Eisner’s Got Spirit

Friday February 1, 2008

The name Will Eisner resonates with comic book fans as one of the most influential, acclaimed comic book writers, artists, and entrepreneurs. He lectured on comic book art, helped establish the graphic novel genre, and founded a cartooning studio. One of his greatest accomplishments was helping newspapers keep up with the ever expanding comic book industry with his creation of The Spirit.

The masked crime fighter debuted on June 2, 1940 as part of a Sunday newspaper comic book insert. The comic followed the adventures of a vigilante fighting crime with the approval of the police commissioner, an old friend of his. Originally he was a detective named Denny Colt, though after the first few issues, his identity is rarely mentioned. In the first three pages of the first story he was presumed dead, but later revealed to his friend, Commissioner Dolan that he’d been put in suspended animation by archvillian Dr. Cobra. When he woke in Wildwood Cemetery, he made it his base of operations and used the anonymity to fight crime as The Spirit.

Unlike most comics of the time, The Spirit was distributed in a newspaper. Everett “Busy” Arnold, the publisher of Quality Comics was exploring ways to expand Sunday newspaper supplements and began looking through existing Quality Comics material for a story. He liked Eisner’s work the best and wanted to run The Spirit. In a 1979 interview, Eisner recalled, in “late ’39, just before Christmas time he (Arnold) came to me and said that the Sunday newspapers were looking for a way of getting into this comic book boom.” Eisner was brought into a meeting with sales manager of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate, Henry Martin, who told him that newspapers were going to compete with comics, thus they needed a comic insert and asked him to do it. This put Eisner in a difficult position as his company Eisner & Iger, which produced comics on demand for publishers, was quite successful and to work on the Comic Book Section in newspapers, he’d have to leave it. After wrestling over the opportunities and possible consequences, he made the decision to do the Sunday comic.

An exciting feature of The Spirit, was that the new series gave Eisner an adult audience to write for. Rather than focus on one genre, The Spirit covered many styles from light adventure to crime drama and noir to mystery and horror to comedy and love stories. Often the different styles braided together changing and challenging readers’ expectations. He wanted to create a character that was not a superhero, though was a crime fighter. Eisner explained, “They wanted an heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he’d have a costume. And I put a mask on him and said, ‘Yes, he has a costume!’” His regular outfit of the 1940s gumshoe business suit, fedora, and gloves combine with the mask made The Spirit a popular Sunday read for years to come.

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