The Spirit #1. Art by Will Eisner. Harvey Comics, 1966. TM & © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
Click on the images in this post to see them larger on your screen!
The superhero revival of the 1960s—also known as the Silver Age of Comics—had its not-so-secret origin in the late 1950s when DC Comics brought back some of its Golden Age characters from the 1940s. The Flash started the deluge, followed by Green Lantern, the Atom, and Hawkman. In between those individual hero reboots (all edited by Julius Schwartz), the Justice Society of America became the Justice League of America, featuring Flash and Green Lantern, alongside the few DC heroes who didn’t go away in the 1950s: Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and the new guy, J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter of Mars. Occasionally the backbone of DC, Superman and Batman, stopped by.
Those DC revivals begat the birth of Marvel Comics, because—whether you believe the Martin Goodman and Jack Liebowitz golf story or not, where Liebowitz allegedly bragged about his sales on Justice League—Marvel owner Goodman sniffed something in the air and told editor Stan Lee to come up with a superhero team book. Whether or not he said “And use our older characters,” is up for debate. In Marvel’s Golden Age, their Big Three were Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. All three were revived in the mid ‘50s and just as quickly put back into limbo as Marvel (then known as Atlas Comics) instead concentrated on monsters, westerns, and Millies—as in Millie the Model and Modeling with Millie (not to mention Patsy and Hedy, but there … I just did).
The success of both the DC books and the rising fortunes of the newly-christened Marvel Comics—starting with the launch of Fantastic Four, the above-mentioned Goodman-requested superhero team book with a version of one of their old characters as part of the quartet, the Human Torch—began a superhero renaissance on the newsstands. And then in January of 1966, lightning struck in the form of the Batman TV show on ABC. Superheroes were suddenly money in the bank once again. New companies jumped on the super-bandwagon, like Tower Comics with their T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (do I have to type all these damn periods again?), which we’ll talk about next week—and older companies—like Archie, ACG, Dell, and Harvey—tried their own new lines of spandex-clad characters. Even five-year-old relative newbie Gold Key got in on the action with Magnus, Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom.
Harvey Comics’ less than inspiring “Thriller” line of comics, edited and packaged by Joe Simon. Spyman was created by Jim Steranko, but the only thing he drew was that hand in the bottom left corner. At least Simon brought back his own Fighting American, created with partner Jack Kirby in the 1950s. Art © respective owners.
Harvey’s new “Thriller” line was edited by old comics pro Joe Simon, the erstwhile partner to Jack Kirby. The duo co-created Captain America, the Boy Commandos, the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, and after the war, invented the romance comics genre and contributed heavily to both the crime (Justice Traps the Guilty) and horror (Black Magic) genres. They had stopped off at Harvey Comics before, creating some of their most memorable post-war titles: Stuntman, Boys Ranch, and Boy Explorers. In the late 1950s, Simon and Kirby went their separate ways, with Kirby eventually ending up at soon-to-be Marvel with Stan Lee and Simon becoming an editor and packager of titles at Harvey Comics while also editing Sick magazine, a MAD-like humor publication. During the superhero renaissance in the mid-1960s, Simon brought back his and Kirby’s 1950s superhero, Fighting American for a one-shot reprint title in Harvey’s “Harvey Giant” format, which cost 25¢. And either Simon—or Harvey president and editor Leon Harvey—was smart enough to bring back Will Eisner’s The Spirit for two Harvey Giant issues, reprinting some of the very best of the legendary cartoonist’s comics stories from his ground-breaking syndicated newspaper comic book section.
You thought I was never going to get here, didn’t you?
Will Eisner with his very own Eisner Award, for The Spirit Archives series; the very first Spirit Section from 1940, and one of Eisner’s most memorable section covers. Photo © 2023 SDCC; art © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
When you talk about the greatest creators in American comic books, Will Eisner has to be near the top of the list. He was born in New York City in 1917 and was that rare breed of cartoonist who also had a head for business (he was smart enough to keep the copyright for The Spirit). Along with Jerry Iger, he formed one of the first studios that packaged comic books, creating characters and providing finished stories to publishers. The Eisner-Iger Studio’s primary client was Quality Comics, where Eisner co-created characters like Blackhawk and Doll Man; he also created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle for Fiction House.
A promotional ad for the Spirit Section in the Philadelphia Record Sunday newspaper.
In 1940 Eisner was approached by Quality Comics publisher Everett “Busy” Arnold, who had an idea for a 16-page comic book-sized section to be syndicated to newspapers across the country. Newspaper owners felt the increasing popularity of comic books was impacting their own comics sections, both on a daily and full-color Sunday basis. Arnold’s idea for a weekly comic book section would feature an eight-page story of Eisner’s signature character, “The Spirit,” a decidedly un-superheroic superhero, and a back-up feature (until 1944 that was “Mr. Mystic,” written by Eisner and drawn by Bob Powell, among others, and later “Lady Luck,” originally written by Eisner and drawn by various artists including Nick Cardy and Klaus Nordling; humor strips such as “Clifford” by Jules Feiffer and “Jonesy” by Bernard Dibble filled the remaining pages). The Spirit—formerly detective Denny Colt—got himself killed and then returned to enter into all kinds of adventures involving crime, mayhem, exotic locations, and beautiful women. Eisner went off to war in early 1942, where he stayed stateside, creating a series of maintenance manuals told in comics style for the Army, and returned to The Spirit at the end of 1945. And that’s when he really made the strip into something special.
Just a few of Eisner’s memorable splash pages, which were the covers for the Spirit Section that appeared in more than 20 newspapers across the country each Sunday. © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
Eisner’s work was always cinematic, but during the post-war period from around 1945 through 1950 or so, The Spirit became an amazing weekly showcase for the writer/artist’s work. The cover pages of each section were lessons in design and composition, each its own striking illustration, some like movie mini-posters, others marvels of storytelling, and all of them setting the scene for the next seven pages. His titles sometimes formed into buildings, or dripped into sewers, or flew on the wind as separate pieces of paper.
Two examples of Eisner’s original and printed covers. © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
Eisner’s tales ran the gamut from parable to epic adventure, with just enough spice to intrigue the adult reader, but tame enough for the kiddies. The Spirit lasted as a Sunday newspaper section from 1940 into 1952 (one of the final stories was the epic “The Spirit in Outer Space” storyline illustrated with Wally Wood). During that timespan, The Spirit Section was distributed in 20 different Sunday papers, totaling over five million in circulation. Eisner left the strip in 1952 and returned to doing publications for the U.S. military called P.S. The Preventative Maintenance Monthly, but comics fans never forgot The Spirit.
The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer blew my 10-year-old mind; this Spirit story from 1941 was included in the book, which got a lot of media coverage, including a long article in Playboy magazine.
I was ten years old when I first discovered The Spirit within the pages of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. A hardbound book published in 1965, it featured Feiffer’s reminiscences of growing up with comics. Feiffer was a former assistant to Eisner and had become a cartoonist, playwright, and social commentator, famous for his comic strip, Feiffer, in New York City’s The Village Voice newspaper. He was persuaded by a young editor—E. L. Doctorow, who would go onto his own stellar literary career with fiction books like Ragtime and World’s Fair—to write a book about the comic book heroes who thrilled Feiffer in his youth. The resulting book—published by Dial Press—featured Feiffer’s essay on his childhood heroes and reprinted a number of stories with great reproduction on good paper in a larger format. We had never seen comics look this good. The book was heavy on DC Comics heroes, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Spectre, and a one-page glimpse of Captain Marvel (all that was legally allowed at the time). Timely Comics (Marvel’s predecessor) was represented with Captain America’s origin story (by Simon & Kirby), and separate Human Torch and Sub-Mariner stories, and a lone Quality Comics Plastic Man story, featured his origin by Jack Cole. And bringing up the rear of the book was a story reprinted from the July 20, 1941 Spirit Section by Will Eisner.
This book inspired yet-another shouting match by your humble author in Al-Mart, a discount department store in Allentown, PA, around Christmastime 1965. Shouting at the top of my tiny ten-year-old lungs for my brother after finding The Great Comic Book Heroes on a high bookshelf, I was crestfallen when I found out the price of the book was an exorbitant $9.95, but somehow we ended up going home with it (I think my parents said it would be a holiday present). At that point in time, my brother and I were getting fanzines in the mail on a regular basis, so we were aware of the existence of Golden Age heroes but had never actually seen any comics from that era. And this “Spirit” guy? Never heard of him … and I was distinctly unimpressed with his story in The Great Comic Book Heroes.
What can I say? I was ten. You don’t develop a taste for fine wine until later in life.
Feiffer’s book got media coverage in various magazines and newspapers, including a nine-page article in Playboy (click here to visit Tom Brevoort’s blog to see the whole thing). It also inspired a little mini-revival of the character. He first appeared in an all-new five-page story by Eisner in the pages of the New York Herald-Tribune newspaper in early 1966. And that begat a small, but significant reprinting of 14 Eisner Spirit stories—alongside two new stories—published by Harvey Comics, a few months later.
The covers to both issues of Harvey Comics short-lived Spirit reprint series. © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
My first real appreciation of Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit came with these Harvey Giant reprints, which I discovered on the “world famous” Atlantic City boardwalk in August of 1966. We were on our summer vacation, a once-a-year week away from home at the Jersey Shore, and I remember seeing this (alongside, I THINK, Fighting American #1, also from Harvey) laying flat on the boardwalk outside a narrow storefront newsstand, where various comics and magazines were stacked. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we had no idea something like this was coming. Harvey Comics at that time consisted of kiddie comics like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Dot, and Richie Rich, which would have been doubtful locations for a promotional ad for a new book like The Spirit. And anyway, we stopped buying Harveys when Dick Tracy Comics went away in the early 1960s.
The Spirit #1 included a new seven-page origin story by Will Eisner; the rest of the book was filled with seven reprints from the Spirit Sections. All of them were very different from your standard superhero fare then being put out by Marvel, DC, Tower … even Dell, Gold Key, and Archie. The Spirit was basically a detective, masked but not costumed or caped, and definitely powerless, but skilled in the art of fisticuffs. The art was different, more tongue-in-cheek (although I doubt I knew what that term meant at that point, even though The Spirit often literally had his tongue in his cheek). The stories were mature, more like movies or TV shows. I’m not quite sure how I reacted to them, being such a dyed-in-the-wool superhero fan at that point, indoctrinated so densely by Marvel and DC, but I liked the art and man … they sure were different.
The splash pages for the stories reprinted in Harvey’s The Spirit #1, including the original art to that striking moon page. © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
Harvey’s revival of The Spirit lasted only two issues (each also featured new Eisner covers). The second issue came out more than six months later, cover-dated March 1967. This one also included a new seven-page story featuring the return of The Spirit’s arch-nemesis, The Octopus, plus an additional two-pager and seven reprinted Spirit Section stories. There was a one-page preview of issue #3, but unfortunately Harvey’s interest in superhero—or non-super superhero—comics went away and they returned to the kind of fine comics literature they would become renowned for for the rest of their publishing years: the adventures of super-capitalist Richie Rich, the world’s richest boy.
Eisner’s women were among the sexiest—and smartest—characters in comics. © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.
But those two issues inspired another two issues—sometimes called “The Underground Spirit”—this time published by underground comix cartoonist Denis Kitchen, with new covers and some new stories by Eisner, although the bulk of each book is reprint material from the Spirit Sections. Eisner was fascinated by the freedom the underground cartoonists had to produce their work, which wasn’t distributed through newsstands or other traditional channels. In 1974, James Warren came a’calling and The Spirit got Warren’s signature black-and-white magazine treatment, featuring reprints from the Spirit Sections and new color covers. At this time, Warren started experimenting with painted color in his comics, and some of Eisner’s cover drawings were colored by Richard Corben, or featured Eisner art painted by Warren cover artists like Ken Kelly. Warren’s The Spirit magazine lasted 16 issues. Kitchen Sink picked it up with #17, and continued to publish Spirit comics in various formats into the 1990s when the company folded. They also published Will Eisner Quarterly and The New Adventures of The Spirit, featuring stories by other artists and writers; publisher Denis Kitchen was Eisner’s agent during this time, too.
Kitchen Sink Press “Underground Spirit” #1; Warren’s first issue; and a later comics-sized reprint from KSP.
DC Comics next entered The Spirit reprint fray with an ambitious series of hardcover books featuring all the Spirit Sections in full color. It took 26 volumes to reprint everything in chronological order, including the fairly-awful stories from the early 1940s when Eisner was away in the Army, and the daily strips; Volume 26 featured the various covers and newer art Eisner had created from the 1960s on. After Eisner’s death in 2005, DC revived The Spirit in a series of new comics with art and story by Darwyn Cooke, one of the few modern cartoonists who could fill Eisner’s voluminous shoes. After Cooke left the book, other writers and artists tried, but it wasn’t at the same level that Cooke brought to the book. More recently, Dynamite Comics published new stories of The Spirit, most memorably by Francesco Francavilla, and Clover Press has produced a reprint volume celebrating the characters 80th anniversary in 2020. A new Spirit Artisan Edition, featuring Eisner’s original art, is on its way from IDW, edited by Scott Dunbier, who produced two Spirit Artist’s Editions featuring original art by Eisner at its full size. And sadly, Frank Miller made a Spirit movie in 2008, but the less said about that, the better. Let’s just say his heart was in the right place even if his script and direction weren’t.
Volume 1 of DC’s ambitious Spirit Archives series; Clover Press’s 80th anniversary collection published in 2020, and the cover to the upcoming Spirit Artisan Edition from IDW. © Will Eisner Studio, Inc.
Eisner didn’t just rest on reprints of his work on The Spirit from the 1960s through the early 2000s. He’s regarded as the father of the graphic novel—rightly or wrongly—with his seminal work, A Contract with God, which was first published in 1978. He created numerous graphic novels from that year until his death in 2005, coming back full circle to the world of comics he began his career in in the mid-1930s. Whether he created the graphic novel in actuality is up for debate (retailer/fan Richard Kyle actually coined the phrase), but Eisner put it out there on Contract‘s cover.
His graphic novels include Dropsie Avenue, A Life Force, The Name of the Game, New York: The Big City, Fagin the Jew, In the Heart of the Storm, The Building, and my favorite, his autobiographical work chronicling his start in comics, The Dreamer. His interviews with fellow comics creators, originally published in Kitchen Sink’s Will Eisner Quarterly magazine, were reprinted in a collection titled Shop Talk (another personal fave). He also did a series of instructional books, including Comics and Sequential Art, Graphic Storytelling, and Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative.
Eisner’s work sometimes doesn’t age well, due to racial stereotyping in characters such as Ebony White, which may contribute to its lack of interest in today’s market. But Eisner’s work has remained that of an artist’s artist, one who is revered by both comics professionals and fans. It’s hard not to get sucked into his prime-era Spirit stories and it’s kind of a shame his work has fallen a bit to the wayside. Each March, Will Eisner Week is celebrated—the Comic-Con Museum here in San Diego once again did a day-long series of panels on Eisner and graphic novels—during his birthday month of March (I’m a couple weeks late, sorry to say). Eisner never lost sight of the idea he had from the very beginning of his career: that comics were truly an art form. His namesake, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, celebrates that each and every year. And I’ll always remember where I first found him, in a 25-cent comic book on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, almost 60 years ago. I still have that comic, along with issue #2 (both are pictured above), and I’ll treasure them always. That’s the Spirit, I guess.
The last panel of the new Spirit story in Harvey Comics issue #2. © Will Eisner Studio, Inc.
Next time: Another new publisher appears on the 1960s newsstand when Tower Comics introduces Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents!
To read all the “Tales from My Spinner Rack” posts, click here!
Leave a Reply