Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 43rd installment.
Alan Moore certainly loved the work of Will Eisner.
Looking back on Moore’s comic book influences, and considering how much he built on the stories he’d read as a youth—which, sometimes, seems like all of them—it’s difficult to say what had the biggest impact. Was it the work of Jerry Siegel and Edmond Hamilton and Wayne Boring and Curt Swan from the Superman comics of the Silver Age, filled with one imaginative twist after another?
Was it Steve Gerber’s weird horror blended with the fantastic? Jim Starlin’s gritty mythopoeia? Lee and Kirby’s monsters mixed with humanity?
Or was it the work of Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood from the early issues of Mad, a precursor that not only reframed his consideration of superheroes to bring about the deconstruction seen in Marvelman but also ingrained the rhythmic, densely-packed, nine-panel grid structure of Watchmen?
Surely it’s all of those things, with some in larger evident doses than others. But there’s also Will Eisner. And we must never forget about him.
In a 1986 appreciation of Eisner, reprinted in The Spirit Archives Volume 1, Alan Moore gushes over the comic book masterworks of the man who created The Spirit in his twenties and would go on to popularize the graphic novel format in his later life. “Simply put,” writes Moore, “there’s no one quite like Will Eisner.”
Moore credits Eisner for giving comics “their brains.” “Whenever you have the occasion to hear either myself or one of the current batch of comic-strip professionals pontificating and theorizing upon the state of the medium,” says Moore, “you should bear in mind that, at best, what we’re doing is building upon the solid groundwork that Eisner has been laying down for the past forty years.” Moore declares, using all-caps, “He’s THE BOSS, and we know it.”
Moore recounts his experiences reading reprints of The Spirit in Harvey Comics editions, mixed in with his regular dose of Lee and Kirby Marvel comics. Moore cherished Eisner’s work, even at a young age, and sought out everything the elder creator did. Moore emphasizes that Eisner is a special case in the world of comic book creators: “If The Spirit were all that Eisner had done, that would in itself be remarkable. The fact that he has continued to produce [up through Moore’s 1986 appreciation and until Eisner’s death in 2005] such a sustained and consistent body of work…is nothing short of astonishing, by anyone’s standard.”
Moore’s Eisner essay ends with a coda, expanding on his opening line: “There is no one quite like Will Eisner. There never has been, and on my more pessimistic days I doubt there ever will be.”
Though Eisner would be loudly, appropriately, acclaimed for his graphic novel work in the 1970s and beyond, it’s really his writing and visual storytelling in the 1940s Spirit strips that remain the most powerful examples of his talent. It’s not overstating the case to suggest that Eisner’s groundbreaking approach to comic book art on The Spirit was akin to Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s cinematic innovations in Citizen Kane. Even today, the best Spirit stories, always seven pages, always complete with a beginning, middle, and end, are filled with storytelling flourishes that still seem exciting and new. Eisner changed the way comics could be drawn, but few of his contemporaries had time to pay attention, and even fewer had the talent to try to pull off what he accomplished, particularly in the post-WW II years, when his artistry became even more confident in its experimentation.
In most of the fondly-remembered Spirit stories, the title character played a mere supporting role, and the story itself—or the storytelling—shone brightly in the spotlight.
But by the end of the 1940s, others were writing and drawing the series under Eisner’s supervision, and he only worked on a handful of Spirit shorts after that, even though the original strips were continually republished in the decades that followed.
In the late 1990s, Alan Moore got a chance to continue Eisner’s legacy, as part of the Eisner-approved The Spirit: The New Adventures anthology series from Kitchen Sink Press. This short-lived series brought some great talent to the characters Eisner created, and the single issues were printed with the highest production values of the time. These comics looked amazing.
Alan Moore wrote all three stories for the debut issue. Joining him on the art for all three? His Watchmen parter Dave Gibbons.
The Spirit: The New Adventures#1 (Kitchen Sink Press, March 1998)
The big secret of all three stories in this first issue is that they are really the same story. I guess it’s not a secret, but it’s not obvious from a flip-through, as Gibbons uses slightly-different visual cues for each (different kinds of panel borders, different page layouts, different camera placements) even though his distinctive style shines through on every page.
And not only are they all the same story, but they directly contradict one another at times, making the telling more important than the “truth.” And all three of them are based on the first and second Will Eisner Spirit stories ever. They feature the vile scientist known as Dr. Cobra, and his demise.
In Eisner’s original story, from 1940, Dr. Cobra is inadvertently responsible for the Spirit’s heroic identity. Cobra “killed” detective Denny Colt, and the scientist’s spilled chemicals gave life to the nigh-immortal Spirit, a crimefighter who looks and dresses exactly like Denny Colt, except he also sports a domino mask to keep the illusion that Denny Colt has died. (It’s a storytelling contrivance that even Eisner didn’t take seriously. Commissioner Dolan immediately recognizes that the Spirit is the man he know as Denny Colt, but he helps keep it a secret, even though no one really cares.)
In the second Spirit story, a cornered Dr. Cobra blows himself up with a bomb. And that’s that.
In Moore and Gibbons reworking, Cobra survived and faced the death penalty. Or he was killed by Homer Creap, former fiancé to Commissioner Dolan’s daughter. Depends on which story you believe.
The third story is also about Dr. Cobra, but only tangentially, as it explores the weird secret life of Gertrude Granch, widow of Dr. Cobra’s hired muscle (who was killed in action during one of the sinister lab scenes when the Spirit broke in to stop Cobra).
The stories all work independently of each other and don’t rely on a knowledge of the Eisner original. A vague awareness of the Spirit and his supporting cast is helpful, but not essential. Moore and Gibbons do all the heavy lifting with each story and give you precisely what you need to know. And the thing about the best Spirit stories, Eisner or Moore or Gibbons or otherwise, is that the revel in the playfulness of their form. And they let the theme of the story dictate the visual approach.
So in Moore and Gibbons first tale, death row Dr. Cobra reflects on his run-ins with the Spirit, and each page features Dr. Cobra eating his final meal in the bottom panel, telling his story, while above him float decorous recounting of his (biased) exploits. In the second story, the dweeby fiancé from the early Eisner Spirit stories becomes the hero of his own tale, as he gives his version of the Dr. Cobra story, but poor Homer Creap can’t even muster up enough machismo to make himself seem brave in the final scenes, and he admits that he’s been banished into virtual obscurity. (Just as he was forgotten in the Eisner comics.)
The final story does a kind of detective-meets-Benjamin-Button riff, as the reader discovers (though the detectives do not) that Gertrude Granch’s hired-muscle-husband has been aging backwards because of some Dr. Cobra chemicals gone wrong. Each time we see Mrs. Granch, she’s with a man/boy/infant of a different age, until all that’s left of her beloved husband is a mere puddle of pre-sentient liquid.
The Spirit, title character, plays a role in all three stories, but in typical Eisnerian fashion, Moore and Gibbons keep him in the background as real human drama (comedy and tragedy) play out around him.
“Last Night I Dreamed of Dr. Cobra,” The Spirit: The New Adventures #3 (Kitchen Sink Press, May 1998)
Alan Moore returned to the Kitchen Sink anthology series two issues later, with Spanish artist Daniel Torres joining him for the visuals.
This time, Moore only contributed a single story, though once again it revolves around the Dr. Cobra motif, but not as directly as tales from issue #1.
Torres has done little work for the American comics audience, but his Rocco Vargas graphic novels are well worth seeking, and sometimes you can find them translated into English at reasonable prices. They seem to be out of print more often than not, for North American audiences.
Torres draws in a clear line style, and embeds hyper-detailed, maximalistic backgrounds into the panels here. And that’s exactly what this story needs, because here Alan Moore jumps ahead into the distant future as tour guides on hovercycles take us through Central City. This story has a clever conceit based on an old tradition: Will Eisner, in his prime Spirit years, would place the title logo directly into the story. So the letterforms of “The Spirit” on each title page would be shaped into a series of buildings in the background, or they would be the water splashing down an alley wall from a gutter, or they would be carved into a tunnel, or something like that. In Moore’s story, Eisner’s letterforms were literally a part of Central City’s landscape. Weird buildings spelled out “The Spirit” throughout the city.
Our tour guide calls it Logotechture, “unique to Central City.”
Meanwhile, as we hear her broadcast voice, showing us the city highlights and reminding us of the great denizens who once lived there, we see a shadowy-but-familiar figure looking along with us. He seems sad. And he is, for he dreams of Dr. Cobra.
Throughout the story the contrast of the impersonal city tour and the very personal diary entries of the long-lived (because of the immortality chemicals) Spirit resonate more powerfully than either would alone. Moore’s Spirit is ultimately a tragic figure, alone in a world he helped to build but far removed from anyone he cares about.
“They build things out of atoms now,” reads the Spirit’s diary, “…and outside in jungle ruins, peacocks scream. The people come and go, but mostly go, yet there is something of them that continues; part of them that never dies, though sometimes it grows tired.”
“Last night,” he writes, “I dreamed of Dr. Cobra.”
And that’s the end. Poetic and sweet and sad. A lamentation for what once was from a writer paying tribute to a man who remains one of the best who has ever lived.
This stuff is like a much-needed palate-cleanser after the excess of 1990s Alan Moore Awesome. I’m thankful for it. It’s among Alan Moore’s most overlooked work.
NEXT TIME: America’s Best begins! Tom Strong, Part 1.