Whether you know Will Eisner's name from his pioneering graphic novels or from the comic book industry's premier annual awards, you know that the late cartoonist was truly a master of the form whose legacy continues to this day. In 1940, Eisner unveiled what may be his signature creation, The Spirit. Denny Colt died almost as soon as he was introduced, and upon his resurrection became a masked crimefighter and a comic book icon. The series has seen several revivals since Eisner's death, including a 32-issue series from DC Comics that began in 2007. In February, Dynamite Entertainment announced that they had acquired the rights to the character and would launch a new ongoing series titled "Will Eisner's The Spirit" by legendary creator Matt Wagner, art by Dan Schkade and colors by Wagner's son, Brennan.
Following the debut issue's release, the creative team behind "Will Eisner's The Spirit" visited the world famous CBR Floating Tiki Room during Comic-Con International in San Diego to discuss their new series. Matt Wagner addresses how he plans to make Eisner's 75-year-old character relevant for modern audiences, and explains how he found a way into what might have otherwise been a daunting project. Brennan Wagner and Schkade talk about how they found their artistic rhythm together and what techniques they're borrowing from Eisner's original stories. Finally, they discuss a first issue that really doesn't feature The Spirit, and how Ebony White, frequently a point of contention for modern audiences, became the focal point of Wagner's initial story.
On why modern audiences should care about "The Spirit":
Matt Wagner: The answer to that is, at first I said no to the series. Twice. I didn't think I had anything to add, for those very reasons you said. Regardless of all those reboots, which I generally tried to stay away from looking at because I didn't want to influence what I wanted to do with it, there's so much that Eisner accomplished. But then I came up with an idea, I came up with an approach that tried to honor Eisner but was different than Eisner. Part of that being we're doing a 12-issue story arc, and Eisner's entire run on the spirit was delivered in 7-page increments in a Sunday newspaper supplement that came with the Sunday paper. I figured, "Well he's pretty much got the short story scene covered. He's done pretty much everything you can do with the short story format with this character, so let's do a long story format. Let's do 12 issues that tells one continual story.
I first discovered the Spirit in the black-and-white oversized reprints from "Warren Magazine" in the '70s. Most of what I had looked at with the other reboots -- people were approaching it coyly, to some degree; ironically to some degree; and focusing a lot on the lighthearted humor in the strips. And that's an aspect of it, but there's also such genuine pathos and humanity that I felt I could try and reportray and really capture what appealed to me at 12 years-old when I read the stories and realized there was something greatly missing from mainstream comics that I was reading at the time that was being delivered to me via this narrative.
On working in the shadow of Will Eisner and living up to the book's artists legacy:
Brennan Wagner: I'm trying to really ramp up the color, the saturation, the vibrancy, but know when to dumb it down too for the quieter moments. I love dealing with the blue. A lot of this is working with Dan. We work pretty well together. I'm able to spot areas that he left blank for me and really work around them, particularly backgrounds, and when characters have just a loose framework of lines and they need some definition here and there.
Dan Schkade: It's definitely the biggest thing I've ever done in my really short career. Honestly, "The Spirit" to me, like Matt said, it wasn't funny to me. It wasn't comedic to me. What I got from "The Spirit" when I read it as a teenager was this sense of so much emotion and action and story compressed into such a tight package, and it never stopped for the funny moments. Any funny moment emerged organically from the narrative. When I started trying out for the book and I started going back over "The Spirit" stuff I had, and then later when Matt gave me the black-and-white "Warren" editions -- oversized so you can really get inside the art -- I became really interested in how Eisner was able to weave all of those elements together into something that flowed really naturally. So my approach is trying to replicate that, as opposed to stopping for like a big, splashy Spirit moment just for the sake of having it. Instead of trying to do something that's sexy as an artist or something, I'm doing something that's just for the story and that's really focusing and really cool.
On Matt Wagner's approach to Ebony White and writing his initial Spirit story without The Spirit:
Matt Wagner: You write it about the Spirit. One of the neatest parts of some of Eisner's work was when the Spirit wasn't very present in it. One of the most famous "Spirit" stories, the story's called "Ten Minutes," it was scripted by Jules Feiffer, actually. It's about a young man in the 'hood who's down on his luck, he's feeling sorry for himself and ends up robbing a convenience store, and then is haunted by guilt and happens to run into the Spirit on the street. His paranoia kicks in, he's sure the Spirit's after. The Spirit's not really in the story very much, although his presence just permeates every aspect of it. That's very much what the first issue is about.
Secondly I went with all our supporting characters. The premise is the Spirit has been missing for two years. They don't know what happened to him. He's just gone. He's presumed dead. So we focus on his supporting characters, and again, trying to bring in pathos, this true human emotion, the effect his loss has on them, has on the city, has on our narrative. As far as how you approach Ebony, Dan and I were talking about this one day and we kind came to the conclusion -- look, what is Ebony? He's an orphaned urban man, young fellow, young boy, who drives a gypsy cab during the day and hangs out with a dead cop vigilante hunting down the toughest criminals in the world at night. He's a badass! He's totally cool. So all we had to do was just strip away the character elements of the day and we just portray him as a straight ahead young Black man -- smart, clever, determined -- and that didn't seem hard to me and that didn't seem, from the response I've heard from readers, nobody was confused that was Ebony. [Laughs] I feel like it worked.