One of the fascinating things about binge-reading twelve years of Will Eisner’s The Spirit over the course of the last month or so has been seeing the natural arc of the series; unlike many such long-running series, it isn’t something with peaks and troughs, as such, as much as a clear arc that coincides with Eisner’s interest and involvement with the strip.
While the sudden upswing in the strip when Eisner returns from service in World War II has often been commented on — and it is remarkable, akin to the sudden bump in quality around Fantastic Four #48 when Lee and Kirby seem to suddenly, out of nowhere, realize how to make the series work perfectly after four years of trying — what’s far more interesting to me is the other side of that, the run from late ’50 through ’52 when Eisner is clearly looking for ways not to get bored… and failing.
It’s hard to fault him for needing to do something to shake things up; from ’45 through ’49, he’d been producing the strip on a weekly basis non-stop with only a handful of collaborators (One introduction to the DC hardcover collections I’ve been plowing through suggests that Eisner wrote the bulk of the stories throughout this period, as well as heavily re-writing material from others; art wise, it’s more difficult to discern as he had some pretty faithful ghosts), and that’s a body of work that goes from “impressive” through to “exhausting.” After 200-or-so humanist noirs, it’s hardly surprising that it seemed time to shake things up.
There’s also a lack of historical context that makes the stories read particularly oddly today. As we move from ’49 into 1950, the Spirit keeps ending up shipwrecked/abandoned/somehow abroad and on some kind of multi-part quest to get home from exotic climes. Was this because Eisner and/or his ghosts kept on returning to the same idea because they couldn’t think of other “new directions” for the series, or because it was a particular then-contemporary bandwagon they were trying to jump on? (It’s post-Terry and the Pirates, so was Eisner trying to scoop up that audience?)
Similarly, as Eisner becomes more obviously disconnected from the strip, the visuals change considerably — it happens midway through ’51, at a point where the strip just starts plummeting down in quality to the point where the back cover copy goes from “Will Eisner was at his peak,” which it reads for about eight of the hardcover collections, to admitting that the series “was winding down” — and it suddenly starts looking like a far more generic comic book. It’s not just that the lifework changes, suddenly resembling some odd mix of Carmine Infantino, Mike Sekowsky and Dick Sprang, but the pacing of the page changes; everything opens up and the page looks… slower, if that makes sense, as a result. The shift is so obvious, that again there’s a sense of, was Eisner trying to chase an audience for other material that he thought would make the strip more popular?
When Wally Wood comes on for the Outer Space stories in 1952, his style is arguably closer to what Eisner had been doing previously, to the extent that the series almost feels more Spirit-esque again after a year or so of it being “off” in some indefinable way. In a strange way, that “off”-ness re-energized me as a reader, because — and this sounds terrible to say — the experience of just reading so much Eisner genuinely at his peak was overwhelming, to the point where I started to just skim strips if they didn’t grab me straight away. Say what you like about precipitous drops in quality, but at least they make you sit up and take notice (and then go back and read the earlier stuff that you skimmed, because you know that it’s better than what you’re reading).
In its last couple years, The Spirit is something that’s not just on borrowed time, but seems to know it’s on borrowed time; it’s a strip that keeps tentatively moving towards some kind of reinvention and then scurrying back to an approximation of its glory days before trying out something else (that may look very like the last attempt in all but name of exotic locale). There’s something that’s just fascinating about that to me. Given how flawless some of the stuff not that long ago had been, it’s surprising how dull the new material feels, and eventually how alien and tone-deaf the new creators’ attempts to “do” Eisner is; there really is a sense that everyone involved should be able to do better, somehow.
It’s a failure despite those involved, not because of, and that just makes it all the more curious and confusing.
Housecleaning note: Jeff isn’t dead, although he was in Portland last week, which may have felt a little like heaven to him (Expect the next podcast to include some references to that visit. And, by some, I mean “a lot”). I know he’s got posts in the works, so they’ll appear soon. Also, posting on the Wait, What? Tumblr will soon get back to something resembling “a real schedule” after a very busy month on my behalf. Thank you for all your patience, Whatnauts.