearing that their boy would be perceived as a freak because of his special abilities, dooming him to a life of quiet desperation.  After many years service, he is “promoted” to the position of night watchman at the bank where he works, a situation that immediately leads him to misfortune, and a summary dismissal after getting shanghaied and locked in the vault during a robbery…

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The intertwining of the Spirit’s quest to find the bank-robbers and Gerhard’s quest to prove that he’s more than just an average schmoe, and leads to Gerhard leaping from the electric building, believing that the crowds below (gathered to see The Spirit capture a helicopter full of desperadoes) are there for him.  He swan-dives off the building (in a beautiful panel, I might add) and for the first time since his childhood, takes metaphorical wing…

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Even The Spirit himself doesn’t notice the funny little man circling around in the sky like a schlumpy bird of prey, being a bit preoccupied with trying to stop the gangsters from making off with the loot or injuring bystanders.

He’s only successful on one of those counts…

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The first time I read this story, I was utterly devastated by it, and while I can’t guarantee that it’s the first comic book that ever made me cry, it’s one of the ones that has stuck with me the most.  The tragedy of Gerhard, a man who truly was a phenomenal specimen, pushed into obscurity because of a fear of being different, only to die as he finally embraced his true self has amazing power for a seven page comic strip, and it never fails to leave me shattered.  Eisner’s skill is such that he is able to craft a condemnation of society itself into a story that is half fanciful fairy-tale and noir gun battle, giving the ending the power of mythology.  If anybody ever asks you how much space you need to tell a truly powerful story, just shake your head sadly and point them at this story.  The Spirit #1 is an oddity of comics’ Silver Age, coming from Harvey Comics (home of Casper, Richie Rich and friends) featuring new work by Eisner some years after the Spirit strip ended, but still delivering a concentrated punch of Eisner’s brilliance and earning 4.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Do yourself a favor, and track down as much of Eisner’s work as you can, wherever you encounter it.  You will not regret it…