Will Eisner and the Invention of the Spirit
And of the Comic Book Form Itself
CONTINUING our celebration of the 100th anniversary of Will Eisner’s birth this year, this time, we rehearse Eisner’s entrance into the comics business and the ways he shaped the art of the comic book, chiefly with his celebrated character, The Spirit.
WE HAVE SEEN WILL EISNER IN THE COMIC ART SHOP he and Jerry Iger founded, creating characters and visually drafting original stories for the infant medium. As the creative straw boss of the shop, Eisner molded and shaped its product. Harvey Kurtzman, who was to the post-war generation of comic book creators what Eisner was to the pre-war generation, believed Eisner to be "the greatest" of the early artists in the form. Writing his impressions of the history of comic books, Kurtzman said of Eisner: "It was Eisner, more than anyone else, who developed the multipage booklet story form that became the grammar of the medium."
Gil Kane agreed: "Eisner actually created the first original context for the comics field and gave it a dramatic structure and a way of handling pictures that was different from simply redoing Sunday page strips." Great as Eisner's influence doubtless was through the productions of the Eisner-Iger shop, he would leave an even greater mark upon the artform after he left the shop to create one of the great characters in comics, the Spirit.
Born in Brooklyn in 1917, the oldest son of Jewish immigrants, Eisner, like most of the kids in his neighborhood, began looking for a way out of the ghetto almost as soon as he realized he was in one. While looking, he sold newspapers on Wall Street. The job supplemented the family income, and it also exposed young Eisner to the funnies. Between sales and at the end of the day, he read the comics— The Gumps, Little Orphan Annie, Krazy Kat, and, later, Tim Tyler's Luck and Thimble Theatre with Segar's astonishing Popeye. "The adventure strips especially were very, very exciting for me," Eisner said, "and around the time I started reading them, they were entering their heyday."
He also read books. The stories of Horatio Alger appealed powerfully, Eisner said: the possibility that he could rise above his circumstances through dint of hard work and diligence spoke directly to him as a kid in the ghetto. And he devoured pulp magazines: "At that time, the pulps formed the basis of popular storytelling. They were everywhere, and I read as many as I could. [They] gave me a sense of storytelling." And like most of his friends, he went to the movies often; he spent every Saturday afternoon in the comforting cavern of a movie theater, spellbound by double features and the week's serial chapter.
When his family moved to the Bronx, Eisner entered DeWitt Clinton High School, where the emphasis of the curriculum encouraged students with artistic and literary talent. Eisner followed his natural bent. He drew pictures. And by the time he was ready to graduate, many of the pictures he drew were panels in comic strips. He realized by then that he wanted to be a cartoonist. Syndicated cartoonists, he knew, earned steady incomes, and a steady income would enable him to get out of the ghetto. But getting himself syndicated proved harder than he'd thought.
The summer after he graduated from Clinton, Eisner attended the Art Students League, where he took painting under Robert Brachman and drawing from the renowned George Bridgman. At the end of the summer, he found a job working the graveyard shift in the advertising department of the New York American. He also worked in a printing shop and freelanced cartoons to magazines (without selling any). Then in early 1936, he heard about a magazine that was buying original comic strip stories, and he went to show his portfolio. At the offices of Wow! What A Magazine he met the editor, Jerry Iger. Iger published some of the comic strips Eisner had developed in high school, but Wow! didn't last long. By the summer, it had folded. But Eisner had seen the future. A few months later, he approached Iger about forming a partnership to produce original material for the infant comic book industry. Eisner would create the material; Iger would find buyers. Iger was a cartoonist of the big-foot comedy school, so he could draw and letter, but his chief assignment would be to sell the products of the shop.
Among the first deals Iger engineered was to supply material to Editors Press Service for distribution to foreign markets, which were reprinting American newspaper comic strips at a furious rate. Iger and Eisner also set up their own feature service, Universal Phoenix Syndicate, to distribute their products to weekly papers in the U.S. Eisner created the seafaring adventure strip Hawks of the Seas for both markets, drawing it in Sunday page format appropriate to a weekly feature. They created other features, too, many of which first saw publication in such outlets as Wags, a British weekly tabloid that was published in England and Australia.
In less than a year, the Eisner-Iger shop was also supplying American comic books with original stories. At first, much of this material consisted chiefly of re-cycled strips from the inventory the shop had produced for EPS and Universal Phoenix. Hawks of the Sea, for instance, was published by Quality in Feature Funnies, beginning with the November 1937 issue.
Since the comic book pages were of different dimensions than a Sunday newspaper page, the strip had to be revamped for comic book publication. To this purpose, Eisner cut up the artwork, panel by panel, and created the new pages by pasting up the old panels in modified configurations, often re-writing dialogue and captions to suit the new arrangement and expanding the original pictures to make them fit by adding more drawing to some of the panels. Although it was ostensibly a purely mechanical operation, this task stimulated Eisner's thinking about page layout, leading to the adoption of novel storytelling devices— like the "jump cut" in which the subject seems to moves rapidly, almost discontinuously, from one activity to another, a result of leaving out a connecting panel because the page wouldn't accommodate as many panels as the strip originally had. Later, Eisner would put this experience to use in a much more creative manner, deliberately deploying his resources to produce the specific effects he desired.
In a relatively short time, the Eisner-Iger shop had more work than Eisner and Iger could produce themselves. For awhile, Eisner, drawing in five different styles and signing as many different signatures, was able to handle the load— and convince clients that the Eisner-Iger shop was staffed with enough people to shoulder whatever jobs they took on. Eventually, however, they hired additional artists and writers— especially after they started supplying Fiction House with material in mid-1938. Within a couple of years, they had a staff of twenty or so. The names constitute a roll call of the medium's pacesetters: Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, Bob Kane (a classmate of Eisner's at Clinton High), Dick Briefer, Chuck Mazoujian, Mort Meskin, Bob Powell, George Tuska, Klaus Nordling, Nick Viscardi, and staff writer Audrey "Toni" Blum.
In supervising their work, as we've noted, the 20-year-old Eisner imposed his own artistic sensibilities. And much of the work produced by the shop bears his imprint. He was enamored of Milton Caniff's use of camera angles in Terry and the Pirates, for example, and as he experimented with increasingly extreme viewpoints, the shop's material was riddled with bizarre bird's-eye and worm's-eye shots. He was impressed, too, with the picture novels of Lynd Ward. Told entirely with pictures— no words— Ward's stories vividly demonstrated the narrative function of body posture and facial expression.
As the creative director of the enterprise, Eisner had more artistic license with more opportunity to exercise it than he would ever enjoy again. He was a young man working in a medium not yet fully formed. The demands of his assembly line and the challenges of shaping the medium to fit both those demands and his own aesthetic sense absorbed him and satisfied him. But part of the satisfaction came from contemplating future developments and helping bring those into being. So when Everett M. "Busy" Arnold called in the fall of 1939 and proposed they have lunch, Eisner accepted with eager anticipation.
Arnold was a printing press salesman who had become vice president of the Greater Buffalo Press, where most of the nation's Sunday funnies were printed. Seeing the success that a competitor, Eastern Color Printing, had been having with Famous Funnies, he decided to enter the nascent comic book field himself, but unlike Major Wheeler-Nicholson, he had secured financial backing before he launched his reprint title, Feature Funnies, in the fall of 1937. Arnold's backers were the Cowles brothers, who owned the Des Moines Tribune and Register, which operated a feature syndicate under that name. As comic books began to proliferate, the syndicate's top salesman, Henry Martin, conceived the notion of a comic book supplement for newspapers.
Patterned after its newsstand brethren, the supplement would be produced weekly and would be marketed like other newspaper comic strip features by the syndicate as an insert for newspapers' Sunday editions. Martin approached Arnold with the idea, and Arnold liked it.
They needed someone to produce the material— someone who could write and draw and make deadlines— and the person they knew who could do all that was Will Eisner, who had been reformatting Hawks of the Seas for Arnold's Feature Funnies since the third issue. Over lunch with Eisner, Arnold proposed that the young man take on the weekly comic book assignment. Eisner seized the opportunity with both hands. He had been aiming for a syndicated feature ever since he decided to become a cartoonist.
"I could now break out of the ghetto of comic books and move into the world of mainstream comic strips, the Mecca of all cartoonists," Eisner said years later when recalling the occasion in an interview with Tom Heintjes in Spirit: The Origin Years, No.1 (May 1992). He had already realized that the creative challenges in comic books were limited by the interests of their intended audience of adolescents, "and yet I realized I would be spending the rest of my life in comics," he said; "I really believed in the validity of this medium."
He compared his attitude then to that of Lou Fine, who, he said, dreamed of illustrating books but wound up in comics because the opportunities for beginning illustrators during the Depression were virtually non-existent. For Fine, comic books represented a way to make money.
"That aspect was important to me, too," Eisner acknowledged, "but it was the attraction to the medium that made me want to stay [with it]. And then along came this remarkable opportunity . . . the chance to work for newspapers with a mature audience."
The catch was that he'd have to leave the Eisner-Iger shop. In order to produce a 16-page comic book every week, he'd have to devote himself full-time to the project. Eager as Eisner was to expand his creative horizons, leaving a successful business with a good income during those hard times was a daunting prospect. But he wouldn't be putting all his eggs in one basket. Perhaps hedging the bet on the new venture, Arnold sweetened the deal: he offered Eisner joint ownership of three newsstand comic book titles, new titles which Eisner would produce in addition to the syndicated Sunday newspaper insert. Arnold wanted to expand his line of comic books, and he saw Eisner as the means to this end.
And the proposition suited Eisner, too: if the weekly comic book project fell through, Eisner would still have work (and an income) from the other comic books. Eisner couldn't do all the work himself; the venture would require a shop-like operation. But he knew where he could find the talent. He sold his interest in the Eisner-Iger shop to Iger (taking an option offered in their partnership arrangement), agreeing at the same time to take only four of the staff with him--Fine, Mazoujian, Powell, and Nordling.
In the spring of 1940, Eisner and Arnold and Martin formed a three-way partnership, with Eisner as head of Will Eisner Productions, the entity that would produce material for their jointly owned comic books, Smash Comics, Hit Comics, and National Comics, as well as the weekly comic book supplement.
Knowing that he was absolutely essential to the success of this undertaking, Eisner had driven a virtually unprecedented bargain in the last stages of the negotiations: he had insisted on owning the copyright on the lead feature that he would create for the weekly. Martin and Arnold balked, but Eisner held his ground. "A creative control factor is implicit [in ownership]," he said, "— more important than financial considerations."
Eventually, they compromised: the feature was copyrighted by Arnold but Eisner's ownership was stipulated in their contract so that whenever their partnership was dissolved, all rights reverted to Eisner. Satisfied, Eisner returned to his studio and created the Spirit.
He had been toying with ideas during the previous weeks. What he wanted was a framework that would enable him to tell any kind of story he could imagine. "I was interested in the short story form," he told Heintjes, "and I thought here at last was an opportunity to work on short stories in comics. I could do the stories I wanted because I was going to have a more adult audience." For a framework, he decided upon the detective story, the protagonist of which would be "an adventurer who would enable me to put him in almost any situation."
In conceiving the Spirit, Eisner discarded at once the notion of a costumed crime fighter, a superheroic long underwear character. He wanted something more realistic. "When I decided upon the Spirit," he said, "I worked from the inside out, you might say. That is, I thought first of his personality— the kind of man he was to be, how he would look at problems, how he would feel about life, the sort of mind he would have." The Spirit would not be deadly serious; he would have a light-hearted side that would enable him to have fun while he was getting the job done. And he would have feelings, too, emotions that sometimes showed.
Working late in his studio one night, Eisner sketched and jotted notes about his creation. "He had to be on the side of the law," he said, "but I believed it would be better if he worked a little outside of the law. In that way, he acquires some of the sympathy most of us feel for adventurers who are absolutely on their own. For the necessary connection with the regular police, I gave him Commissioner [Eustace P.] Dolan." Dolan was right out of central casting: a gruff, pipe-chomping, jut-jawed Irish cop, given to muttering in his moustache about the many abuses the world and its bureaucracies inflicted upon him but good-hearted under all the bluster and grumping. For a love interest, Eisner gave Dolan a beautiful daughter, Ellen, who would, in the natural course of things, fall in love with the Spirit.
That night, Eisner roughed out the first story. In it, we meet criminologist Denny Colt, a friend of Dolan's who sometime helps on difficult cases. While trying to apprehend an evil scientist named Dr. Cobra, Colt is drenched with one of Cobra's chemical experiments and loses consciousness. He appears dead and is promptly buried. But that night, we see him rise from the grave. He isn't dead at all. The chemicals by which he had been overcome had placed him in suspended animation, and when he regained consciousness and found himself in a coffin, he broke out. He decides, however, to remain "dead." As "the spirit" of Denny Colt— a legal nonentity— he can fight crime in a different way. "There are criminals beyond the reach of the police," he tells Dolan, "but the Spirit can reach them." He excavates a subterranean dwelling beneath his tombstone and takes up residence in Wildwood Cemetery.
Arnold and Martin were not altogether happy with Eisner's creation. They had expected a costumed character. After all, it was the popularity of Superman and Batman and their ilk that had created the market in newspapers for a weekly comic book. The lead character of that comic book ought to be in costume. But Eisner was adamant: "Any kind of costume would have limited the kinds of stories I could do. It would have been an inhibiting factor." Still, he recognized that his partners had a point. Reluctantly, he put a mask on the Spirit. And, later, he put gloves on his hero. And the Spirit would never remove either mask or gloves. "Those were the only two concessions I made," Eisner said.
One of the concessions, he turned to advantage. In his treatment of the Spirit's mask, Eisner would establish the uniqueness of his character with trade-mark precision. The bit of blue cloth always looked pasted on: it was virtually a skin-graft, and the Spirit's features— his eyebrows, the fold of skin under the eye— were as visible through the mask as they would have been without it.
The first Weekly Comic Book appeared on June 2, 1940. Two other regular features completed the sixteen-page contents: Mr. Mystic and Lady Luck. Both created by Eisner, they were produced on the weekly schedule by Powell and Viscardi respectively.
In the inaugural Spirit story, several of the devices Eisner would employ so distinctively as to make them earmarks of his storytelling style are on display. The pictures are often heavily shadowed and the perspectives unusual. The panels are oddly shaped, sliced into narrow slivers and wedges. The unusual layout was Eisner's reaction to the severe constraint he felt under the seven-page limitation imposed upon his storytelling. "It was clear to me that the seven pages allotted was too confining," he once wrote. "I began to experiment with techniques I'd been using in comic books."
In re-fitting Hawks of the Seas to a comic book format, he had used circular panels, diamond-shaped ones, and diagonals— "whatever would accommodate what I was trying to fit in." At the time, he had seen storytelling potential in the expedient. Now he began to explore the possibilities, using "a flurry of panels to speed up action, long odd-shaped panels to show dimension that a standard panel destroyed, characters popping out of panels to add depth. So much to say and so little room to say it in."
By the fifth outing of the insert, Eisner's distinctive deployment of the opening page, the "splash page," had begun to surface. The first page of the supplement—the Spirit story’s beginning—incorporated a larger opening panel in order to suggest that page was the “cover” of the publication.
"When I began,” Eisner said, “I saw the splash merely as something that should grab the attention of someone flipping through the newspaper. I soon became theoretical about it and saw it as something more than a design element. It could set a scene, set a mood, define a situation."
As Eisner became more adept at deploying this aspect of his feature, he made an indelible mark on the artform. Some of his splash pages in later years were such powerful statements of mood and theme that they could stand alone works of graphic art.
In the Spirit's second adventure on June 9, Eisner introduced a character he hadn't anticipated the need for when he'd been formulating the frame for his storytelling. Ebony White first appeared as a cab driver. A young black man, his eyes roll in that stereotypical expression of wide-eyed fright as he drives by Wildwood Cemetery. Everything about Ebony is a stereotype of his race: his large eyeballs, pink big-lipped "mushmouf," his linguistic mutilation of pronunciation and diction, his comic costume (a funny hat, a red jacket with big yellow buttons), his low-comedy behavior. Years later, Eisner would feel no little embarrassment at having perpetuated such a racial caricature, but in the summer of 1940, he discovered he had a need for Ebony.
The Spirit needed someone to talk to, someone to "think aloud" with. His motivation as a detective depended upon his interpretation of evidence and events, and we had to know what he was thinking. Eisner could have depicted him wandering around all the time with his head perpetually clouded by thought balloons, but this maneuver is visually and dramatically uninteresting. It is much better theater to arrange for the Spirit to talk over his options with someone. Preferably someone not as bright as the Spirit, someone to whom he would naturally offer explanations. Ebony was perfect for the role. He became a regular member of the cast with his next appearance, which was the third issue of the insert. And it wasn't long before he had captivated his creator.
On September 15, only two months after being introduced, Ebony took over the entire Spirit story for a solo adventure. It was Eisner's first venture into undiluted comedy, and it had lasting repercussions. Until the introduction of Ebony, Eisner's work had been pretty much straight-faced realistic illustration and serious storytelling. After Ebony's arrival— after the September 15 story in particular— we can find more humor in the Spirit stories. Sometimes the humor takes the form of outright comedy, as in the Ebony story. But most of the time, the characteristic Eisner risibility is found in facial expressions, unexpected exaggerations of anatomy, the way a person holds something or walks. Hereafter, humor is a hallmark of The Spirit.
About Ebony, Eisner was never apologetic (and rightly so). The character grew on him, as many comic strip characters do with their creators. Eisner came to regard the character with great affection, and he concocted many occasions for the black youth to show that he was more than a stereotype— that he had a unique personality of his own, that he had dignity and intelligence and resourcefulness.
Eisner's latter-day discomfort with the character arose from his realization that he had employed a racial stereotype, often in stereotypical fashion. But this portrayal was more the result of blindness than bigotry, a consequence of insensitivity to the feelings of other races rather than a desire to persecute. In this, Eisner— despite having endured the slings and arrows of anti-semitic prejudice himself— was doubtless much like many good-intentioned white men of his generation. Taught that racial differences ought not to matter, he overlooked them. He was blind to them. And yet he recognized comedy where everyone else found it in those days: he recognized it in Amos and Andy, in Stepin Fetchit, in Butterfly McQueen, in little Buckwheat.
In discussing the issue with interviewers over the years, Eisner reminded them that the United States was a country of immigrants "with funny hats and funny ways," eccentricities that created a foundation for much American humor. "It was perfectly acceptable for a long time to make fun [of such minorities] or to employ humor that was build around the differences in color, differences in ways of talking," he explained. "I was a creature of the times— as all writers are. Very few writers can claim to be that far ahead that they don't reflect the humor of their times. To me, Ebony was a very human character, and he was very believable— at that time."
The first Ebony solo story had served to establish aspects of the character's personality. Eisner had invented storylines before to serve this purpose with other characters; and he would do it again, many times. He often selected a case for the Spirit solely because it afforded him the chance to display a facet of his protagonist's personality that had heretofore escaped notice. "The main thrust of my effort," he said once, "was to create a human character."
His passion for developing his hero's personality grew into an interest in the human condition generally. After the diversionary Ebony story proved edifying as well as entertaining, Eisner frequently treated the Spirit's case in a given week as an excuse to develop an element of general human interest, shifting the spotlight off his hero, sometimes for most of the story. Time after time, he focused on some ordinary soul, a perfect specimen of common humanity, whom he would confront with some extraordinary event— and then watch to see how the character reacted, how he survived. "I have something of an obsession with this," he admitted, "—with time, with meanings in life, with what motivates people to go on when they're faced with terrible problems, with the idea of a single life being affected by larger events."15
By December 1940, all the characteristic Eisner storytelling ingredients were in the mix, and the distinctive Spirit story began appearing regularly. With virtually every appearance, Eisner advanced the art of cartooning, introducing some new attitude or treatment or plot twist that demonstrated what the medium was capable of. As Cat Yronwode, Eisner's early biographer, observed: "The strip proved to be exactly the vehicle Eisner needed to take his already daring ideas one step further. From a modest beginning, the series rapidly evolved into a one-man virtuoso exploration of the comic medium's potential." Eisner and his creation were poised on the brink of a great continuing experiment.
But the expectant air that everyone was breathing in that season was not of an artistic sort: the U.S. Congress had passed the Selective Service Act in September, and everyone expected war with Germany sooner or later. Eisner, a bachelor, knew he would be among the first to be called if war broke out.
The Weekly Comic Book proved financially successful. It was not picked up by an impressive number of newspapers, but the papers that subscribed were large metropolitan dailies, and they paid fees based upon circulation that were substantial enough to generate a good profit for Eisner's operation. At some of the larger newspapers, editors began asking about a daily strip version of The Spirit. In the fall of 1941, Eisner complied. The daily strip began October 13.
Producing a daily syndicated comic strip had been the pinnacle of Eisner's youthful dreams, but after doing one for awhile, he was no longer the hostage of that ambition. Having worked in the more spacious format of the comic book page, he found the strip format confining in the extreme: "It's like trying to conduct an orchestra in a phone booth," he said. Still, his creative energies heated to a roiling simmer, he played with the new format in much the same manner as he had tinkered with the pages of comic books. One memorable installment, for instance, was a single narrow panel that did no more than depict the Spirit's footprints in the snow. It was a suspenseful maneuver: the footprints led from left to right, step by step; then at the extreme right of the panel, the Spirit lay prostrate— wounded and exhausted by his effort to find help.
But Eisner would not have time to explore the medium much more. Early in 1942, he was notified that he would be inducted into the Army in May. He and Arnold scrambled to organize the shop to continue producing The Spirit during his absence. The daily strip would be drawn by Lou Fine and then Jack Cole until it ceased in 1944; the weekly supplement was written by Toni Blum and others and drawn by various hands throughout the war years. In the Army, Eisner soon attracted attention with his cartoon contributions to The Flaming Bomb, the base newspaper at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Transferred to the Pentagon, he was assigned a pioneering project— to create cartoons that would instruct soldiers in safety and preventive maintenance in such publications as Firepower and Army Motors. He was art director of the latter when he was discharged in 1945 after the war.
Producing educational cartoons had piqued his creative imagination, however, and in 1950, he would apply successfully for a government contract to produce for the military a monthly magazine called P*S, which continued the effort he'd begun while on active duty. He formed his own company, American Visuals, to produce the magazine and other related products that used cartooning to heighten soldiers' awareness about safety, personal hygiene, political responsibilities, equipment repair and maintenance and the like. By the end of 1952, the challenges in this new field of endeavor became so absorbing that Eisner left the world of commercial cartooning altogether to concentrate his energies on producing cartoons for educational purposes, thereby expanding the horizons for the artform even further than he had done already in comic book format. But when he first returned to civilian life after World War II, Eisner took up pen and brush to revitalize his creation.
The Spirit had fallen into disrepair at the hands of others: they did not understand the character, nor did they have Eisner's artistic ambitions for the medium. But when the master returned, he quickly recaptured "the spirit" of the pre-war crime fighter. It was, however, more than a rehabilitation: his ambitions intact, Eisner improved upon past performances. Both his vision and his graphic style had matured; his sheer technical skill was greater by reason of additional years of practice. And after more than three years away from the feature, Eisner was full of ideas and eager— impatient— to continue his work. Consequently The Spirit, the end product of vision, style, technical skill and creative passion, ascended to the level of its greatest experimentation and achievement.
EISNER'S POSTWAR GRAPHIC STYLE was more confident, his line bolder. His sense of composition was surer: his figures seemed not just to occupy the panels but to fill them. And he used black more extensively. Sometimes whole stories were drenched in inky shadow. These, Eisner said, were "two bottles of ink" stories. The black pages of a two-bottle story set the somber mood for a serious story. "The colors of black and white are, in effect, my sound track," Eisner said. "It was the only thing I had to work with in the area of special effects. It's the only thing . . . that goes beyond what's on the paper. You reach out and try for any kind of device to secure the attention and control the mood of the reader."
Not all the shadows were solid black. From the illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, Eisner picked up the so-called trap-shadow technique of creating transparent shadows, shadows not quite as dark as others. "Leyendecker would outline the [shadowed area] and then stroke lines across [the outlined space] in a kind of grid," Eisner explained.
In his stories, Eisner continued to peer into the lives and aspirations of ordinary people. And his villains were no more distinguished. As fellow cartoonist Jim Steranko observed in the second volume of his History of Comics, the Spirit battled "worn-out felons, bowery pickpockets, nickel and dime shoplifters, street corner punks, city hall grafters, shabby con men, furtive sneak thieves, stripe-suited pimps, weak-willed winos, sweat-stained stoolies, baggy pants torpedoes and a rogue's gallery of other three-time losers."
The Spirit himself was all too fallible. He had a sublime faith in himself, but events often proceeded beyond his ability to control them. The petty crooks he pursued frequently met their just deserts through some quirk of fate over which the Spirit had no control. His most outstanding trait as a criminologist was his ability to endure physical punishment: the Spirit is undoubtedly the most beat-up crime-fighter in the history of detective fiction. But he always survived. And in so doing, he embodied an aspect of the theme that pervades Eisner's work— the conviction that the little man, ordinary people in general, can survive the vicissitudes of life and can, perhaps, rise above their apparent limitations, particularly when unexpectedly challenged by an unusual circumstance.
Newspaper editors sought more humor in their features in the years immediately after the War, and Eisner responded. "I always thought that humor and action weren't mutually exclusive elements and that humor could be used to leaven many scenes," he said.
Sometimes, focussing on one or more of a collection of street urchins that seemed to collect around the Spirit, Eisner would tell a strictly comic tale. Sometimes he ran a comic subplot in parallel to the story's serious main event. Most stories displayed a sense of humor.
Many of his humorous touches were purely visual— a comic facial expression, a clownish gesture, a funny hat. The Spirit himself became something of a tongue-in-cheek character: Eisner confessed amazement and amusement at "a guy who would run around in a mask and fight crime."
Acknowledging that his drawing style was only "somewhat realistic," Eisner said: "I employed exaggeration where I felt I needed it, and where I felt I wanted to be serious, I didn't employ exaggeration. I played it the way you might in music. You get louder when you feel you want to emphasize something; and you get quieter when you feel you want a downbeat. Use any device the situation allows."
The storytelling devices Eisner had introduced before the War, he took up again and honed to an acute rhetoric of comic book storytelling. He lavished particular care upon the splash pages. On the introductory inside cover of Spirit, No.5, Dave Schreiner explained:
“His use of The Spirit logo was awe-inspiring. The letters were formed by the tops of buildings in a Damascus bazaar, by the spinning waters of a whirlpool, on street signs, by the columns of a crumbling house, or on billboards, in newspaper headlines, on telegrams, spelled out by a rotting fencepost, or embroidered on a rippling veil through which the domes and minarets of Turkey could be seen.
“Three-dimensional objects were thrust out of a two-dimensional medium,” Schreiner continued. “Photographs, notes, messages were tacked and paper-clipped onto the page. The pages themselves were occasionally drawn as though ragged and torn. And the splash page sometimes became that of a book, drawn with depth and dimension, with bent corners and frayed edges.”
If Eisner had drawn in a straight illustrative style, the inventiveness of his splash page compositions would have undermined his realistic effects. But his humorous graphic style permitted this kind of playfulness on the splash pages. Eisner was always aiming for effect: "The big thing for me in any splash page is to secure control over the reader," Eisner said. "You set the mood and form your contact with the reader at that point."
Noting that the reader would likely pause a millisecond or so before turning the page, Eisner said he had determined to use that moment to suggest the proper attitude for encountering the story that followed. During that brief pause, the reader, prompted by the picture before him, would decide whether the story was a mystery or a fable or a comedy and would assume the appropriate mental posture. "That's what I counted on, and it's really the logic with which I approached all opening splash pages. I'm concentrating everything on capturing the reader's imagination, on capturing his or her mood."
Many of the splash pages were strictly mood pieces; some were the opening scene of the story. On several of the earliest, the giant figure or face of the Spirit hovered over the mean streets of the city like a silent guardian of justice. We enter a tale about a haunted house by coming through a cobweb-shrouded doorway. For a story that takes place in the sewers of the city, the letters of the title character's name are structured and stacked to represent the architecture of the world beneath the streets. When we meet a treacherous femme fatale named Powder, we see her Circean form first through a spider's web— in the center of which the Spirit is dangling.
Not all of the splash pages were so grimly serious. Eisner did comedy, too.
Eisner's Spirit stories were laced with femmes fatales of the most glamorous sort. "Other artists have drawn [women] more voluptuously but never with more character," Steranko wrote. And they had names that whispered romance while hinting at heartbreak— Autumn Mews, Wisp O'Smoke, Wild Rice, Thorne Strand, Flaxen Weaver, Silk Satin. All were petty criminals or gunsels' molls or otherwise persons of questionable character. The most insidious of them all was P'Gell, and the splash page by which Eisner introduced her in October 1946 is one of the most reprinted of his drawings.
Her name echoing the sound of the notorious Parisian district, Place Pigalle, P'Gell is not exactly a crook. She does not steal money; she marries for it. Her husbands are the crooks. Crooks or con-men of one description or another. They are also deceased: they tend to die shortly after marrying P'Gell. But since they are criminals, no one seems to mind very much. P'Gell is an international operator; her quest for wealthy husbands knows no borders.
The introductory splash page captures all of P'Gell's qualities. The minarets of Istanbul in the background imply her worldly milieu. Her full figure, revealing gown, and sensual pose tell us that she is a woman who uses her body as bait. The veil and the cushions upon which P'Gell reclines combine with the Mideast scenery to suggest a harem setting for the story— or, at least, a bedroom— reinforcing our impression about P'Gell's use of her charms. And the Spirit's entrance, his face and form partially hidden (by means of a delicate deployment of Craftint), seems intrusive in this private, sexual sanctum. We cannot help but be intrigued and a little alarmed by this tableau.
It was often raining on the splash pages. It rained in sheets; it rained in cascades. Relentless, driving rain that Kurtzman would call Eisnershpritz. Depicting weather, Eisner believed, was one of the few things he could do in the medium that would evoke a predictable response in his readers. "Rain, snow, cold, heat— all of the climatic extremes conjure definite feelings," he said. And so does rain. "You can have two men standing on a street corner talking about anything, but if you add a driving rain, it adds a drama to whatever they're saying."
The splash page for September 19, 1948 incorporates several favorite Eisner devices. It's raining, and it's inky with atmosphere, a two-bottle page. It's mostly silent— except for telling sound effects. And there's movement, progression, functioning as a sort of prologue. The dark enveloping cloak of night parts only for light sources— sometimes steady, like the light identifying the police station; sometimes intermittent, like lightning. Punctuating the darkness with instances of light, Eisner tells his story as a series of revealing glimpses.
First, we make out a police station in the distance. Then by the flash of a lightning bolt, we see a figure walking in the storm. Since we are closer to the police light in the next panel, we know the figure is approaching the station. Next, he's inside—leaving puddles of water wherever he steps, his heels clicking regardless of the damp. The door to Dolan's office opens with a creak, and we see Dolan, sitting alone in his office, wholly in the dark except for the meager glow from his desk lamp. (We can see the front of his suit coat so we know the desk lamp is on; further evidence, in panel 7, the water falling from the Spirit sizzles as it strikes the heated metal shade of the lamp.)
Dolan can't tell who his visitor is: standing between Dolan and the door, the figure is an anonymous silhouette against the light in the hallway. But when lightning crackles again, Dolan is astonished to find the Spirit before him.
The successive moments of illumination are timed by Eisner's silent progression of panels, building suspense until the moment of revelation in panel 7. And then, like a good prologue, one revelation leads to the next, and the Spirit begins to tell his story in the last panel.
The page is a study in visual storytelling. Nothing on this page is haphazard. The objects Eisner elected to show us as well as the moments he chose to reveal those objects were selected with great calculation. Each illuminated detail tells us something that advances the story. Each picture is a successive moment in a progression of moments. The light reveals not only the story but the storyteller: by controlling the light as severely as he does, Eisner demonstrates just how deliberate a craftsman he is. A virtuoso performance, the page sets the mood of mysteriousness and vague alarm for the story to follow by being itself a mystery with a moment of fright.
Each story's splash page was an opportunity to experiment with attention-getting and mood-setting graphic devices. And each week's story was an opportunity to experiment with treatments and themes. Sometimes Eisner parodied popular radio programs or movies. He often told fables, modern morality dramas. He adapted fairy tales to contemporary life (devising splash pages of elaborately decorative lettering like illuminated manuscripts in order to evoke a Germanic iconography that he associated with the tales— he and Walt Disney in most of his full-length animated features). He explored the supernatural, the inexplicable, and he dabbled in science fiction. He played with sound effects and time. He used music— song lyrics— and poetry.
"I had total or near-total creative freedom," Eisner said. "There was nothing that stood in my way other than the dimensions of the paper and the restrictions of the print media. It made The Spirit years wonderful years."
About his tireless experimentation, Kurtzman observed, "Eisner became a virtuoso cartoonist of a kind who had never been seen before in comic books— or, for that matter, in newspaper strips. He used all the elements of the comic book page— dialogue, drawing, panel composition, color— with great daring, but never at the cost of narrative clarity."
The Spirit spent most of his time in the city, but he also went out West, overseas to the Middle East and to South America. And Eisner's imagination transcended mere geographic locales. The action of one story took place entirely in an elevator. And because the Spirit himself was invented as a hook to hang stories on, he was sometimes elbowed out of the story almost entirely when Eisner was exploring some new storytelling notion.
In a story called "Two Lives," Eisner used the comic book format to present the stories of two men side-by-side on the pages, events in one life virtually mirroring events in the other; the Spirit appears in only two panels and is entirely incidental to the plot.
He has only a walk-on part in "Ten Minutes," a memorable story that contradicts the notion that not very much important can happen in ten minutes (the time it takes to read a Spirit story). In the allotted ten minutes, we watch a punk kid commit his first (and last) crime: he robs a neighborhood candy store, accidentally kills the owner, flees the police, and is run down by a subway train. The Spirit shows up towards the end and, in an exchange with Dolan, asks the loaded question that gives meaning to the story's theme: "I wonder just when it was that Freddy started on his crime career." It was ten minutes ago, Spirit— only ten minutes ago.
It was this sort of ending that Eisner strived for. A student of O. Henry and Ambrose Bierce, Eisner knew that a short story was a literary exercise contrived for its ending. He liked a story that ended in a way that provoked readers to fill in some blank places to complete the tale. "That gives the story a resonance that goes on past the last panel," he said, "and that's what I would often try for."
Eisner's endings were sometimes like puzzles: the stories propounded a theory, dramatized it, and then left the reader to decide for himself the truth of the matter.
Although not heavy with complex moral freight, most of Eisner's stories are convincing demonstrations that comics can be art. And if most of them are but thumping melodramas, that merely promotes their artistry. Michael Barrier, writing in Print, explains:
“The more melodramatic Eisner's material, the better, because the more it lent itself to bizarre staging, oblique angles, and chiaroscuro lighting. . . . The more routine or outrageous the story . . . the greater the pleasure in making it a marvel of visual narrative. Eisner was in those years the comic-book equivalent of Orson Welles: he was the first complete master of a young and heretofore unformed medium. And, like Welles, he devoted his energies not so much to telling compelling stories as to showing us how comely his Cinderella was, now that he had waved his wand over it.
“We should not regret,” Barrier continues, “that Welles did not make something more ‘serious’ than, say, The Lady from Shanghai, an endlessly fascinating film whose tangled script would have been a stupefying bore in anyone else's hands; if he had, his subject matter might have restrained him from showing us all the tricks in his magician's bag.
“Likewise, if Eisner had tried to do more with the Spirit,” Barrier adds, “—if he had tried to tell stories with greater moral and emotional weight— he probably would have done less. By concentrating on what is so often dismissed as superficial— as ‘style’ or ‘technique’
— he revealed his medium's unsuspected capacity for expression.”
He also revealed the art in telling stories in the visual-verbal mode.
Eisner's restless creative imagination, which never left him quite content with what he had done, led him finally to abandon his most memorable creation. His post-war experimentation with comics as an educational medium eventually so consumed his energies that he could not continue doing The Spirit. The decision to give it up was a painful one for Eisner: he had poured into the feature all of his hopes and dreams for the artform for years.
"I felt that I was at the epitome of the medium," he told Steranko, "and that I was helping in the development of a medium in itself. Comics before that were pretty much pictures in sequence, and I was trying to create an art form. I was conscious of that, and I used to talk about it."
When cartoonist Jules Feiffer worked as his assistant in the late forties and early fifties in particular, "we used to have long discussions about comics as an art form. How can we improve this? How can we make this better. How can we do better things? It was almost a continuing laboratory, and I was very lucky because there wasn't anybody who could stop me from doing what I wanted."
Having invested that much of his creative imagination in The Spirit, Eisner first sought in 1951 to have the feature continued by others under his supervision. For about a year, that seemed to work. Feiffer wrote many of the stories, and Eisner was happy with them; but he was restive about the drawing. Finally, he could no longer tolerate the violence other hands were doing to his creation; with the story issued on October 5, 1952, he discontinued it altogether.
But long before that, Eisner had done more to shape the medium and prove its literary potential than just about anyone.
The foregoing essay is a somewhat abbreviated version of Chapter 4 in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, all of which (shameless plug) is for sale at this website.