In 1939, a 22-year-old Will Eisner was approached by Quality publisher Busy Arnold and a man named Henry Martin, who was the sales manager for the Register & Tribune Newspaper Syndicate. The men had a radical idea. Concerned about the growing competition they faced from comic books where young readers were concerned, the men proposed that Eisner produce for them a weekly 16-page comic book, which would be syndicated nationwide, appearing in Sunday papers across the country. Wise beyond his years, Eisner saw the artistic and financial potential this new venture brought, and negotiated a partnership agreement which granted him complete ownership of the characters and material, a move unheard of in the comics publishing of the time. Eisner thought that it was his artistic ability that gave him the extra leverage to gain this kind of agreement. As he later discovered, they were less concerned with quality than with reliability: after all, this would be appearing every week, come rain or shine, and Eisner was one of the few producers thought able to pull it off.
Eisner sold his half of E & I to Iger, and threw himself into the new project. The 16-page section would be split into three features: four pages for Chuck Mazoujian’s LADY LUCK, five pages for Bob Powell’s MR. MYSTIC, and seven pages for the feature Eisner himself would produce. Eisner had long thought that the comic-book medium was capable of work much more sophisticated than was commercially viable in the monthly magazines. With a syndicated weekly newspaper release, Eisner would have access to an older, more adult reader, and far more flexibility than was possible with a daily newspaper strip. Eisner truly had gained the best of both worlds: the length and format of comic books and the much larger and more mature audience of comic strips.
For the lead feature, Eisner wanted a detective strip, with a very vulnerable, human protagonist, miles away from the Supermen that were ruling over comics at the time. Eisner’s hero, Denny Colt, would wear no costume, sporting a blue suit, gloves and a fedora, with a domino mask and the flashier alias “The Spirit” added at the insistence of the syndicate, who wanted something a little closer to the mystery men of the day.
In the premiere appearance, criminologist Denny Colt pays a visit to Central City Police Commissioner Dolan, letting him know that he’s on the trail of criminal scientist Dr. Cobra. Colt tracks down Dr. Cobra, and in attempting to apprehend him is drenched in a mysterious chemical, seemingly killing him. Dolan and the police arrive on the scene, and, assuming Colt dead, haul him away to a waiting grave in Wildwood Cemetery. However, it turns out the chemical only put Colt in a death-like state of suspended animation, which was a real bummer when he woke up the next night six feet under. Presumed dead by the world, Colt assumes the identity of “The Spirit,” to go after criminals beyond the reach of the police, taking up residence in a hidden HQ beneath Denny Colt’s crypt in Wildwood Cemetery, with only Commissioner Dolan and his daughter Ellen knowing who The Spirit is and where he can be found.
Commercially the strip was an immediate success, with some newspapers citing a 10% gain in circulation as a result of the Sunday insert. Creatively, the strip was certainly entertaining, and head and shoulders above anything else in crime comics, but nowhere near the heights it would later reach. In 1942 Eisner was drafted, but THE SPIRIT, whose subscribing newspapers had tripled, continued right on schedule, with art by Lou Fine and scripts from Manley Wade Welman, Dick French and Jack Cole.
It wasn’t until Eisner returned to THE SPIRIT after World War II in 1946 that the strip really began to hit its stride. Eisner was revitalized in returning to the work, and began to alter his approach to the already innovative strip. He had already begun to vary his storytelling, not always utilizing the Spirit as the center of the story. In addition, with only eight pages to work with each week, Eisner couldn’t afford the luxury of a traditional cover. Instead, Eisner began to use his opening splash page to immediately set the mood and draw the reader into the story, while incorporating the “Spirit” logo somewhere in the background, often as part of the landscape.
In the postwar years, Eisner really began to treat the Spirit as more of an anti-hero, becoming less and less the straight-shooting good guy he was at the series’ inception. More to the point, often the Spirit was only peripherally involved in his own adventures, as Eisner focused on telling a wide variety of stories, from comedy to tragedy, parable to suspense, with a brief appearance by the Spirit to keep the reader connected to the strip as a whole. Just as Eisner was experimenting with story, so was he experimenting with art as well.
The storytelling became wildly different from week to week, mixing traditional panel-to-panel storytelling with prose sections, utilizing layout in brand-new ways to convey sensations or sounds, at times breaking format entirely when the story called for it. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
In the December 8, 1946, Spirit Section entitled “The Killer,” Eisner introduces us to Henry, a henpecked nebbish who finds new validation and confidence once he’s drafted, until the day he’s discharged, and finds himself back in his miserable job with his harridan wife. Circumstances place a gun in his hand, and the viewpoint changes, as we now see the world literally through Henry’s eyes as he makes some drastic changes in his life, in the process rescuing the kidnapped Spirit.
The story closes with another prospective Henry back from the war, clearly also dreading a return to civilian life. Eisner’s innovative perspective places us physically inside Henry’s skull, showing us his point of view while at the same time distancing us from the world around him, allowing us to maintain a horrified detachment.
In “Two Lives,” (December 11, 1948) Eisner makes use of parallel storytelling to show us the similarities in the travails of two men, unknowingly identical, whose paths are about to cross. One man a henpecked husband, the other an escaped inmate, both are desperate to escape their respective fates. They switch identities, and we see in the final parallel panels, as Eisner quotes Gilbert and Sullivan, how the punishment fits the crime. The Spirit, by the way, appears in exactly two panels of the eight-page story. The reader never misses him.
Eisner plays with the reader’s conception of time in “Ten Minutes,” (September 11, 1949), which opens with a sensational hook:
With the clock ticking on every successive page, we watch as a desperate Freddy makes his first step down the wrong path when he murders a local merchant, then follow the desperate killer as he tries to get out of town, with first the police and then the Spirit on his heels. It all ends badly for Freddy, and the story ends with a bystander’s unknowing remark, bringing it full circle: “What’s ten minutes in a man’s life?”
Eisner created a number of femmes fatale for the Spirit to contend with. There was Sand Saref, a girl from Denny Colt’s youth turned smuggler and black marketer, who the Spirit could never bring himself to apprehend.
In “Wild Rice,” (April 4, 1948) the Spirit ran afoul of Rice Wilder, a spoiled rich girl who took up with the worst element in order to escape the trapped feeling that came with her family’s high-society life, and paid the ultimate price for it.
When local truckers were losing their cargo and their lives, the Spirit met up with “Lorelei Rox,” (September 19, 1948) a modern-day siren with a voice that could kill.
But when it came to femmes fatales, none could compete with P’Gell, the gorgeous international black widow who moved from husband to husband, from scheme to scheme, sometimes pausing in her plans to either try to tempt the Spirit away from the righteous path, or occasionally to warn him of some dire threat that was about to befall him. Eisner’s women were usually dangerous, sometimes tragic and always damned sexy.
Eisner makes heavy uses of inks and blacks in “The Embezzler,” (November 27, 1949) which tells the story of Quadrant J. Stet, an accountant who finds himself going blind, and needs an expensive operation to save his vision. When an amount of money goes missing at his firm, Dolan and the Spirit are called in to interrogate Mr. Stet. As it turns out, it’s a frame-up job, and Stet finds himself at the mercy of his fading vision as his life is threatened by the real embezzler. Eisner uses a series of empty and distorted panels to put the reader in the shoes of the panicked Mr. Stet, to excellent effect.
One of the most unusual of the Spirit sections is “The Story of Rat-Tat the Toy Machine Gun.” (September 4, 1949) Eisner uses the format of a children’s reading primer to tell the story of how a toy machine gun winds up involved in one of the Spirit’s cases, with explosive results. Stories like this one really show off Eisner’s range as an artist and designer, which combine his ability to draw both gritty action and cartoony fantasy, with neither feeling out of place or overpowered.
Probably the most famous of the Spirit sections is “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble.” (September 5, 1948) Another of Eisner’s luckless schlubs, Gerhard Shnobble is a 35-year veteran bank guard who is fired when he’s unable to stop a robbery. Desperate to prove he is of value, Gerhard suddenly remembers that as a child, he discovered he could fly, until his parents forbade it, insisting he be normal. Determined to show the world, Gerhard heads to the top of a nearby building, where the Spirit is coincidentally headed to stop the same bank robbers. Gerhard leaps off the building and indeed can fly … at least for a moment or two.
Eisner uses full-page spreads to express the feeling of height when Gerhard is in flight, and as he does in many of his later stories, utilizes the narrator’s voice to provide a bit of poetic irony. “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” is everything that made THE SPIRIT great: funny, whimsical and tragic, with a spare but elegiac tone in the narration and breakthrough storytelling unlike any seen before.