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Gratitude and goodbye to Will Eisner, whose comic 'The Spirit' is the epitome of great American art

Copyright Will Eisner
Copyright Will Eisner

Will Eisner died on Monday. I had a truly terrible night, hardly sleeping, racked by thoughts and the minor pains accumulated from a life badly led. Much of the time, whatever I've been reading or watching before I go to sleep becomes the tonal voice of my dreams. I had watched a Columbo episode from the recently released first season on DVD, so my dreams were drenched in that voice and attitude. It's not that I think I am Columbo or that I'm in a Columbo-esque narrative; it's the tone of the show permeating my dreams: one of questioning, of fictional naïveté, of answers being dodges, and of Falk's voice, a jumble more than a coherent mode. In a night that proved to be already tortured, I took a bath at about 4am, just to ease some of the aches. At about 6:30am, I went outside to get the papers. On the bottom of the front page of The New York Times was a Spirit cover, in color, from Nov. 2, 1941, above the headline "Pioneer of Comics Is Dead."

Now, Will Eisner was 87, and though he was consistently productive and often brilliant throughout the more than six decades of his career, his greatest work was clearly the 12-year run of The Spirit. At first, instead of mourning, I did as I always do when looking at Eisner's Spirit art: just enjoyed the color image, the always beautiful design, smart lettering, and inspired use of color. In a night drenched in my own failures, this was a moment of curative pleasure. Even before reading the headline, I knew when I saw the image it meant Eisner was dead, but that did not impact my pleasure.

Inside, there was an obituary, on page C14. The third paragraph began, "Comics fans called The Spirit 'The Citizen Kane' of comics for its innovation, its seriousness, and its influence." Further down, the obituary notes, "His seriousness helped bring mainstream attention to works like Art Spiegelman's 'Maus' and Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis.'"

"Seriousness!" "Seriousness" is a term they have to use, of course; they are referring to a man who wrote and drew (and edited and produced) comic books. They want to clue you, the general reader, into noting that there is something going on here. Something very important – not just comic books, but something serious! He didn't just create comic books, but did "serious" work. They make special note that Eisner coined the term for and birthed the form of the "graphic novel."

"Seriousness!" Rarely has a major American talent been done such a grave disservice in his obituary. "Deliriousness," perhaps! Whimsy, imagination, unbridled creative vision, visual innovation, mature comic-book innovation, stunning storytelling, unparalleled influential visual style, certainly! But seriousness – posh on that! That is a denigration of Eisner, a term appropriate to a comic-book creator a whole lot less important than he was. Don't bridle this great genius of the imagination with that classroom term!

Even though he invented the term "graphic novel," let's stick to comic books here. Let us give genius its due; let us now honor great men!

The Spirit debuted June 2, 1940, as part of a 16-page insert offered to daily newspapers to place into their Sunday editions. Similar to a comic-strip section but in the tabloid format of a comic book, it featured separate stories on three characters: The Spirit, Lady Luck, and Mr. Mystic. From the beginning, the team that produced the book included some of the most gifted comic artists of all time; Lou Fine and Bob Powell were there at the start, and at one time or another, the team included the truly great Jack Cole (Plastic Man), Jules Feiffer, and the gifted, tragic genius Wally Wood (though when I knew Wood he was more of a classic blond Teutonic legend, producing brilliant work and always surrounded by acolytes). The book lasted until 1952.

The Spirit was criminologist Denny Colt, who was thought murdered but who "returned from the grave" to fight crime behind a blue mask and a code name. He had no special powers, physical skills, or unusual intelligence. More than anything, outside of his usually goofy charm and unquenchable boyishness, he existed to drive the stories.

What dazzling stories they are. They are driven by only one rule: There are no rules. The stand-alone comics section had to open with an eye-grabbing page, and often on it the Spirit logo was writ large, with action occurring all over it and shrunk small, as a tale was told in a noir style. But sometimes Eisner set the story as a children's storybook tale, sometimes as a classic nursery rhyme or a science fiction escapade or a Western fable, or a horror tale that began with a close-up image of an eye more akin to the work of Dario Argento than any of Eisner's comic-book art contemporaries.

There are those who must be given their due. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, changing the world of comic books forever. Bob Kane and (just as importantly) writer Bill Finger created Batman, and several decades later Frank Miller reimagined him and re-created comic-book storytelling at the same time. At Fawcett, editor Wendell Crowley, artist C.C. Beck, and writer Otto Binder tackled new frontiers of storytelling with Captain Marvel, while at Quality, Eisner's Spirit and Cole's Plastic Man – along with work by Fine and Powell, among others – graced comic books with unique imaginations. EC comics matured the vocabulary as no other company had. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby reinvented the visual narrative a number of times, and then Kirby hooked up with Stan Lee (at the same time Steve Ditko and the gang were provided full front four support) to take comics to the next level at Marvel.

But Will Eisner and The Spirit drew the map that showed the way; they created the comic-book equivalent of Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, and nothing that came after was ever the same. In art, it really doesn't matter who was first but who was best, and Will Eisner stood alone.

But, mostly, the work was fun. I first remember reading The Spirit in two 1966 reprints from Harvey comics: Stories about why even master criminals shouldn't cross a witch, about a talking cockroach, a flying plate, a boy who could fly who then grew into a man and was accidentally shot dead while showing the world he could fly, and about a weatherman not from Earth. Stories that evoked the fatalism of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, the idiosyncrasies of love like Joseph Lewis' Gun Crazy, and the sheer lunacy of Frank Tashlin, all while pushing the panel-storytelling conventions until they burst apart.

The Spirit features the most stunning women on the sexier side of Milton Caniff (those familiar with that terrain know just how limited an area it is). Eisner's creation was a true heir to the greats, to Winsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland and the surreal George Herriman's Krazy Kat, and except for Jack Cole's Plastic Man, stands alone among his contemporaries.

"Art" is a word so often misused – or used to marginalize people or condemn or separate. Here was truly great art in a comic book in the Sunday newspaper. Art of spirit and spiritual, of imagination and knowledge, of vision and love, art blessed by God's breath more than any religious ceremony I've ever attended.

The work has been reprinted again and again, by Warren comics (home to Creepy and Eerie), by Kitchen Sink Enterprises, and, most recently, a complete, multivolume reprinting of every Spirit ever in hardcover by DC Comics. I have nearly complete runs of all, as well as a few original editions: one from a Sunday, October 1946, Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger found at a flea market in Red Bank, N.J.; one from a Feb. 16, 1941 Philadelphia Record in a used bookstore in upstate New York.

In drunken frenzies at too many parties over the years, I've forced Spirit reprints on the uninitiated, people who should not live a day longer without knowing The Spirit (some of which were returned, some weren't). If you care about comic books, about great American art and great artists, if you believe that jazz and baseball are more important American contributions to the world than the assembly line and, maybe, even the Federalist Papers, read The Spirit. Eisner's graphic novels are great, but don't go there; they are, if anything, serious.

Read The Spirit. It is a comic book. It represents the best of this country and the best of people in seven- or eight-page stories. It changed my life. May it grace yours.

Thank you, Will Eisner, and goodbye.

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Will Eisner, The Spirit, comics, graphic novel, Columbo, The New York Times, Citizen Kane, Art Spiegelman, Maus, Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, Lady Luck, Mr. Mystic, Lou Fine, Bob Powell, Jack Cole, Plastic Man, Jules Feiffer, Wally Wood, Denny Colt

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