Today, March 6th, would be Will Eisner’s 100th birthday. The comic book legend is perhaps best known to fans today as the namesake for the prestigious annual comic book awards, the Eisners, his popularization of the term “graphic novel,” and his superhero creation, The Spirit. Eisner was one of the earliest “star” artists in the Golden Age of comic books, as he and his partner Jerry Iger had a business where they would “package” comic book material for comic book companies to purchase. Eisner and Iger split, though, when Eisner came up with the idea for The Spirit, which involved a brilliant new approach in comics.
Eisner’s idea for “The Spirit” was as a seven-page comic book included as a supplement in newspapers around the United States as an addition to their Sunday “funny pages.” Other Eisner-created characters would be included in the supplement, but “The Spirit” was the main feature. It was a huge success, running for over a decade and becoming best known for its unique title pages. To commemorate Eisner, The Spirit and their inextricable legacies, here are our 15 favorite Spirit title pages!
15. THE SPIRIT! WHO IS HE?
One of the interesting things about the early days of “The Spirit” is that when the series launched on June 2, 1940, it looked a lot like a standard newspaper “Sunday” comic strip of the era. The titles were just like any other strip. Here’s the initial “Spirit” title page…
As the weeks went by, and it became clear that the feature was going to be a success, Eisner began to experiment more with the form. However, his initial attempts were more in line with the standard splash page of a superhero comic book of the era. This would mean three-quarters of the page would involve a large figure and then the bottom right-hand quarter of the page would include the first panel of the story. Eisner did a number of issues with that format.
His first true strikingly-different title page (not counting a close-up look at the face of his sidekick, Ebony White, a month earlier) came in the October 13, 1940 issue, where the entire title page became a newspaper article about the Spirit’s identity.You see, the concept of “The Spirit” was that he was originally private detective Denny Colt, who was supposedly killed. When he survived the seemingly fatal attack — since he was effectively a ghost now — he adopted the name “The Spirit,” with only Police Commissioner James Dolan knowing the truth.
14. THE HAUNTED HOUSE
On December 8, 1940, Eisner debuted the first title page of “The Spirit” where the name “The Spirit” was worked into the landscape of the drawing, which would soon become the most famous aspect of Eisner’s title pages. The title had been worked into pages before — like an early issue with a spotlight centered on the Spirit and his logo — but that wasn’t worked into the actual landscape; rather, it was just a freestanding logo. It wasn’t an attempt by Eisner to make the logo work as part of the surroundings. That was different with “The Haunted House”…
The story featured Spirit and his sidekick, Ebony White, visiting a so-called “haunted house” to find the missing will of the previous owner so that they could prevent the house from falling into the hands of a mobster who had bought up the mortgage on the house and was now foreclosing. As it turned out, the owner was not actually dead. He faked his death because he wanted to take care of his brother, who had snapped due to mental exhaustion. The owner was too embarrassed to let the world know that his brother was now a “simpleton.”
13. GOLL GIRDER
In a lot of ways, Eisner was working on a whole other dimension than other comic book writers of the era, with his attempts to make some of the title pages for “The Spirit” appear to be three-dimensional. This, naturally, was quite a distinctive look for the era. Years later, Eisner did an actual “Spirit 3-D” comic book (with the amazing Ray Zone doing the color separations to make the book officially a “3-D” book, complete with 3-D glasses) and the cover for the book was the title page to the November 30, 1941 “The Spirit,” titled “Goll Girder.”
This was an odd little story that involved the Spirit bursting into a trial just as a teen was about to be sent to jail for robbery. Spirit insisted that the judge let the boy go and that the Spirit would bring in the real crook later that day. As it turned out, the boy’s father, Goll Girder, had murdered the boy’s real father before the boy was born and the boy’s mother married Girder so that she would have someone to raise her son (and he would keep her from squealing). Spirit beat him and made him confess for his “son’s” crime.
12. THE NAME IS POWDER…
In “The Spirit,” Will Eisner tried to keep up with most of the motifs of noir fiction, and one of the areas where he made sure to excel was with the femme fatales. Ellen Dolan, the daughter of the Commissioner, was the Spirit’s main love interest and she was the perfect example of a “good girl.” Of course, Eisner made sure to populate the series with a good deal of “bad girls,” as well. You’ll see some of the more famous examples of the “Spirit” femme fatales later on, but for now, we’ll spotlight a minor one who stood out for the stunning title page she appeared on in January 4, 1948’s “The Name is Powder…”
The woman was named Powder Pouf and she was let out of prison sooner than expected. The cover suggests the idea of the Spirit being trapped in Powder’s web, but in the actual comic, it is instead her former lover, Bleak, who is sucked back into Powder’s world, even as he knows that it is wrong. In the end, Bleak managed to do the right thing and Powder ends the comic back behind bars.
11. HANGLY HOLLYER MANSION
In this striking title image from June 22, 1947, we see an old mansion being torn apart, with the debris forming the Spirit’s name in a clever way. The specific story in this issue is a bit of a silly tale of two brothers, one who won’t marry a certain woman so long as his brother is alive, so she then tries to kill the brother until he finally dies of other causes years later. At that point, the other brother won’t marry her because before he died, his brother revealed how she had been trying to kill him for years! He then kills her and her ghost visits Ebony White.
However, the story takes on greater meaning when seen as an early example of a story that Eisner would later tell in his classic graphic novels, beginning with “A Contract With God,” although those stories were more about tenement life; specifically tenement life of Jewish immigrants. However, the same basic emphasis on the building that they lived in was present in this earlier work. Much like Chris Ware’s later “Building Stories,” Eisner was fascinated with the history contained within buildings.
10. LIFE BELOW
Due to the fact that he is a “ghost,” the Spirit very often traveled via sewers. This allowed Eisner to do a whole lot of interesting title pages that worked sewer grates into the design of the cover, including a number of great examples where the grates form the name “Spirit.” However, while they were mostly just used as a way to get where the Spirit needed to go, Eisner would, on occasion, also look to the homeless people who lived in the sewers of Central city.
That’s exactly what he did in “Life Below,” where we see the people through a striking use of the title of the book mixed into the architecture of the sewers. One thing that was often apparent in Eisner’s work, and much more so when he began doing his independent graphic novel work, was that he really knew how to bring out the humanity within his subjects.
9. ALLIGATOR FARM
As noted before, Central City in “The Spirit” was, like Gotham City, practically a character in its own right. Eisner believed in the notion of the city as almost a living being, which was reflected in his “Spirit” stories. Therefore, it was always quite a shock when the stories took place outside Central City. When they did, the title pages stood out even more than normal, like this stunning “Alligator Farm” splash, explicitly contrasting the home of the alligator against the hustle and bustle of the city.
The story is set in East Africa, where a pair of crooks bought an alligator farm to lay low after robbing a bank in Egypt. One of their neighbors was a crook who had the same idea. Their neighbor, though, ended up swindling them and forcing them to open up their alligator farm to the public. In came a new farmhand, who was secretly the Spirit, who ended up having to wrestle an alligator! Amusingly, the whole story is narrated by the alligator.
Not only was Will Eisner a legendary comic book artist, but he was one of the all-time great comic book art theorists. He was a brilliant lecturer on comic book art and he had many fascinating views on how to connect with readers (Dark Horse put out an excellent book containing Eisner and Frank Miller discussing comic books that is a must-read for comic book fans who wish to learn a little bit about Eisner’s views). Regarding splash pages, Eisner once noted, “The big thing for me in any splash page is to secure control over the reader. You set the mood and form your contact with the reader at that point.” He followed that the reader has to make up their mind on whether they’re interested in a story instantaneously and thus, “I’m concentrating everything on capturing the reader’s imagination, on capturing his or her mood.”
With that in mind, this splash for “Investigation” is one of the best examples at something that a reader couldn’t help but pay attention to, as the figures are practically flying off of the page into the reader’s lap. The actual story for this one was pretty basic (Spirit clearing Dolan on false corruption charges), but what a title page! Attention and imagination successfully secured.
7. BLACK ALLEY
One of the all-time great “Spirit” stories, “Black Alley,” takes place over a dark night in Central City in one of the darkest parts of town, as the Spirit is set to be assassinated by an operative for the “Big Six.” When it comes down to it, though, the bad guys are surprised by how many good guys are hidden in the shadows, as well.
This particular book is famous for its heavy use of shadows and silhouettes to tell the story. The title page is notable for how Eisner pulled back on some of the over-the-top design elements that he often used in his title pages. While those are typically quite excellent, it still goes to show that sometimes less can be more, especially when delivered in contrast to the other, more common type of title pages. On top of that, the intricate detail Eisner puts into the city landscape is stunning. It’s such a beautiful piece.
6. THE ELEVATOR
As noted earlier, Will Eisner had always had a fascination with buildings and their stories (no pun intended… we think). Never did he do quite as good of a job as visually displaying that interest than with the splash page for “The Elevator.”
This is one of the rare “Spirit” stories where the second page is almost as striking of a design as the first page. While the first page establishes the building and the fact that an elevator is in play, the second page splits the panels into floors of the building and shows characters boarding the elevator at different floors.
Ebony ends up stuck on an elevator with a bunch of crooks, who were each hoping to just get off the elevator with their ill-gotten gains. However, when the elevator got stuck, they all quickly turn on each other. Of course, Ebony is not worried since he knows that the elevator operator is the Spirit in disguise. Except, well, he’s not actually the Spirit in disguise. Who knew an elevator could contain such twists and turns!
5. PAPER CHASE
When Eisner completely pulled out of the series at the very end, Jules Feiffer, who had already been handling the writing duties for some time, paired with the legendary Wallace Wood to tell “Spirit” stories involving much more science fiction themes than ever before. It was akin to when Dick Tracy got involved in outer space stories. Before that happened, though, and towards the end of the “normal” run of “The Spirit,” Eisner felt that the grounded Ellen Dolan deserved more character development. So, he had her run for (and win) the position of Mayor.
The splash page for “Paper Chase” was one of the ones Eisner was most proud of, later recalling, “I remember being very pleased with the way this splash page came off, and looking at it again almost 40 years later, I think it holds up well. This was my kind of splash page, where it gives a real sense of motion while functioning as a sort of prologue, all without any dialogue. It’s like a pantomime. And I was always fond of working the logo in like this too. A page like this brings the reader quickly into the story.”
4. MEET P’GELL
As we mentioned earlier, “The Spirit” is well known for having a number of femme fatales involved in the life of Denny Colt, and few of them were ever quite as fatal as P’Gell. We met this sultry lady in 1946’s aptly title, “Meet P’Gell,” with one of the most audacious title page splashes that you could imagine. Will Eisner certainly knew how to draw a seductive character.
In the story within — which was also one of the rare “Spirit” stories to see our hero travel overseas — we see P’Gell’s unique way with men, as she manipulates her husband so that she can escape to America, arranges his murder when she learns she won’t be going there after all, and finds a way to keep afloat after it all goes wrong. There’s an excellent sequence where P’Gell breaks the fourth wall to assure readers that, don’t worry, as bad as her predicament looked, she ended up okay… and with a new husband, to boot!
3. THE STORY OF GERHARD SHNOBBLE
1948 was a special year for Will Eisner. He was back from the war, things were running smoothly and he was able to dedicate himself to “The Spirit” fully for the first time in a number of years. At the same time, in September of that year, he discovered a new side to himself, a side that would play a significant role in Eisner’s career from that point forward. The title page splash of “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” is quite unusual, and it is particularly interesting for that end notice, about how we are not to laugh at this situation.
The reason why the story is not “funny,” is that Gerhard Schnobble, after years of being ignored, decides that he will jump off a building and fly. Not only that, but guess what? That’s exactly what he did! It was amazing… until he was then shot and killed by an errant shot in a fight between the Spirit and some bad guys. Schnobble died before anyone could see him fly. This story was perhaps Eisner’s favorite “Spirit” story of all-time, but more importantly, as he recalled in 1987, “It was the first time that I was truly aware that I could do a story that I had great personal feelings about.”
2. BRING IN SAND SEREF
Perhaps the most famous of the Spirit’s femme fatales was Sand Seref, who was later the inspiration for Frank Miller’s creation of Elektra. Like Elektra and Daredevil, Sand and Spirit knew each other in the past, but were then swept into different sides of the law due to tragedy. In the previous story (which also has a great, if a bit more subdued, title page, one that Matt Wagner noted was a particular favorite of his back in 2015), we learned of their past and now, in this second one, the Spirit has to bring her in.
There is so much going on in this title page; after all, there is a good reason it is regarded as one of the very best “Spirit” splashes of all-time. The most interesting thing about it, though, is that this was originally a splash for a whole other character! Will Eisner had tried out a new comic hero named John Law, and this splash (and Sand Seref period) were originally part of a John Law story that Eisner just edited into a “Spirit” tale.
1. SLIPPERY EALL
One of the all-time great noir films was Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” starring both of the leads of the classic “Citizen Kane,” Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. The end of the film takes place in the sewers of Austria and there’s a stunning sequence involving a sewer grate. Will Eisner’s “Spirit” is so striking that with the title page splash to “Slippery Eall,” he managed to match the power of Reed’s sewer scene with this one, as we see newspapers float into a sewer grate (with the papers forming the name, “Spirit”) while the papers at the top give a powerful testimony about crime.
What’s interesting is that the title page splash is followed by another striking page of a prison break out. Interestingly, the story itself ended up being more comedic than anything, as the three prisoners (including Slippery Eall) are all based on Will Eisner and his assistant Jerry Grandenetti and the letterer of the feature, Abe Kanegson!
What’s your favorite “Spirit” title page? Let us know in the comments section!
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