Monday, December 22, 2008

The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner (introduction by Neil Gaiman)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

The name Will Eisner is synonymous with groundbreaking comics, and his most famous and most widely acclaimed creation is criminologist Denny Colt, left for dead and prematurely buried, but escaped from the grave and revived as a crimefighter known only as "The Spirit."

The Best of The Spirit culls twenty-two stories from the dozen-year run of The Spirit, with two early selections (including the 1940 origin story). The vast majority, however, come from the postwar period, with 1946, 1948, and 1949 the most heavily represented. The introduction by Neil Gaiman (author of The Sandman series) acknowledges Eisner's influence on him and otherwise reinforces Eisner's importance to the medium (the community's annual awards are named after him).

Since I'm not a comics historian, I'll have to take his word on whether Eisner's work was ahead of its time. But what I can vouch for is the readability of The Best of The Spirit. These are short, seven-page dark crime stories often blended with human interest, the drama of the common man. Sometimes criminals are redeemed. Sometimes victims triumph despite the odds. But always, right wins over wrong — often with an ironic twist that makes the justice more delicious.

The comics format allows Eisner to combine mature storytelling with Dick Tracy-style character names (like Silk Satin, Rice Wilder, and Sand Saref) and not have the latter detract from the former. People just don't stand for that sort of thing in prose, but inside the format of four-color illustration, somehow it's OK. Even hardboiled crime fans who usually scoff at the graphic format (like me) will be pleased, because these are mature tales whose quality is immediately evident and that remain instantly accessible to modern audiences, despite their circa-World War II origins.

The Best of The Spirit is a terrific introduction to Eisner's style, particularly his combination of the trappings of film noir with an occasional dose of slapsticky humor. And it especially succeeds at its primary intent: through an affordable sampling, to pique people's interest in the full Spirit Archives series of hardcover volumes.

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