Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Best Silver: The Spirit #1 (Harvey Comics)

This is the first of an occasional series where I will discuss the comics, stories and characters that I consider to be the finest of the entire Silver Age. These selections are intended to be idiosyncratic choices, although I assume that many of them will turn out to be consensus picks nevertheless.

A bit of background, first. On January 9, 1966, the New York Herald Tribune printed an article about the Spirit comics of the 1940s in its Sunday magazine supplement, along with a new, five-page Spirit story. The article must have gotten the attention of the folks at Harvey Comics. As I have discussed in the past, Harvey (like many other publishers) found itself caught flat-footed when the superhero craze hit in 1966, inspired by the Batman series. They rushed out a couple of very mediocre series, and this comic, which I would rank as among the greatest comics of the Silver Age.

I cannot say if it exploded like an atom bomb or like a dud; there was a second issue which is also terrific, but then The Spirit vanished in the night until Warren Magazines brought him back successfully around 1974.

Now a little bit about myself; I had always been a reader of real books since about third grade. I don't remember much about comics at that point in my life. My dad got the Sunday Herald Tribune and in the magazine section there was Miss Peach and BC as I recall. When the Batman show took off (right around the same time), the kids of my age (11) all started buying Batman comics, and talking about how cool X story was versus the TV show.

And my dad said to me that the best comic was the Spirit. Now I have talked to him many times since then and he doesn't remember reading the Spirit as a kid. So the obvious conclusion I have reached is that he remembered reading the Herald Tribune story, only a few weeks/months earlier and told me about the Spirit as this great comic that I would never have heard about.

But I didn't find The Spirit #1 on the newsstands in 1966. Instead it was pure circumstance that I found a copy in 1973. I was a senior in high school and walking by this classroom when I noticed that they were reading comic books. I poked my head in the door and asked if I could read one of the books.

A few comics down I found the first Harvey Spirit comic. I remembered what my dad had said about the Spirit and borrowed the comic. And promptly had my world turned upside down.

Here's the splash for the first story:

Now that was different; the Spirit spelled out by the top level of a tenement. The clack, clack, clack of his shoes as he raced along the pavement, all this was incredibly new in 1966--or 1973 as I came across the series.

The first story was (of course) an origin story. Denny Colt is a detective presumed killed, why not let the crooks think that way so he can fight crime behind the scenes? So he creates a hideout in the local cemetery and becomes the local man of mystery.

It's a fairly pedestrian origin although I believe it was newly drawn for this issue. That's not surprising because the Spirit himself is seldom the featured character in his stories. And that's not a knock on the character; it's just that Eisner really stretched himself with the other characters.

The rest of the issue consists of reprints from the Spirit stories of the 1940s. The second story is an oddball choice, but I suppose Lorelei of Odyssey Road gave Harvey a chance to introduce readers to one of Eisner's many femmes fatale. The CCA would probably not have let them publish someone like P'Gell, for multiple reasons.

It has one of the classic Eisner openings:

Weather was often featured in Spirit stories. Eisner always remembered to place his stories in reality, so it wasn't just who what where, it was also what time of year. There is also some terrific art in the story that approaches psychedelic; it's clearly way ahead of its time in that regard although it is hard to credit the Harvey people with recognizing its appeal to older teens.

The third story captivated me, both by its story telling gimmick and its message. The gimmick is that Eisner presents two pages side-by-side. Carboy T. Gretch and Cranfranz Qwayle led apparently similar lives. Gretch was a career criminal who was now getting beaten on by the guards while Qwayle was was a henpecked husband who was the subject of much domestic violence from his wife. But they both "get away" when they are forced to clear out the sewer.

Here the story merges. As it happens, they have come out near each other and in a flash of brilliance, Qwayle offers Gretch a wad of cash to switch identities with him.

The stories separate again. Gretch thinks he's got it made, until the cops return him to his angry wife, while Qwayle enjoys life behind bars with plenty of books and no nagging spouse.

The Spirit himself only appears for two panels in this very offbeat tale.

There follows a little two-page 1960s humor, with a Q-type fellow showing the Spirit his new weaponry--the bulletproof hat, the X-ray mask, the powerful gloves, etc. Just as he starts to think he could take over for the Spirit, he gets a fist to the snoot.

There are two more terrific stories that follow, but I want to skip ahead. Ten Minutes is my absolute favorite Spirit story. Freddy is a young man in a hurry and the story starts out by telling us that the next ten minutes will be the last ten minutes of Freddy's life. He goes into the local candy store with no particular aim in mind but to play pinball, but when he finds himself alone with the owner he decides to rob the place. He kills the owner but finds himself trapped behind the counter as a horde of customers comes in, including a gal who wants to flirt with Freddy. What follows is the finest piece of sequential art that I have ever seen:

The expression on that girl's face as she leans over and sees the dead body is a perfect combination of shock, disgust and fear. And then the next panel with the eeeeek following Freddy out the door... I mean how much better does it get?

Another solid story about Thorne Strand (another femme fatale) and the finale is the tale of Gerhardt Schnobble, who had a rather special ability:

That's interesting, for more reasons than one. Jack Kirby had started to introduce photographic elements into his stories with some controversy regarding the same. But this was a story from decades earlier by an acknowledged master of the genre.

It's a cute little story, although not one with a happy ending as Eisner warns up front. That's another thing about his tales; they often had sad or shocking denouements.

Why did the Spirit not succeeed? I suspect partially because Harvey was the wrong publisher; the Spirit would have done best with an older teen audience, which Harvey had not cultivated during the 1960s. Could it have succeeded? Undoubtedly; it sold well for Warren about 8 years later.

There were probably somewhere around 20,000 or more comics published during the Silver Age; there are not five that deserve to be ranked above The Spirit #1.