“Will Eisner’s The Spirit” #1 by Matt Wagner and Dan Schkade brings back the 1940s crime-fighting hero, but he appears within only as a memory. The first page uses the narrative device of a news headline and article, which is a ham-handed shortcut to establishing the mystery and conflict of the Spirit’s two-year-long disappearance, but Wagner is able to get this key plot point out quickly. The rest of the comic is taken up with introducing the supporting cast and an origin recap.
The Spirit’s absence from his own comic is excusable, if not ideal, since Wagner and Schkade are reintroducing a character with a lot of history and his original milieu, but unfortunately much of the exposition is long-winded and simplistic.
I’ve followed Wagner’s work since “Sandman Mystery Theater” and “Grendel,” and his knowledge and appreciation for early 20th century history makes him an obvious choice for this title. “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” #1 aims to be a charming reintroduction to a Golden Age hero, but it falls short of achieving nostalgia heaven. It feels dated, not because of the time period but because the characters still conform to old stereotypes too closely. The dialogue lands on the wrong side of family-friendly retro with earnest exclamations like “Malarkey!” and “Jeez-Louise!”
The most appealing characters are sidekicks Ebony White and Sammy Strunk, but they don’t appear until mid-way through the comic. Wagner and Schkade’s updated character design for Ebony was badly needed, and they even try to explain away Eisner’s controversial racial naming pun. The dialogue in the car ride scene doesn’t come across as a believable conversation, but I understand why they had to try.
There is another moment showing awareness of contemporary mores when Ellen Dolan complains to her father about how the Spirit would dash off all the time “in pursuit of yet another treacherous femme fatale.” Wagner shows an awareness of a Golden Age cliche and gently and successfully mocks it. The pacing is also spot-on in Ellen’s emotional outburst when she leaves her father’s office. During the rest of the exposition, though, Wagner is less inventive and subtle.
All the characters — including scrappy, enterprising young sidekicks Ebony and Sammy — are stereotypes, especially the non-heroic ones, like the power-hungry and aristocratic Weatherby Parker and the meek and nerdy Archibald Shale. Ellen Dolan is a cookie-cutter wholesome, “feisty” blonde love interest. Commissioner Dolan is just like Commissioner Jim Gordon in the Batman universe, but with less hair.
When I first saw “Strunk and White” on Ebony and Sammy’s old-fashioned private investigator’s office door, I smiled. By stretching out the joke over two pages, making absolutely sure that the reader can’t miss it, Wagner only ensures that the reference isn’t funny anymore.
Archibald Shale is set up as a foil to Ellen’s old boyfriend Denny Colt, a.k.a. the Spirit’s secret identity. It’s already a no-brainer contrast to have a docile, brainy office guy vie for the heroine’s affections with her memory of a daring man of action but, once again, Wagner doesn’t trust readers to connect the dots themselves. Ellen has to openly compare the two men. This redundancy is inelegant and talks down to the reader.
The three-page recap of the Spirit’s origin story isn’t critical to hooking the reader on the hero, and it feels misplaced because it saps energy from the present-day action. The fight scene at the end has the strongest artwork, even if the last page is no surprise.
Schkade’s linework has some echoes of Will Eisner’s shading and style, but he doesn’t quite have all of Eisner’s graceful flow and ease with line variation. His transitions are smooth, but his perspective progressions are by-the-book. His facial expressions, like Wagner’s dialogue, are too exaggerated in most scenes to be emotionally convincing, but he has other strengths. In the fight scene at the end of the issue, there’s a wonderful black-over-white silhouette followed by a white-over-black silhouette. The panel composition is beautiful. Details like a loose shoe and garbage can lids add visual balance and more energy, though colorist Brennan Wagner overuses mauve-reds and peach-oranges in the backgrounds.
“Will Eisner’s The Spirit” #1 is friendly to new readers, but Wagner and Schkade haven’t given the Spirit and his supporting cast enough of a fresh spin yet.