Though he preferred to be known for his graphic novel work – volumes which essentially created the concept of a “graphic novel” – arguably Will Eisner’s most influential contribution to mainstream comics came in the form of The Spirit. First appearing in 1940, and then off and on for the subsequent decades, the strip lent some legitimacy to sequential storytelling, a form at the time overrun by mass-produced strongmen, hastily scrawled crime parables, and countless long-forgotten masked crusaders, all without losing the fundamental entertaining quality of the pulp detective story. This second edition hardcover, collecting stories originally published in the late 1990s, returns to print a who’s who of comics talent contributing their own tales featuring Eisner’s enduring characters, and boy, is it ever an entertaining ride.
The Spirit – formerly Denny Colt, whose disguise consists of a simple domino mask – is often merely the connective thread between the eighteen stories contained in this volume. He is a square-jawed, rough-and-tumble hero if ever there was one, but for a man who cheated death he is oddly vulnerable, often one step too far behind the events swirling around him, frequently seen leaning against a wall or a lamppost, catching his breath, ruined clothing hanging raggedly off him. Usually, the stories really belong to the guest cast, people caught up in some criminal enterprise or scheme, or on the wrong end of a curse, or simply unable to help themselves. If it sounds like the content of these stories could run the gamut, there’s a reason for that: the tone of the collection careens haphazardly from gritty noir to near-slapstick comedy, from inescapable tragedy to raucous levity. Stories star the Spirit himself at times, but just as often feature children dressed as Central City’s local crimefighter for Halloween, or the hapless, down-on-their-luck guys whose paths the Spirit crosses, or, in one case, a bullet.
The all-star creative credits include such luminaries as Alan Moore (providing, with his Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons, a retelling of the Spirit’s origin as well as “Last Night I Dreamed of Dr. Cobra,” one of the most fundamentally Alan Moore-ish stories I’ve ever read), Neil Gaiman, Kurt Busiek, David Lloyd, Michael Avon Oeming, John Ostrander, and…well, too many others to count. Each writer and artist brings his or her own flavor to the Spirit. Consequently, the volume lacks any sort of cohesive tone or even genre – Nazi robots and mad scientists are as likely to appear as loan sharks and con men – but, if anything, this variety reflects the strength of Eisner’s original work to which these all pay homage. The Spirit: The New Adventures is Golden Age comics made new again.