David Hine gets into the spirit of things in DC Comics’ First Wave Universe when he takes over creative duties on “The Spirit” ongoing series beginning with July’s issue #4. For the writer, creatively controlling a character concocted by the great Will Eisner was simply a Don Corleone-esque “offer you can’t refuse.”
The Spirit first appeared in seven-to-eight-page newspaper comic strips written and drawn by Eisner between 1940 and 1952. The comic series chronicled the adventures of Denny Colt, a masked and rather snazzily dressed vigilante, as he protected the fictional Central City from the criminal empire of the elusive Octopus. Eisner constantly experimented with both the artistic aspects of the series and genre constraints, pushing and re-defining the boundaries of graphic storytelling. Its wide range of stories – from dark, gritty noir style tales to light-hearted capers to even romantic escapades – became a central element in Eisner’s world-renowned strip, as well as its bevy of beautiful femme fatales that constantly tormented the Spirit’s well-being as much physically as mentally. Eventually the character found his way to DC Comics, who most recently incorporated the ghostly monikered Spirit into its new First Wave line of titles.
Hine joins current artist Moritat on the series and seeks to give readers a chill with his very first arc titled “Frostbite.” As the writer dons the signature blue-hued suit and fedora, he spoke with CBR News about the opportunity to write a character that influenced both his life and career, turning the Spirit’s city against him, and the possibility of bringing back to life some of the Spirit’s classic female antagonists.
“I didn’t for one minute think I’d be entrusted with The Spirit,” Hine admitted to CBR News. “This was one of the truly iconic comics that influenced me as much as anything I’ve ever seen. I first came across the Harvey collections from 1966 when I was at school, and I actually used the first Harvey collection in a presentation in my English class to demonstrate that comics were real literature. That was an unusual idea at the time, and I do remember that my English teacher failed to be convinced.Â But I was totally hooked on the character and when Warren began reprinting the strips, and then later Kitchen Sink, I was right there, buying every issue and immersing myself in this incredible cinematic storytelling.”
Even at a young age, Hine tells CBR that he stood in awe at Eisner’s ability to convey deeply complex stories in only a few short pages. “It’s an incredible skill to be able to introduce convincing characters, create a drama and resolve the whole thing in such a short space,” he said. “Part of the reason he could do that is that The Spirit is such a spare character. He’s almost a blank template that you can use in virtually any situation. What do we actually know about him? He used to be Denny Colt. He apparently died, but then came back from the dead as The Spirit. Instead of taking up his old life, he preferred to hang out in Wildwood Cemetery and battle crime. Clearly, he didn’t have much of a life to come back to.”
And fans can expect the tabula rasa nature of the character to continue with Hine’s run. The author postulated that this works best for the Spirit as it allows writers and readers to project their own fantasies onto the character. However, Hine did admit that certain attributes always ring true about the character – some of them more physical than others. “I have always enjoyed the way Eisner had The Spirit beaten up on such a regular basis. No hero has ever been so beaten, battered and brutalized, and yet he always comes back smiling,” said Hine. “He’s also perpetually bemused, particularly by women, who have traditionally run rings round him. There’s a lot of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade in him, but he has a unique quality of humanity and optimism that those darker noir anti-heroes never had. The Spirit is world-weary, but not broken, and his motivation is the simple old-fashioned idea of doing the right thing. There’s something a little saintly about him. You simply know that he will always come through for the little guy, the victim, the damsel in distress. The action may be a little more grim and gritty than the older Spirit stories, but I’m not planning to make the character any more complex than that. The complexities will occur in the situations and characters surrounding him.”
Indeed, the characters around the Spirit have always played a major role in the series, and while many women walk in and out of the life of Denny Colt – usually usually leaving in their wake more than a few bruises – one remains constant: Ellen Dolan, the daughter of the police commissioner and arguably the Spirit’s main love interest. Although Ellen spent much of Eisner’s original run fawning over the title character, she has since evolved into a more headstrong and feministic character, one who seeks to right the wrongs her father cannot.
“She is the one with the social conscience, literally organizing the ordinary citizens against the gangs,” explained Hine. “The point is that her father, Commissioner Dolan, is forced to accept corruption on the police force and turn a blind eye to a lot of the gang activity, so that he can at least keep the lid on the situation. He’s morally compromised and he knows it. Ellen knows it too, and she’s become ashamed of her father. Her own stance is utterly uncompromising, but what she doesn’t realize is that it’s only her father’s protection that is keeping her alive.”
Another classic character that got a rework with the New Wave version of the Spirit’s universe is Ebony White. Originally a black caricature, Ebony received a major makeover in the pages of the “First Wave” limited series by writer Brian Azzarello. “In our new version, she’s older and female, but she still has the name. Ignoring the character completely would have been a possibility, but Brian Azzarello chose not to evade the issue, and I think that’s a good decision,” he said. “I’ll be giving her a very strong role in the series. I’ve been working on her backstory and I have a clear idea of where she comes from, but we won’t be revealing too many details for a while. I want to give her an air of mystery. Like The Spirit, she’s an outsider by choice, someone who prefers to live on the fringes and fight the corruption in Central City that is represented by the gangs controlled by the Octopus. She’s not so much a sidekick as The Spirit’s equal partner and she gets almost as much face time in the first arc as The Spirit.”
In that first arc, Hine will pit the Spirit against both the gangs of Central City and Central City itself when a new drug hits the streets during a blizzard. “Eisner often used extreme weather conditions as a backdrop to a story. We’re doing that here – the city grinds to a halt and the dark and dirty cityscape is transformed by the snowfall into a pure white vista that temporarily hides the ugliness,” said the scribe. “It also means that when The Spirit has to cross the city in a life or death race against time, he has to do it without transport. It turns into a classic man against the elements tale, with every gangster in the city toting a gun loaded with bullets that have The Spirit’s name on them. It will give artist Moritat a great opportunity to draw Central City under snow.
“Central City is as much a part of these stories as the human characters, and Moritat is one of the great ‘city artists’ in the way that Eisner himself, and Steve Ditko and Frank Miller have been,” Hine continued. “I want to give him the opportunity to show off those skills by depicting the city in a number of guises. I’m sure we’ll have heat waves and rainstorms later in the series.”
Along with working on a character he loved, the opportunity to team with Moritat also proved a big draw for the writer. The two creators meet every year at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and Hine said that this project finally gave them a chance to work together. “He understands Eisner’s work from the inside out, absorbing not only the noir style of the original strips but also bringing in elements of Eisner’s later, more realistic style on books like ‘A Contract with God,’ ‘The Dreamer’ and ‘Dropsie Avenue,'” Hine said. “He has the characters down perfectly. Dolan, Ellen and The Spirit have never looked closer to Eisner’s own versions, and yet they have a unique look that is pure Moritat. He’s made the book his own from the first page of issue #1, where The Spirit is looking out over the waterfront. From there, he draws the best Wildwood Cemetery I’ve ever seen, and a couple pages later he brings Tympani Alley to life with an authenticity that I’m sure Eisner would have acknowledged. He also employs the visual trickery of Eisner for the title pages. It’s going to be a challenge to come up with new ways to spell out ‘Will Eisner’s The Spirit’ across those title pages. It’s something I used to play around with when I was a still at school, doodling ideas in my schoolbooks.”
Of course, great story and great art only makes for two-thirds of the Spirit equation – the obligatory femme fatale is a must to complete the package. Not about to let that slip, Hine said that he introduces a deadly debutante in the new arc named Ophelia Ottoman, the daughter of a gang boss who “like all the best female characters in ‘The Spirit,’ turns out to be more deadly than the male.” The writer also revealed that, while he currently has no plans to bring back Eisner’s classic femmes, he does leave open the possibility for future stories. “He seems to get far more physical with a whole line of femmes fatales, from Sand Saref to Plaster of Paris and P’Gell,” said Hine. “Sand Saref is the best of the female characters, but I have a soft spot for Lorelei Rox too. She was the siren in the very first Spirit story I ever read in that Harvey collection I mentioned. I got hooked on that opening page where a rain-drenched Spirit walks out of a thunderstorm into Dolan’s office and says ‘…sit back, Dolan…and let me tell you about Lorelei…Lorelei of Odyssey Road….'”
As the release of his first issue draws ever closer, Hine told CBR that he continues to wait with bated breath, still shocked at the surreal experience of being able to write one of the most influential comic book characters of all time. “I never thought I’d one day be doing this for real,” he said. “I’m still in the ‘pinch me I’m dreaming phase.’ I can’t wait to hold the damn thing in my hands and see my name right there under Will Eisner’s.”
Look for “The Spirit” issue #4, the beginning of Hine’s four-part first arc, in stores July 14.