Why I'm not the biggest fan of Darwyn Cooke's version of <i>The Spirit</i>

Of course, the latest issue was very good, so maybe this will be a moot point soon, but still.

I have not been the biggest fan of DC's latest incarnation of Will Eisner's seminal creation, despite the fact that it's being written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, who is an immense talent.  This has led people to comment that I am an idiot, have no taste, prefer having sex with goats rather than humans, worship at the altar of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, and vote Republican.  Who knew one little comic book could engender such passion?  However, despite my dissatisfaction with the comic, I could never really pinpoint why I didn't take it home, slip under the covers of my bed, and do to it what I apparently do to goats, which is what fans of the book seemingly do.  It just seemed like the first five issues were lacking the verve that Cooke has brought to other books he's done and what I heard the original stories were like.  So I went out and bought The Best of The Spirit trade paperback, which is now available at fine bookstores everywhere.  And lo, I was not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus - mine eyes were opened, and I understood all the mysteries of the universe.  Well, maybe not the mysteries of the universe, but certainly the mysteries of the Spirit.  You'll forgive me if many of you already knew these mysteries, but I'm going to inspect them to show why I have not been as jazzed with Cooke's version as, apparently, I ought to be if I want to call myself a comics nerd and an American.

Eisner and his collaborators (who were legion, apparently, but I don't know if they assisted on just the art or both art and story) understood something about good ol' Denny Colt: he's kind of boring.  I mean, he's a guy who wears a suit and puts on a domino mask and fights crime.  He's not exactly the most dynamic hero you can find.  So Eisner simply used the Spirit to tell weird, noir tales about the city's criminal and not-always-criminal underbelly.  The Spirit showed up, sure, but in an ancillary role.  The stories in The Best of the Spirit are notable because often the Spirit isn't a big cast member in them.  These short stories, usually seven or eight pages long, highlight strange goings-on in the world, tell morality tales, or toy with the format of comics storytelling.  The Spirit is sometimes a major player in them, but very often he shows up in a few panels to wrap things up, or appears more often yet still away from the main action.  This makes these stories fascinating slices of life that show humanity in all its madness, and it's something that, for the first five issues of Cooke's The Spirit, was missing.

Let's take a look at some of the better stories in the trade paperback.  "The Last Trolley" (24 March 1946) tells the tale of Crauley, a bank teller who goes in on a heist but double-crosses his accomplices.  He believes that he's killed the Spirit (he shot him in the back, but our intrepid hero survived), and now he's taking the trolley out to its last stop to find the loot he stashed before he called the cops on the robbers.  The thieves he betrayed show up on the trolley, and Crauley appears to go slowly mad when he thinks they're just toying with his thoughts by not responding to him.  The story has a nice, "slow train to Hell" feel, as Raven's Point, the last trolley stop, is only 30 miles away from Central City but looks like it's a desolate swamp a thousand miles from civilization.  The story is a nice psychological creep-out.


In "The Killer" (8 December 1946), we meet Henry, who looks like a respectable man but, we're told early on, is actually a murderer.  We visit his depressing life before the war, in which he works a dead-end job and is married to woman who always complains.  When he goes to war, however, he inadvertently becomes a hero, but when he comes back, he's still stuck in the same job.  As he dreams about his war days, the perspective of the story shifts so we're looking through Henry's eyes and seeing what he sees.  He goes deeper into dementia before he snaps.  It's a brief tale, but one that encapsulates the experience of returning G.I.s very well.  What do you do when you were a big shot in the army but can't hold a job as a civilian?  Henry can't come back to a normal life, because his normal life is far worse than the one where people were trying to kill him.


"Wild Rice" (4 April 1948) tells the the disturbing story of Rice Wilder, a rich girl with some kinky tastes.  It's fascinating reading a story in which a woman likes to get knocked around and realize it was published in the late 1940s as a comic book.  Rice wants to escape the constraints of her wealthy life, and the only way she can is by turning to crime.  Her criminal boyfriend turns against her, of course, and when the Spirit tries to "save" her, she asks him if he believes that just because she's rich she's truly free.  Her father runs her life as surely as her punk boyfriend did.  She gets the fate she wants, even if it's not exactly what she deserved.  The Spirit is largely ineffectual.


There are lots of other fascinating stories in the collection, too.  In "The Last Hand" (16 May 1948), a gambler and a killer seeks refuge as a lodger with an old woman, but it turns out things are not really as they seem inside the house, to his eternal regret.  "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble" (5 September 1948) tells of a man who could fly ... but no one notices.  "Two Lives" (12 December 1948) is a somewhat misogynistic tale about a man who is willing to do anything to escape his miserable marriage ... including going to jail after being mistaken for an escaped convict.  This is a marvelously told story, as Eisner contrasts the convict, who wants to escape prison, with the schlub, who wants to escape is house.  "The Story of Rat-Tat, the Toy Machine Gun" (4 September 1949) looks like a children's story but concerns gangsters and murder.  "The Embezzler" (27 November 1949) is an interesting story of misdirection.  In terms of structure, my favorite in the collection is "Ten Minutes" (11 September 1949), which attempts to tell a story in "real time."  Eisner makes the point in the first panel that it will take us ten minutes to read the story, which might seem like a small amount of time, but they are the last ten minutes in his protagonist's life.  This story stretches the concept a bit (the story takes less than ten minutes, and the events in the story seem to occur in greater than ten), but it's still a very nifty device that Eisner uses, and the Spirit, who shows up only on page 6 of a seven-page story, is nevertheless nicely omniscient about Freddy and his guilt.  The final panel, with a man protesting that ten minutes late doesn't mean anything, is obvious but still a nice touch.  This is a prototypical example of the kind of stories that we see throughout the book.


All of this is lacking in Cooke's version of the book, at least for the first five issues.  Some people have defended Cooke by saying he needs to introduce all the major players of the Spirit's canon, namely P'Gell and Silk Satin, but why?  P'Gell didn't show up until after the war in the original comic.  Why the desperate need to bring her in?  The only "essential" Spirit story that Cooke might have needed to tell is his origin.  That I can buy.  But there's no need to try to establish Denny Colt as an interesting character with a supporting cast.  This isn't a normal masked hero book, and Cooke shouldn't try to make it one.


I am excited to see that he appears to have gotten it out of his system.  In issue #5 he took a step in the right direction with a weird story about canned food.  In issue #6 he ignored the Spirit almost completely and told a heart-wrenching story of a musical prodigy gone somewhat bad.  That issue, more than the previous one, showed how good Cooke can be on this title and how interesting his writing can be.  As I think about my reactions to the first four (and even the fifth) issues, I realize that the Spirit's inherent dullness was seeping into the other characters and even into Cooke's storytelling.  He just wasn't enough to carry the stories, and his banter with Silk Satin in issue #3, while nicely written, came off stale when a cypher like Denny Colt was saying it.  Imagine a miscast actor in a witty romantic comedy and that's what it felt like.  In the original Silk Satin story, even Eisner can't really pull it off, and Cooke doesn't either.  In later issues, after the Spirit had been around a while, the banter becomes a bit more convincing, but when it comes so early in the series, when we still know very little about the Spirit, it doesn't feel right.  By writing stories that hardly feature the Spirit, Eisner embedded him in the world of Central City.  He could get off a one-liner here and there, and it helped define him as a character.  The stories where he takes front-and-center, while often not inventive in a storytelling way, often feature more realistic dialogue than the ones in which Eisner was trying something new, and the Spirit is more interesting.  He's more interesting, however, because of all the stories in which he doesn't play a starring role.  By making him the star of the first five issues of the new series (even though he's not really much of the star in issue #2), Cooke started off in a bit of a hole.  Maybe he's gotten it out of his system and will concentrate more on telling good stories with the Spirit as a guest star.


The length of the stories hurts Cooke's version, too.  Eisner could get away with one cool idea or one interesting way of telling the story and not worry too much about it because the stories were short.  Cooke needs to fill an entire issue.  That's not to say he couldn't tell stories in an unusual way, but he needs a bit more than just that small nugget.  Something like "Ten Minutes" would probably not work in a standard-sized comic book (although Claremont tried something like it in Uncanny X-Men #467, which is a very good comic).  This isn't an insurmountable problem, but it does mean that Cooke needs to work a bit harder.  Eisner didn't have to give his characters too much personality, because he was simply using them for brief moments in time.  Cooke needs to make them a bit more real, which is more difficult.  Even after reading the three stories in the trade starring Silk Satin, Cooke's one issue gave her a more interesting personality than Eisner did.  She just wasn't in that compelling a story in Cooke's series.


Obviously, the comparison between the two series is off-kilter.  The trade paperback is a Greatest Hits compilation, while Cooke has written six issues.  However, I'm not saying that Cooke's series is bad.  Not at all.  It just seems like the template for Spirit stories is a pretty good one, and so far (with the exception of #6), Cooke just seems to want to write simplistic adventure stories.  There's nothing really wrong with that, but it doesn't make the series stand out in any way in the literary arena (the art is typically gorgeous).  Cooke had a chance to hit the ground running, but the first five issues are simply concerned with trying to make the Spirit interesting.  The audience for this kind of comic doesn't need a lot of introductions, and I think that hurts the early issues.  Yes, you can accuse me of reviewing one book by comparing it to another book and not judging it on its merits, but I'm doing both.  The first five issues of Cooke's The Spirit, despite their potential, aren't all that gripping.  When you compare them to the Eisner stories, it becomes even clearer that Cooke could be doing a lot more.  My hope is that Cooke has found his footing with issue #6 and will do some more interesting things with the comic.  Issue #7 is a group of three short stories from different creators, which promises stories in the old-school vein, and I would love to see Cooke come back with stories about the weird and the lost and the darkly comic.  This series has a great deal of potential.  I just want to see it realized.

Doom 2099 #1

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