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October 30, 2007

CR Review: The Spirit, Vol. 1


Creators: Darwyn Cooke, J. Bone, Dave Stewart, Jared K. Fletcher
Publishing Information: DC Comics, hard cover, 192 pages, October 2007, $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 1401214614 (ISBN10), 9781401214616 (ISBN13)

The first volume collecting issues of DC's new The Spirit is, as expected, an extraordinarily good-looking book, clean and lean, with a clever and sharp-looking die-cut cover and impressive-as-you'd expect insides. You could spend hours looking at the damn thing, and I think I have. There are arresting instances on just about every page, the kind where you find yourself constantly clucking your tongue in appreciation. It's like watching a beautifully shot film. Your eyes might be seduced by the symmetry in a face or the perspective selected for a long shot of a living room. Cooke's comfortable partnership with Bone and Stewart results in handsome, pleasurable art, art worth going back to and looking at again. The two-page spreads have the requisite pop, a reminder of the Jack Kirby DC days of 35 years ago where a piece of visual candy lay waiting on pages 2-3 as a kind of stutter-step into the story proper. Cooke's women are beautiful, his bad guys grotesque, and there's only a tiny bit of struggle with the outsized, cartoonier figures like Commissioner Dolan (who retains a level of absurdity, at least in his design, that suggests his being a larger than life boss more seen that way than is that way) and Ebony (mercifully revamped and updated). The stories are ripped out of the 1940s in which Will Eisner's stories are set and take place in one of those mid-20th Century cities with modern elements that Cooke as much as anyone has popularized. Like I said, I've been looking at the thing for hours now. I like it.

imageReading it is a different experience. While a book combining Will Eisner's signature character and a talent high-profile mainstream cartoonist like Cooke seems like it'd be a natural, there are a few pre-existing strikes against the project. One, some might be uncomfortable by anyone other than Will Eisner doing these characters. Two, it's been my suspicion since it was announced that the title would work better as a series of comic books despite the fact we're in a world now where the trade makes or breaks a project's reputation and drives much of the smaller print run decisions. Three, Eisner and Cooke have greater differences as artists than many might realize. The first trouble spot is either a part of a reader's makeup or it isn't; if you're disqualified from enjoying a second take on the character and his world, that's cool, I can't really talk you back into a place where you might change your mind. The second I'll talk about a few graphs down the page.

The third proves to be a compelling way to look at the entire project, the wisdom of taking a second shot at a great piece of comics making. Cooke loves an arresting image as much as any creator on the planet seems to. He has a good eye; his pictures are tasteful and sumptuous. This is a big part of why he's been so successful I think in a part of the art form that in many other ways doesn't share his values. Mainstream comics has been reduced, mostly by Mark Waid and Grant Morrison, into a string of story moments. Cooke's skill and taste make him an extremely effective facilitator of story through a single image. In contrast, a lot of what Eisner did counted on setting a consistent tone and then riffing off of it, sometimes bringing in a set of artistic effects and seeing what would happen when he would throw one at the other, an ongoing study in medium cool.

Darwyn Cooke's run on The Spirit will likely end with a reputation as a quality work that's much more constrained than what Eisner accomplished. It's hard to work at the edge of your talent with someone else's characters, and I don't think these comics ever transcend the esteem with which Eisner's work is held in our collective memory. And yet I think it's worth noting that it may be seen in much the same way by people looking at it in the context of Cooke's career. Its contribution there may be in helping instill within Cooke a greater sense of discipline when it comes to creating a visual through-line scene to scene. There are fewer confusing jumps from one part of a scene to another than in some earlier Cooke works, when an item switches hands in a scene between P'Gell and The Spirit between where you might think it would end up, it jars because Cooke has left behind the series of still shots from past works and moved into sustained scenes. The degree of control applied to the last two Spirit stories in this volume and the collection-concluding reprint of the Batman/Spirit team-up comic is quite severe. I think the comics are tighter and more entertaining as they move along, and reflect a more seamless integration of Eisner's basic methodology. It should be interesting to see what Cooke makes of some of these techniques in his promised, stand-alone graphic novels.

Okay, as for the second point from the earlier graph: I really do think that The Spirit may be a better comic series than a collection. The mostly stand-alone stories here are dense, making the series one of the more satisfying purchases on an individual issue basis. Cooke integrates different, tried and true storytelling techniques like flashbacks or shifts in time, but he lets them breathe through limited use rather than pushing them by making that the central focus of any one story, a strategy that give the comics a greater texture than most books on the stand and in some cases an unexpected rhythm to the stories themselves. There are even small shifts in presentational style that take the comic out of full film-comics mode and make for a richer reading experience. It's the kind of comic book where you can buy only that comic and have a little comics reading session at your house with your feet up rather than seeking satisfaction by devouring all those tiny snippets of story in pamphlet form. If I were a habitual comics shop devotee, I would be a little bit happier every time this book looked out at me from the new funnybook wall. It seems perfect for that experience.

The one improvement with the collection is that reading all the stories together one gets the sense that the creators may be poking a bit at their lead character. I can't tell if it's on purpose or not, but seen as a continuity, decisions upon coming back to life like pursuing a heightened, crazier version of one's professional life or putting one's greatly satisfying romantic life into a holding pattern, these may remind one of the kind of classic identity crisis a person might enter into in their late twenties, the panic and shuffle that comes upon a first severe setback, although perhaps one that doesn't involve briefly dying. A series of romantic entanglements that don't go much deeper than assurances of mutual attraction, ramping up the elements you favor best at your place of employment to re-imagine it as more of a cause, an overall refusal to sit still: most of us have seen these things in a friend or two whom we patiently wait out and hope that the damage to the progress of their life isn't too severe. Cooke's The Spirit suggests an everyman who through fisticuffs and heroic action works his way through one of the great, universal questions: what the hell am I doing with myself? I'll be interested to see if the next set of issues suggest an answer. I'm already terrified that less gentle hands may take up the same exploration after Cooke's gone.

posted 1:00 pm PST | Permalink

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