Behind the Screens

Who is The Spirit?

A look inside the character’s long history, with help from director Frank Miller.

December 21, 2008

Greg Dean Schmitz, Guest Commentator

By: Greg Dean Schmitz
Fandango Film Commentator

The Spirit

The Spirit

On Christmas Day, the latest movie based on a comic book hero, The Spirit, comes to theaters, but many people may be asking: Who’s The Spirit? He may not be a household name like most movie superheroes, but the character actually has a rich history that dates back to 1940 and the Golden Age of Comics. The movie’s director, Frank Miller, is one of the comics industry’s greats, responsible for creating 300 and Sin City, helping popularize Wolverine and Daredevil and revitalizing Batman in the 1980s with his groundbreaking graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Miller was a longtime friend of Spirit creator Will Eisner (1917-2005), and recently he gave us some insight into The Spirit’s history.

The comic book as we know it didn’t exist until the late 1930s. Before then, the closest things were compilations of “funny pages” that originally appeared in newspapers. In 1938, a title called Action Comics debuted, focusing on adventure stories, and its star was Superman, the first true superhero. Within months, newsstands became crowded with competitors to both Action Comics and Superman: Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman were among the dozens to come in the next few years. Comic books were achieving success outside the Sunday funnies, but someone had an idea how to keep newspapers in on the superhero business.

Miller explains, “Max Gaines, the father of William Gaines [founder of MAD Magazine], created a comic insert for newspapers. Along the way, entrepreneur Will Eisner decided to create a superhero comic for it. Batman and Superman were popular, but Eisner thought they looked like clowns, so he just created a guy in a fedora and a trench coat. The editor asked, where is his costume? Eisner, not wanting to waste a penny or a moment, put a mask on him.” And thus was created The Spirit.

(Although the character is often referred to as Will Eisner’s The Spirit, I asked Miller about whether the movie should really be called Frank Miller’s The Spirit, considering that the movie looks very much like his Sin City. He responded, “A guy in a blue suit looks stupid on the big screen, so I made it black. I made it fiercer because we live in fierce times.”)

The Spirit The only other way you’d know The Spirit was a “superhero” springs from his origin story, in which he is a detective who is killed and comes back to life (hence his name), and is now seemingly indestructible. In all other regards, however, The Spirit was much more of a character of the “pulp fiction” genre, complete with a large cast of femme fatale romantic interests and an arch-nemesis, The Octopus, who was only seen as a pair of hands. (In the movie version, Samuel L. Jackson is seen very prominently as the Octopus, including in a series of fantastic costume changes.) The Spirit comic was also memorable for Eisner’s innovation of creative opening title panels, which often used background elements like buildings or hanging clotheslines to spell out T-H-E S-P-I-R-I-T. Eisner and artists like Lou Fine contributed to the evolution of how dynamic action could be portrayed in comic art, in scenes that seemed to jump from the page.

Eisner got the ball rolling, but world events would soon cause him to hand the character off to a succession of other artists, as he was drafted two years later in 1942 to serve in the World War II effort creating promotional posters and cartoons for the military magazine, Army Motors. Among the artists who worked on The Spirit during Eisner’s three-year absence was in fact Lou Fine, who is today recognized as one of the greatest comic book artists ever, known for his immaculate use of fine pen work.

Eisner returned to The Spirit and continued until the strip and series ended in 1952. Asked about how The Spirit’s popularity would have compared to the character’s contemporaries like Batman and Superman, Miller simply said, “the series continued for 14 years.” Eisner had other ambitions as an artist. “He lost interest in the 1950s. Who wouldn’t?” Miller continued. “I did Daredevil for three years, and lost interest in the fourth. He turned it over to Jules Pfeiffer and Wallace Wood, and it became The Outer Space Spirit, where the Spirit goes to the Moon.”

Batman/Spirit The original newspaper comic strip run of The Spirit may have ended in 1952, but a fascination with the character continued within the comic book fan community for the next five decades. In the 1970s, Warren Publications reprinted much of The Spirit’s back catalogue in magazine form, with Kitchen Sink continuing the effort in the 1980s, including much of the post-World War II stories that Warren didn’t. In the 1990s, a further revitalization of The Spirit came in a 1996-1997 series of completely new stories created by some of the comic industry’s biggest stars, like Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman). The Spirit’s true return to the limelight started in 2007 when DC Comics published a Batman/Spirit crossover which has led to the character joining the “DC Universe,” and his own DC Comics title that started earlier this year.

Will Eisner, for his part, certainly did not retire just because he retired The Spirit. He became the leading proponent of the concept of the “graphic novel,” using comic-style art in book form as a more mature form of story telling than what was commonly associated with “comic books.” Some were often semi-autobiographical, like A Contract with God and The Dreamer. We can thank Eisner’s innovations in this field for paving the way for such intelligent titles as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. Eisner’s impact on the comic book industry is perhaps best evidenced by the Eisner Awards, the comic book industry’s most illustrious annual award event, held each year since 1988 at Comic Con, with Eisner himself receiving several of the awards that bore his own name.

Tell us: Had you heard of Will Eisner’s The Spirit before you found out about the movie?

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