Sunday, January 04, 2009

Vacation Reading: THE BEST OF THE SPIRIT

The Best of the Spirit is a book I had read several years ago, courtesy of the local library, however it recently came up as a selection of my (Comic)Book Club for this month. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this month's meeting/drink-up, so I neglected to pick up a copy. Fortunately, the weather on the night in question proved apocalyptic, so I learned on Christmas Eve that it had been pushed back to Jan. 2, so I grabbed a copy and threw it in my suitcase.

This book contains various stories from The Spirit Sunday newspaper supplement from 1941 through 1950 and (I believe) they are all seven pages long. The single fact that they are all so short is shocking considering the amount of information and story they contain. Will Eisner's art is very good and you can see it evolve throughout the book, from the very "puply" style of the first few stories, to a much more cartoonish style towards the end. And some of the title pages are just jaw-dropping, employing techniques that Jim Steranko would use to drop jaws forty years later.

Here are two as examples:

The stories themselves are very good and the wide range of story-telling styles employed (standard comics, text with pictures, story-book-like, etc.) is just incredible when you consider that it was all done by one author. The hardest part about judging the stories is that you have to keep reminding yourself that Eisner is inventing this stuff. It's kind of like when I watched Citizen Kane for the first time a few years ago and I realized that I'd already seen the whole movie in various bits on The Simpsons, it's almost impossible to understand how revolutionary this stuff was, since so many of these things have been woven into the tapestry that is comics today.

One of the best things that Eisner does so well, is that he recognizes that the Spirit himself is one of the least interesting characters in the book, and as you get to the later stories, the Spirit becomes less of a character int he stories and instead is a macguffin or a force of nature that moves the stories forward, sometimes appearing only in a single panel or not at all.

Overall, the box at the top of the title page promises Action, Mystery, Adventure! and this book does deliver. The only mark against this book are the absolutely horrible racial caricatures, particularly of Ebony, the Spirit's cab-driving side-kick. They are indefensible other than to say that they are a product of their time.

As for the recent movie, ever since I saw the first images, I had a feeling that it wasn't for me, coming from "Whores, Whores N' More Whores!" Frank Miller, I had a feeling it would stray from what I've always liked about this character. After reading Doctor K's recent negative review, and Conditional Jeff's thoughtful notes on why he was skipping out on it and I decided that life's too short to waste my time and money on a movie that I know that I'd hate (though I will rent it, since I bizarrely consider Netflix "free"). All I can say, is considering the movie made about $1.25 in it's first weekend, hopefully that means we won't get subjected to Frank Miller's "vision" of Buck Rogers.

Other recommended reading: To see a big-name comics creator do right by the character, definitely check out Darwyn Cooke's first collection of DC's recent re-launch of The Spirit. It contains six, very good done-in-one stories, and Cooke & Jeph Loeb's The Spirit/Batman team-up, which is a hoot.

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