The Spirit #49 and #52 (Kitchen Sink, 1988)

The Spirit was created by Will Eisner. The story is written and drawn by Will Eisner, and one imagines, his studio mates. This particular comic was published by Kitchen Sink Press, as part of a b 7 w reprint series that was progressing through the Sunday inserts of Eisner’s Spirit strips.

Will Eisner is an easy comics makes to love, and a hard one to like. It’s harder still, I think, to read a lot of Eisner’s comics back to back. This is in spite of the fact that one of the most prestigious comics awards is named after him. This fact– that of the recognition Eisner deserves and the relative neglect he gets from actual comics reader– can be addressed by considering a number of factors: Eisner wasn’t part of comics fandom; Eisner’s work got out there in kind of strange ways; Eisner’s concerns visibly matured in his work even when his readers didn’t; a million other reasons. But I think the big issue is that Eisner is a cool artist, in the jazz sense, interested in craft and surface flash, when comics moved in a different direction, more on the hot side of things, with great beads of sweat and Kirby crackle.

What does it mean to talk about cool in terms of comics-making? To me, it means a certain kind of critical distance from the material: we are never asked to “be” the Spirit, and even if we should want to do that, Eisner himself undercuts that sense by not “being” the Spirit himself– instead, most of Eisner’s Spirit stories feature one or several frames; in the issue at hand, which collects four stories, two feature an external text (a rhyme, a typed monologue) to frame the action and give it meaning, and another one has a framing speech that functions similar to the other two textual devices only it takes place in real time.

It matters, too, I think, that Eisner’s characters are types– it helps Eisner tremendously that he knows lots of types: the femme fatale and the good girl, the urchin, the bumbling bureaucrat, the hood and the neglectful mother– but types these remain, in the sense of EM Forster’s description, flat characters. They don’t evolve away from their type; we might go deeper into their motivations (though this is rare) but they aren’t complicated. Instead of living, breathing beings we root for, the characters are really as lifelike as the kind of lead miniatures I used to use when I played D & D; Eisner’s genius is not in creating characters, but in the way he poses them on the page.

And really, in this aspect Eisner is a genius. His panel compositions, and even moreso, the transitions between panels, are masterful; his skills in this area are unmatched, I think. Note the ease and panache on display in this page, where The Spirit gets into a fight at a playground, the athleticism and sheer joy of the sequence.

Here, it perfectly scores the tone of the scene: after all, a fight in a playground should be fun, and in this case at least, the stakes are pretty low: we’ve got three hoods out to kill each other, it’s three bad guys who mean each other harm, and the Spirit gives them each some harm, but without killing them. But most importanty, the Spirit is winning, and we root for him to be graceful and victorious.

Eisner will do the same, though, when it doesn’t suit the  moment as well. Note the same kind of acrobatic panache on display here, on skis:

Here, though the Spirit is defeated and the money is lost, on the surface of the art, things are as smooth as ever.

Here, again, we see a wonderfully choreographed sequence, but it is one where things go wrong: for one, someone dies, and the loot is lost. And for another, the Spirit is foiled, at least temporarily. But Eisner plays both scenes the same way, as a place where he can show his amazing chops. This is what I think is at the essence of Eisner’s cool: that he plays the scene the same way– as a flawless virtuoso– whatever happens. The work is not expressive of its grander themes, but rather is a vehicle to show the skills of the creator, and looking elsewhere for narrative means of expression is silly and beside the point.

It’s not like comics had to evolve the way they did; it’s possible to imagine a comics that owes more to Eisner than it currently does, one where character and even narrative is secondary to the artist, but I don’t think we’ve seen those comics. Even a book like, let’s say Ditko’s Spiderman, which on the one hand seems cool (think of the classic sequence from ASM #34 when Spidey is buried under that giant piece of machinery, a set-piece that probably delighted Eisner) instead becomes focused on the singular character overcoming the machine and his personal guilt; think of it as persona in machina, if you’ll permit me to butcher Latin in that way.

persona in machina

Most of comics, though, have evolved along the more purely Marvel way, which I take to be the legacy of Jack “The King” Kirby, who’d been working in mainstream comics as long as Eisner. And Kirby’s work, despite it’s surface eccentricities of character design, is almost purely a “hot” approach, interested above all with the heroic struggle of his characters, whether it is earth shaking or entirely personal. Look, for example, at this panel from Fantastic Four #22, when Reed Richards has to confront a caller who’s dialed the wrong number.

Don’t you hate wrong numbers?

Or else, consider this, a reaction shot from Fantastic Four #21, which tells us how we ought to react to the revelation that the Hate Monger was actually Hitler all along. This core emotionalism of Kirby is meant to induce an emotional response from readers, and this “hot” style has come to characterize comics as they evolved into increasingly operatic struggles.

The Hate Monger was… Hitler!

 

Of course, no style is so dominant you can’t see anything else. After all, look at these Eisner faces:

Lighten the line a little, and you’ll see where I’m going.

It;s hard to know just what is happening here, but somewhere along the way, Eisner’s usual line weight has let up a little.And the result is that suddenly it’s like we’re seeing one of Dave Sim’s caricatures.

Mick, an unnamed moptop, and Thatcher.

 

Of course, Sims work in this instance veers a little more toward the grotesque. And maybe my point isn’t even all that interesting– that when he see such attention to surface details– as we do in Spirit and Cerebus, maybe we should read these as “cool” works. I;d be the first to grant that Sim’s editorials and later insertions into the text make his work more “expressive” that Eisner’s, but maybe not in a way that makes it traditionally a “hot” book– after all, we know by issue 100 how it will end.

At any rate, a few clear points: one, Eisner’s skills are at odd with what most comics-makers do, even though he is respected but maybe not loved. Two, we can make sense of those feelings and how they work and don’t work for readers. And, though it’s maybe the road-less-taken, it’s not the road never taken in contemporary comics.

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