Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The New Adventures Review
Story and art by: Various (including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell, Paul Chadwick, Kurt Busiek, John Ostrander, and Tom Mandrake)
Review by Jason Kahler
Just launching Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The New Adventures was a momentous project. As described by Denis Kitchen in the introduction to this 200-page hardcover collection, Eisner was tremendously protective of his domino mask-wearing detective, and resisted calls to let other creators tell Spirit stories. Eisner finally relented for what Kitchen calls the “Spirit Jam” in 1980, a one and done assortment of writers and artists providing the bookend materials for The Spirit issue 30, and then again in 1998 with the on-going New Adventures, all eight issues of which are collected in this book.
The nineteen different stories presented here explore a range of themes and contexts, from crime noir to wartime intrigue to funny romps on golf courses. One of the defining characteristics of The Spirit as a character, even when portrayed solely by Eisner, is his ability to be dropped into largely any sort of situation and conform to what was needed for the story.
The creators are an impressive list of names and talents: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell, Paul Chadwick, Kurt Busiek, John Ostrander, and Tom Mandrake are among the many people contributing story and art. It’s a fine testament to the reverence of Eisner’s work that so many luminaries came to work on Spirit stories.
from the story “Gossip and Gertrude Granch.” story by Alan Moore. art and letters by Dave Gibbons. colors by Angus McKie
With such variety and so many potential different approaches, it’s not surprising that the end results are at times a bit uneven. Some of the art is breath-taking, especially when the artists apply their own abilities to Eisner-like sensibilities. Gibbons’s contributions, especially, show a remarkable range and reward close inspection of the pages. At other times in this collection, though, the art is pretty darn ugly.
At their best, the stories in this collection explore The Spirit slightly displaced both from his time and our time, uncovering the various nuances of crime genres in compelling ways. As a fighter for justice, The Spirit has always been inflexible, ignoring common sense in pursuit of the villains, a trait represented here very well. Eisner was always socially-conscious, and this collection nods in that direction, too, though at times the attempts at social commentary can feel heavy handed.
Where this collection stumbles is when the creators emulate the racism and sexism of The Spirit’s day. These moments in the story feel forced and clunky, indecisively positioned somewhere between homage, authenticity, parody, and satire. When you read actual classic Spirit stories, the portrayal of minorities or The Spirit’s interactions with women can be understood through the lens of the times. In these new stories, it’s challenging—perhaps impossible—to separate ourselves from our times. The most egregious example comes from Chadwick’s story “Cursed Beauty.” When a male murder victim is found in bed wearing women’s underwear, The Spirit asks the Commissioner “Was this guy a sissy?”. From Chadwick, creator of the extraordinary Concrete stories, this is a misstep that sounds particularly tone deaf. There are other small instances of misogyny and insensitivity of all sorts throughout these stories which pull us out of the action.
For today’s reader, these seem out of place without some acknowledgement of the societal changes that have occurred in the years since The Spirit’s debut. There’s never an impression these details are somehow a commentary on the differences between then and now, and highlight the strength and timelessness of the included stories that avoid the worst of The Spirit’s history.
Skip It!, though hardcore Spirit fans might not be able to resist. At the retail price point of $50.00, someone really interested in The Spirit would be better off with the authentic, all-Eisner collections that are available.