The late Will Eisner is known throughout comics as one of the trailblazing masters of the art form. And as true as that assessment of the cartoonist’s career is, it may be equally true that the masked hero The Spirit stands as the signature character of Eisner’s career.
Eisner introduced the character in 1940 as part of a special newspaper comics section he edited, and although he had assistants on the strip then, the hero has been closely associated with him ever since. Other artists takes on the character have been few and far between, but have included talent as varied as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Darwyn Cooke and Neil Gaiman. So reviving the resurrected investigator known as Denny Colt is not a task that any artist can take lightly, least of all Matt Wagner who was recently tapped to write new “The Spirit” comics for Dynamite Entertainment.
Debuting this July as part of a 75th Anniversary celebration at Comic-Con International in San Diego, this new “Spirit” series will return the character to its roots as a 1940s crimefighter. CBR News spoke with Wagner about his initial trepidation to take on Eisner’s creation, the idea that finally allowed him to accept and his hunt for the right artistic partner as he shares a first look at his cover to issue #1.
CBR News: Matt, The Spirit is more than a comic character with a specific and innovative aesthetic attached to it. It’s also the signature character of one of the art form’s true masters in Will Eisner. Did you have trepidation about stepping in to work on this book because of that?
Matt Wagner: I said “No” at first, in fact. [Laughs] For those very reasons you just alluded to. It’s quite a thing, and not only does the Spirit stand as an icon on its own, but doing it would be like someone continuing “Peanuts” after Charles Shulz died. Whenever you have a character so intensely ingrained with one creator and from such a vision by one creator, it becomes very hard to add to that pallet. And granted, Eisner did work with a studio of people so there were others involved during the newspaper heyday making many contributions to the final outcome of that strip.
But eventually, the planets kind of aligned, and I got a feel for it. I picked up and read some of the stuff DC had done with the character a couple of years ago when they had the license wherein they brought it up to contemporary times. I thought that was a valiant experiment, but for my money I prefer him back in the ’40s, and my storyline is set back then. But I also went back and read some of Will’s older stuff, and I got a feeling for it and a flavor for it, and finally I got an idea for it. So away we went.
I know that Dynamite has been in close contact with the Eisner estate during this whole process, as well as Eisner’s agent Denis Kitchen. As you’ve been working on this, have you been working on your pitch with them to find a path that suits your interests and theirs?
Well, again, at first I said “No,” and then they were really persistent about it. “Come on, you’re the right guy for this. We really want you to do it.” And of course, I had a history with Dynamite and have done a bunch of things for them in recent years. So I had a brief conversation with Nick [Barrucci] and their Senior Editor Joe Rybandt, and I had told them that I’d just reread the DC stuff. I asked, “What are you picturing here? Contemporary or the classic time period?” And everyone agreed we should go with the classic time period, which fell in line with what I was thinking.
So then it was on me to come up with a pitch, and it was funny. I told my wife while I was working on it that I came up with what I thought was a great idea. As I read and reread some of the classic stuff, I realized, “Oh shit. There’s my idea. They already did it.” [Laughter] So as we got up that next morning and were having breakfast, I was squirreling around in my mind and reworking all my ideas. Finally I clicked on something that would work, too. So I sat down with my laptop, and in about an hour I had the whole thing worked up. So it all worked out.
And it’s funny that you should mention Denis Kitchen because I’ve known Denis for three and a half million years. I contacted him and said, “Can I rely on you as a resource? You know the Spirit better than anybody. Can I just fire some questions at you?” And of course, he was very up for that, and he’s been very, very helpful filling me in on the character’s history when I need it and on the history of the various villains.
When it comes to the Spirit, the first thing almost everyone mentions is Eisner’s art, particularly his big, inventive splash pages. But as you approach this as a writer first, what are you tapping into about Denny Colt as a character that will anchor the book outside the visual stylings?
Sure. I first discovered the Spirit via the Warren Publishing reprints in the 1970s. Those were oversized magazine-style issues done in the same format as “Creepy” and “Eerie.” When I was a kid, those were always the “elicit” comics. When Warren published, the Comics Code was still in full force. You couldn’t do horror comics and distribute them via the regular channels and still call them comics. But Warren escaped the Comics Code by publishing magazine-sized instead of comics-sized. As a result, they weren’t racked on the spinner rack where it said, “Hey Kids! Comics!” They were racked on magazines with sports magazines and men’s magazines. They were usually up just beyond the reach of tiny kids. So they always felt kind of dangerous.
So I picked up my first “Spirit” — I think it was issue #3 of that run — and it had a real affect on me in regards to the obvious approach to drama and layout and theatrics. But also, there was a sense of pathos and consequence that I wasn’t seeing in a lot of commercial comics at the time. Certainly, Marvel was branching in that direction, but some of that “Spirit” stuff is what really hit home for me in a big way.
Since we made this announcement, I’ve seen a lot of people saying, “Oh you’ve got to be careful because the Spirit has to have a really light touch. It can’t be too serious.” And certainly comedy and humor is an element of the Spirit, and some of the early stories go into full-on slapstick. But the ones I first read that really affected me weren’t so humorous. They had a real sense of humanity and pathos that I’m hoping to really tap into for my version. Ours will have humor, but I wouldn’t call it a humor approach.
The tagline on the teaser image you drew for your run was “Who Killed The Spirit?” I’ve read a number of the early stories, but I’m not sure if all the details of how Denny was murdered and became the hero were revealed. Is that where you start your story?
They’ve told that story several times. The gist of it is that Denny Colt was an investigator who went after this guy named Doctor Cobra who had this stuff he was going to seed into the city water supply. Denny ended up getting thrown into a tank of it and seemingly killed, but it turned out the gunk had properties that put him in suspended animation, and he kind of rose from the dead. That’s why he becomes the living Spirit — because his physical self is gone. His hideout is in the Wildwood Cemetery underneath his own headstone. And even though they never said he has some sort of healing property like Wolverine, he certainly gets beat up and shot and stabbed a lot in the old stories. [Laughs] So you get the impression that he’s able to bounce back from quite a bit.
The piece you’re referring to is actually a promo piece I did for the ComicsPRO retailer forum — that’s not the first cover. We have a few more covers in now — one by Alex Ross and one by Francesco Francavilla. And I just finished mine. My son is coloring my cover. Dynamite tends to do a lot of variant covers, but they always have one anchor artist. We’ve signed Eric Powell for that job, which really excites me because he definitely fits the book. He just doesn’t have the time to draw the whole book, but that may be asking too much. We’re just excited to have him on board.
And the “Who Killed The Spirit?” slug-line is not in reference to his origin but instead is a narrative aspect of my storyline.
So where do you pick up that thread as a whole new chapter in the Spirit’s story?
I don’t want to say too much about it, but part of this is that I’m aware of a certain balance you have to strike. You have to strike certain chords for people who are fans of the original material and in fact revere the Spirit as one of comics’ greatest creations. But you also have to open it up to new readers, and so I came up with a storyline that would reintroduce the Spirit. It introduces a new element that isn’t just a recycling of what Eisner had done.
Dynamite has said that you’re still searching for the final interior artist on the book, and that’s a daunting task considering the visual legacy of the strip. Are you taking a role in that hunt and maybe taking some extra care to set the visual tone for the book even though you won’t be drawing all of it?
Sure. Pretty much any project I do, if I’m the writer on the book I’m also the art director. Part of that is the fact that I’m an artist myself. A lot of writers don’t presume to go there. But I’m an artist, and I feel like I work well with other artists. I think I have a good feel for when an artist will match a project.
That said, as you intimated there, we’ve gone through several possibilities looking for the right artist. I’m pretty confident we’ll find the right person. It is a balancing act again. Eisner struck a wonderful balance between that humorous aspect and also sheer adventure and drama. That’s a really hard balance to find these days. Darwyn Cooke was a perfect choice at DC because he’s able to do that. But when you look at the crop of talent in the field these days, people tend to go either the superhero action direction or the humor direction. So I’m hoping we’ll find someone who can strike that balance.
Dynamite and Matt Wagner’s take on “The Spirit” will debut at Comic-Con International in San Diego this July.