When it comes to comic-book heroes, Will Eisner's Spirit has always played by his own rules - which explains why he's so revered by fans and artists, even more than a half-century after his adventures stopped being published regularly.
This week, a new generation of moviegoers are being introduced to The Spirit, thanks to the Frank Miller-directed film that opened in theaters yesterday. Miller, the man who reinvented Batman as The Dark Knight back in the 1980s, was a long-time protege of Eisner, who introduced The Spirit in 1940. For years, he says, he has wanted to bring Eisner's vision to the big screen.
"He's the Moses of comic books. He was the guy who led us all to the Promised Land," Miller recently told The Orlando Sentinel. "Other people were inventing Superman and Batman; he thought those guys looked like circus clowns. His idea of a hero was ... a guy with a fedora and a bright red tie and a black trench coat."
True enough. In the age of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America, superheroes with mythic powers who blithely ignored danger and were all but invulnerable, The Spirit was a regular guy who fought crime with his wits as much as his fists, who hurt when he took a punch (and he took a lot of them).
At a time when comic-book characters seemed to exist in some alternate reality, where good and evil were painted in fairly basic colors, The Spirit existed in a world very much like ours, populated with working grunts and women anxious for a break, where everything shone in shades of gray. And in a medium where characters appeared in self-contained stories published monthly, The Spirit comic book showed up in newspapers every week, in stories that often foreshadowed what would happen in the next issue.
"Eisner had already created the graphic novel, way back in the 1940s," says Steve Geppi, president of Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors. "He was a genius at making your brain work. When you were finished reading this little eight-pager, you felt like you were reading a novel."
"He was more than an artist," says Denis Kitchen, who met Eisner in 1971 and published his work for nearly three decades. "He was an auteur. He could do it all."
Like his superhero contemporaries, The Spirit had an origin story, even a secret identity of sorts. His real name was Denny Colt, and he had been a detective in the fictional burg of Central City (a thinly disguised New York, Eisner's hometown). After Colt is killed and buried, he turns up alive, explaining to his friend, Police Commissioner Dolan, that he had actually fallen into suspended animation, the victim of an experiment by the evil Dr. Cobra.
After clawing his way out of his grave, he set up shop in Wildwood Cemetery, put on a black mask (Eisner's editors insisted on a costume, so he went as minimalist as possible) and used his newfound anonymity to fight crime.
Eisner, who died in 2005 at 87, never aimed his work at the kids who made Superman so popular; he always craved an adult audience, one that could appreciate the world-weariness and gravitas infusing his pages. Film noir, with its dark themes and subversive undercurrents, began developing as a film genre about the same time.
For years, Eisner told the Associated Press in 1998, he had been "producing comic books for 15-year-old cretins from Kansas." But with The Spirit, he saw his audience as "a 55-year-old who had his wallet stolen on the subway. You can't talk about heartbreak to a kid."
The Spirit sections, a separate comic supplement delivered with the Sunday papers, ran from 1940 to 1952. At its peak, the sections ran in 20 newspapers (including The Sun) and had a readership of some 5 million - far more than any of his comic-book contemporaries, whose adventures didn't enjoy the luxury of home delivery. And even though more than 50 years have passed since the character was retired (only a handful of new Spirit stories have been written since 1952), comic fandom has never forgotten him. The original comics have been reprinted often, and one of the comic industry's most coveted awards is known as the Eisner.
"When you think of the top guys in comics," says Geppi, also owner of Geppi's Entertainment Museum at Camden Yards, "you think of Eisner, Carl Barks (Donald Duck), John Stanley (Little Lulu), Charles Schulz (Peanuts). These were iconic guys, who really created something special."
online Watch a preview and see more photos from The Spirit at baltimoresun.com/movies