So, I love Google. My heart was warmed when upon searching for Cordyceps (for an unrelated RotUN horror movie post) I saw the Spirit's warm face beaming at me from the masthead. He is wonderful - with a charm and life that can be spotted even in the tiny Google at the top left of the page. And flanking him in letters crafted from the twisted and kinetic skyline of the city was Google, his mask forming the "o"s. The style and the character are inexorably linked: they are the trademarks of Comic Book Da Vinci Will Eisner.And I did not arbitrarily pick Leonardo because he is a famous artist (and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) but because he was a man of many talents. Will Eisner was both a writer and an artist - And he is one of the best in both fields. If he had been a playwright he would have been one of the best playwrights in the business, on par with Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. If he had been an artist he would have been in the realm of Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol. It is because he worked in the less respected field of comics (a medium in which both art and writing are essential) that his cultural presence is not the same as theirs.
His artwork is fine, highly detailed and elaborate. When he draws windows and buildings and the the crafted landscape of the city he can do so with the precision and skill of an architect. But these are no mere blueprints. They sing with life and realism.
His characters were often cartoonish caricatures but their expressive natures are second-to-none. They conveyed life and motion almost as if they were animated. The ability to convey emotion in so few lines is awe-inspiring because you can deeply and easily connect with their over-the-top joy and sorrow. This is coupled with a writing that is brilliant, funny, and absolutely captivating. His stories can be nigh-Grecian in their tales of hubris and his philosophy is profound. It connects to universal themes of overcoming adversity and pondering the meaning of life. But his stories are set in the dirty, chaotic, and humble tenements of Brooklyn. Ordinary men and women in the vein of the Loman family or Harry Hope but with a rhythm and style that is uniquely Eisner. Even his use of puntuation was unique - multiple exclamation points and question marks that convey the frenetic tempo of the Jewish immigrants that Eisner had grown up surrounded by.
He conveyed the drama in the tiny rituals of urban living and with humor and honesty. He offers us the world from the point of view of the most unlikely characters: the ghosts of buildings, a cockroach, a fire hydrant, a mystery man, and the street itself. His connection with New York is like Walt Whitman's and he expresses it with a candor and skill that is to my mind an equal to the great poet's.
The Da Vinci parallel does not end there though. Eisner also lived in a Renaissance of Comics. Imagine being peers with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Carl Banks, Bill Finger, Harvey Kurtzman and R Crumb. These men made a medium! Comics as a monthly distribution were just starting and a wide range of comics existed including Romance, Western, Crime, and Funny Animal comics. The styles were cruder and more direct. The art was rougher and the stories more simplistic and far from being aimed at a mature or intelligent reader. These men for the sake of art, for the sake of money, or for the sake of the insuppressable creativity that dwelled in them (often for all three) made comics what they are today. They introduced the formats and standards that took comics from kids 5 cent funnies into an artform that is lucrative, culturally relevant, artistically stimulating, and unique from all other forms of media. Putting it in perspective it would be like if Da Vinci and Michelangelo were the first guys to do tapestries and by the time they were done tapestries were as popular as... Well, as tapestries were.
You know how people say "he wrote the book on [comic]" well Will Eisner DID! It's called Comics and Sequential Art and it so instructively and wonderfully illustrates the principals of comics as an art that it is taught.And Eisner has his Mona Lisa too. That masterpiece that defines him. Far from his only achievement, it is that one creation that the cultural memory forever enshrines with the creator. Michelangelo has David. Van Gogh has Starry Knight. The Marx Brothers have Duck Soup (... Or a Night at the Opera) and Will Eisner has...
The Spirit was a Comic Book written for a magazine. Will took it because he felt the need to do something deeper than what kids books allowed at the time. He wasn't even going to have the character in costume until a last minute call from the editor. He was told that the magazine DID want a super-hero (the new craze) so Eisner famously "just drew on a mask".
The Spirit is one of the great modern heroes. He fights crime because he has the anonymity to do so. Dr. Cobra never asked Denny Colt if he wanted to be experimented on for goodness' sake! He was just a feisty Lois Lane-esque reporter (with hairy-er gams). He got caught by evil mad scientist and supposedly killed. But in reality he was only put into a state of suspended animation and he wakes up in a graveyard. And so, like any red blooded, super villain-fearing American would he decides to don a domino mask and take his two fisted assault right back to the criminal scum of Central City. Like Batman the Spirit has a confidante and friend in the Police Commissioner Dolan. He also has a Superman-Lois-like romance with Commissioner Dolan's vivacious daughter Ellen (Like Lois but she's got gams that would make Betty Grable bust a seam). And it goes without saying that the movie dismally failed to capture any of the SPIRIT of the Spirit. There's a word for that. It rhymes with "shit". The Spirit was very much a part of the city he lived in. Moreso than even Batman or Spider-Man simply because Eisner took the time and effort to tell the stories of Central City. There were stories about normal people living in the city and the Spirit would appear for only a few panels, on his way to this crime or that. He was a minor element in that other resident of Central City's life, just like the overlapping stories of a real city.
One of my first Spirit comics was the confession of an old criminal recounting the story of how he killed his brother years earlier. It was heart-wrenching and sincere in the emotion and the drama of the man's ordeal. Eisner is so amazing at facial expressions that the anguish and fear seem to exude off the pages and into the reader. The Spirit shows up at the end to bust the old crook but finds the man dead. There were lots of these stories of the citizens of Central City inspired by Eisner growing up in the poorest neighborhoods of depression-era Brooklyn. Tales of tenements and poverty that were rife in urban life at the time but were never touched on in comics.
The Spirit was genre-breaking as well. He was something between a pulp detective and a superhero while not really being either. There were stories of straight heroism to be sure but there were also noir detective tales. Horror stories cropped up as well and murder mysteries. Occasionally mysticism was dealt with as well as mob stories. But perhaps my favorite Spirit stories are the funny ones. At the heart of all of these adventures was a strong sense of humanism as embodied by the Spirit.
The Spirit is just an ordinary man. He is easily overwhelmed and more than not he is up against overwhelming odds. Often blind luck saves him from injury and death and by the end of the story he is usually bruised, bloody lipped, and his clothes are ripped and ruffled. This is not because these stories are particularly violent but rather because the Spirit was just a guy in a suit and that's what happens when you get in a fight regardless of whether you wear a mask or not. The Spirit was often confounded and flummoxed by women as well. He thought of himself as a James Bond-like playboy but very often he was being played or the woman in question thought he was a joke. The guy just couldn't catch a break. The public had very mixed views on the Spirit's activities additionally. People went so far as to dump garbage on him or throw bottles all of which he took with a groan and a grumble and a scoff of his foot while he plods back to the graveyard only to go out again and do what he thinks is right despite the adversity.The Spirit is everything you want to be at his best and at his worst you feel legitimate pathos for him because you can empathize with the crap he has to put up with. He dealt with it through humor at times and other times he was just too beaten up and exhausted to complain. We all feel that way sometimes and Will got that! But he kept going back out night after night because it was the right thing to do.
I would just like to point out that all of this was years before Peter Parker who now holds the crown for getting dumped on by life; he got it from the Spirit. The Spirit didn't even have the grief motivation that keeps Spider-Man going when he's at his lowest because for the Spirit there was no Uncle Ben - He was just a guy trying to do right.
And the Spirit had villains too! In my childhood the trope was played out in the guise of the Claw on Inspector Gadget but Octopus was the original shadowy mastermind. The only glimpse we get of him is of his trademark gloves.
Badass, right? That's the most you see of him and he's the primary antagonist of the book! Now, he is hardly the first behind-the-scenes villain but in the visual medium of comics the challenge of the unseen force was met and overcome by Will Eisner with his usual brilliance.
And do you want to talk about Femme Fatales? The Spirit had them like none other! There was P'Gell, Sand Saref, Silken Floss, and many many more. They were as much a challenge for the Spirit as any male rogues as the Spirit was constantly being seduced, tricked, distracted, and otherwise bewildering him. And as always, they dripped with sensuality and sex appeal courtesy of Eisner's art. The Spirit's awkward attempts to deal with them resonate because (especially for comic book reading men) women can be confusing, frustrating, and irrational. And we can go "Yeah, man. I hear that!" when he gets clobbered over the head just when he least expects it by some minx.
Of course all of that is icing on the cake that is the Spirit. As a character he was noble, he was tough, he was charming, he was overwhelmed, and above all the Spirit was a person. That always shone through because unlike Superman or Spider-Man the Spirit has all the same vulnerabilities and limitations that you and I do and that made him a character who was understandable, compelling, and real.
Now, I could go on and on about the Spirit, but it isn't the Spirit's birthday. It's Will's. And as I said, the Spirit is far from his only creation and he isn't even my favorite. My favorite Will Eisner creation is not an individual but a neighborhood: Dropsie Ave.
Will saw the city in a way that only someone who was born and raised there could.
To Will Eisner New York was like a prism of potential. It was a collection of stories - Every man woman and child you saw on any given street at any given moment was in the middle of a passionate love story or a comedic romp or a heart-breaking tragedy and the city in all its might and majesty was the setting for it all. More than that, the city was a story in and of itself. One of my favorite Eisner sequences is a series of pages depicting the elements of the city as they exist in our lives. Most of these tales are only a page or two long but each perfectly captures the part that those things play in the life of the city and the lives of the people in it. Taken all together they are like a biography of New York from the point of view of the most overlooked but essential "residents": The stoop, the subway, the street lamp, the fire hydrant, the mailbox, the windows, the sound of construction, the rush of traffic.
Signal, for example.
But Eisner's real joy and the thing that he was best at was telling about people. Dropsie Ave is the stories of people living in New York. The dramas they live. The hardships they endure and the loves they have and the misfortunes and blessings that life inevitably brings. In one book he traces the history of the Neighborhood from an 1870 farm to a sprawling suburb through urbanization, immigration, racial desegregation. All through the interweaving sagas of the people who lived there, were born there, grew up, moved in, moved out, and died there. Generations of overlapping natives and newcomers in the swirling symphony of the city as told through words and pictures.
Eisner also deals with the meaning of life. He and his characters examine God as a debate between faith and reason that all of us either internally or externally struggle with. In a Life Force he deals with people trying to live and struggling with the all important question of "Why?"
My favorite sequence involves Jacob, one of the central characters and resident of Dropsie Ave. "Izzy the Cockroach fell to the floor of the alley from two flights up!" and lands next to Jacob who just suffered a heart attack."So?? Mister Cockroach. What are YOU struggling for?? To maybe stay alive a few days more?"
Jacob then realizes that he too is just trying to stay alive and for what? He thinks about the possibilities of Man creating God and of God creating Man and how either way the reason for living is a great unknown. "So in either case both man and cockroach are in serious trouble! Because staying alive seems to be the ONLY thing on which EVERYBODY agrees!" He then nearly gets beaten up for stopping a man from stepping on the cockroach. He proudly declares as the passer-by threatens to hit him "Go ahead! Hit me! ... So at least I'll die for a reason! That at least I can understand!"
The very first Graphic Novel (a term Eisner coined to try and covey what the content of his work was) was also set in the Neighborhood. A Contract with God is an amazing meditation on the highs and lows of life, the intimacy and power of faith, and on a man's personal struggle with the concept of God. It is too nuanced a story to go into in this blog because it would only do the story a disservice (although maybe I'll do a full review of it one day) but I will say that it is one of the best comics I have ever read and I would encourage everyone (comic fan or not) to read it.
All of this is only scratching the surface, as I said. I didn't even get into A Life in Pictures (Will's graphic auto-biography), The Plot (where he debunks Zionist conspiracy theories), and many, many more. Not to mention the shelves of work that he did which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading.
So?? Will there ever be another?
Will Eisner was a master in every sense of the word and while I do think there will be others who enrich and evolve the medium as much as he did, there are usually generations between geniuses of his caliber.
Now I am going to go read more Will Eisner because 4 hours of working on this post was not nearly enough. In fact, it's just whet my appetite for much more.