Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Eleven reasons for new comers to check out The Best of The Spirit

This was my first ever Will Eisner read, and what a read it was. Yeah, yeah, I know, how can I live without ever having read anything by Eisner? Well I live quite well thank you very much. And as I’ve said before I’m sort of new again to comics so I’m learning as I go. What I can say is that I am very happy that this collection came out. It’s a great selection of stories and at a very reasonable price. It managed to accomplish exactly what it set out to do – it got me interested in Eisner and The Spirit. It whetted my appetite.

Since so many people have already sung the praise of Eisner for so long I’ll try to take a bit of a different tact. I’m going to look at this work as a new comer for other new comers.

First and foremost don’t be intimidated. The name Will Eisner is now of such epic proportions and comic fandom so damn snarky that I thought picking up this collection would issue wide-eyed shock and muffled comments or outright comments of disbelief. Or the questioning of how I could consider myself to be a comic’s fan if this was my first ever Eisner read. It didn’t happen. I tend to create worse-case scenarios in my head. I think it’s giving me an ulcer. Anyway, the whole point of this book is for the uninitiated in content and price. That means it is for YOU.

Second, there may be some content you aren’t used to seeing because it’s from a long time ago. There’s some racial stereotypes you probably aren’t used to seeing. I think at some point the black-faced Sambo type character is changed into a blonde white kid. I don’t have the book in front of me so I can’t check to see if they have the same name. It’s interesting if it is because this would be around the time of racial equality movements.

Third, get ready to find out where most of the superheroes started. Especially Batman but with others there as well. This guy is a masked detective with a female foil that is ambiguously good. She also pops in and out of his life throughout the span of these stories. The Spirit is also a masked mystery-man that knows he exists to act slightly outside the law. So where the police are caught up in a time consuming system he can act expediently. You’ll notice that it isn’t just modern comics that have dark content. There’s a lot of downtrodden and homeless, battered women, a hero that allows the villains to be killed and a hero that get shot and beaten on a regular basis.

Fourthly, there are more strong female characters than male ones. It’s weird because the men hold the titles of power – The Spirit, the commissioner, and all the mob bosses, but the women are usually in charge whenever there is a women in a story. There are wives controlling their husbands and female counterparts that constantly outplay The Spirit. These women go above and beyond the role you’d expect them to play or the position you’d expect them to be complacent about. There is a constant desire and achievement for the women in these stories to be more than they are expected to be. These are the stories where you’ll find all the female supervillians and femme fatales while the men are all beaten down and rarely redeem themselves or go out with dignity.

Fifthly, Eisner plays with form more than anything you’ll see today (that I know of). The look of these stories will almost always reflect the content. From rocking panels on a trolley, to stamps, to snow covered panels these is never wasted space in any aspect of these comics. Not only are the contents of the panels exciting, the panels themselves reflect the story. It was unbelievably refreshing and made me ask why nobody is doing something so obvious anymore? It made me recognize one of the things that was bothering me about comics and wasted potential – I could never vocalize it before but seeing these panels made the penny drop.

Sixth. I sort of felt that this collection should be subtitle “Deus ex machine” since The Spirit usually stumbles into victory or randomly shows up in some impossible situation.

Seven. The characters act. They don’t move from pose to pose they are expressive. The art is kinetic and frantic but a treat at every turn. If you’re a stickler for consistency then you’ll notice that this isn’t the most consistent rendering of characters but that’s not the point. Personally I’d rather look at this art than static shots of the same person over and over. When the Spirit punches someone in the face it looks like he’s really punching someone in the face and it hurts. When the characters realize they’ve been burned by their competitor, they really look steamed. Every range of emotion is here from joy to heartbreak, from being knocked unconscious to being shot in the ankle and it all looks right. Outside of comics for kids, it’s rare to see expressive art. It’s an absolute treat.

Eighth. Again you’ll see how post-war America wasn’t the shiny land of milk and honey it’s portrayed as. There are countless homeless and downtrodden here. But in the midst of all that there’s hope and community that you can only find among birds of a feather. There’s some deeper meaning to it but I won’t bore you with a history leason.

Ninth. You’ll love the name of each and every gangster. Unless you have a heart of stone every single gangster name will bring a smile to your face. This is the comic equivalent to characters in Tom Waits’ songs or Guy Ritchie films without Madonna. After reading this I wanted a name like Bullet or Shooter.

Tenth. You’ll see how a creator is capable of telling single stories in seven pages that stand on their own yet there can be continued plots. The part one of X is an unnecessary burden for storytelling. Characters and plots recur here but you don’t need to read each and every one of them or bloat storylines to meet an multiple issue goal.

Eleventh. I was just amazed by the absolute breadth of stories here. You’ll get straight up hard-boiled detective stories next to stories about men who can fly next to stories about Sirens. It’s staggering to think one creator was just using everything he came across to tell stories that always entertain.

In the end that’s the goal of every story teller. To entertain. This collection has done that for me in a way few modern comics do. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than current comics just that this one is really really good. The price of admission is right and if you are tired of current superheroes give this a shot. You’ll see their cultural predecessor and you’ll see the stories wearing their hearts on their sleeves which is such a rarity now. It brings you to a new time and place, not simply because it comes from the past, but because they are crafted so masterfully. It just feels like Eisner’s stories are firing on all cylinders no matter what they are telling. It feels fresh not because of the sheer vastness of the variety but because of how the characters are more expressive than straight up real world copies. Fantastic fun if found here folks. Get it if you haven’t read The Spirit.

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