Comic Book Classics -7-


 Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

The master at work.

The links between comic and film are long and well-established. Lumiere premiered his moving pictures in 1896, the same year that Outcault’s Yellow Kid first appeared in newspapers. Photography, which captured movement (or didn’t) through blurring the image, led to the development of speed-lines in the comic –essentially an attempt to copy the photographic effect. Will Eisner (1917-2005) is clearly a reference point for these linkages. His style, use of light and shade, characters that look and act like Hollywood stars… evidence enough, I think, to make a case.


Furthermore, Eisner’s place in comic book history is cemented by the publishing in 1978 of the first ‘graphic novel’; A Contract With God ( i.e. the first Bande Dessinee album written in English). Again, this could be interpreted as an attempt to get a full-length feature film down in one comic, rather than in smaller B-feature episode snippets. Eisner went on to do further ‘features’ including an urban version of Hamlet, an autobiographical story about a young cartoonist in Brooklyn and his two books on the art of cartooning and comic art, Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (1996).

Autobiographical tale, based on episodes of Jewish life in New York.

The Spirit (1940-1952) is, however, his most famous creation. It is an amalgam of the various trends popular in 30s comics. Part superhero, part detective thriller, it plays with the tropes of both. One thing that Eisner is good at is humour. The Spirit is replete with parody, slapstick, puns and the odd surrealist lapse. The plot itself involves a young, handsome square-jawed detective, Denny Colt. Denny’s taken on the secret crime-fighter identity of ‘The Spirit’ after being declared officially dead. He now fights crime as a man with no name, his identity concealed with a risible Lone-Ranger type mask.


In essence, The Spirit is a noir thriller. The detective solves crimes in a mean city populated by rogues, villains and femme fatales. One of these dangerous-yet-vulnerable bad girls is Sand Serif (named after a type of font). Sand typifies the noir code of boy meets girl; Denny loves Sand, Sand loves Denny but they are separated by The Law. Denny’s duty is to send her to jail, Sand’s destiny is to plot against Denny and the rule of law. Yet both dream (secretly) of a future of marriage, kids and a picket fence. A dream that will never be. Ahh, the cruelties of fate.


Eisner’s work has always been well regarded – and rightly so. He even gave his name to the Comic-Book world’s most prestigious awards: The Eisner’s. There is a lot about his comics to enjoy. His characters seem rounded and real, his style rich, subtle and generous, his plots witty and well crafted. It turns out that these days it is the film world that borrows from comics rather than the other way round. The cycle turns, the snake devours its own tail, so it goes. It would be good if this period of cross-fertilization of media could produce figures of the stature of Will Eisner. My feeling is that(apart from Hellboy), it might not. The film version of the Spirit is a particularly cruel travesty.


About floppybootstomp

Lecturer, teacher, writer and traveller all perfectly good nouns aren't they? Do they have anything to do with me? Ask the taxman.

Posted on June 2, 2010, in Comic Book Classics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I have the suspicion you would find reading Warren Ellis’ book “Do Anything” interesting.

    It’s a collection of the column he wrote for Bleeding Cool.

    Alan Moore makes some comments about the relationship between comics and film in his essay “Writing Comics” as well.

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