Friday, January 18, 2008

The Spirit: Alive and Kicking!

In the world of comic books, Will Eisner is commonly regarded as one of the few pioneers of the industry. Credited with creating one of the first graphic novels, effectively utilizing film noir techniques in 8 page comic stories, a unique sense of design and a host of other firsts, Eisner is best known for the classic Sunday comic strip 'The Spirit'. Originally a story about a police detective who dons a mask to fight crime in fictional Central City, it evolved into comics' first blue collar super hero.

The Spirit had no super powers, just a blue suit, blue hat, gloves and mask. He had a square jaw, a goofy sense of humor and a blind spot when it came to the ladies. As time went on, The Spirit evolved into a compelling look at the human condition: love, hate, betrayal, hope, laughs and faith. In many instances, supporting characters carried the story, with The Spirit only appearing in a panel or two.

The Spirit is currently being made into a big budget movie, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johannsen, Eva Mendes and Gabriel Macht as the masked crime-fighter. Interestingly, renowned comic book creator Frank Miller (300, Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns) is at the helm, following his co-directing debut with Robert Rodriguez on 'Sin City'. Miller is known for hard boiled, take no prisoner storytelling, which is at the opposite end of The Spirit's world. Fingers crossed that the hopefulness, humanity and humor that made the original comic strip so memorable isn't lost in Miller's version, due out in early 2009.

Over the years, several publishers have tried to re-introduce The Spirit in new adventures, all landing with a big thud, until Darwyn Cooke came along.

A Canadian neighbor, Darwyn cut his teeth in advertising and animation before he committed his talents to the comic book industry. His impact was felt almost immediately. 'Batman: Ego', an examination of the inner life and conflict of the Dark Knight, was written and drawn by Cooke. His illustration style is at once retro and futuristic. There are clear signs of his animation background in his work, as well as an appreciation of the spirit (no pun intended), design and feel of America in the 50s and 60s.

Darwyn did a number of other notable projects, like the graphic crime novel, 'Catwoman: Selina's Big Score', but the damn truly burst when he created the maxi series, 'The New Frontier', an look at the creation of what would become the Justice League of America, set in the late 50s-early 60s. A mammoth 400+ page read, Darwyn's writing and illustrations are among the strongest in the history of the medium. 'New Frontier' was a huge success, earning Cooke endless accolades and awards, culminating next month with the DVD release of an animated version of the maxi series.

All of this led to Darwyn's next project, reviving The Spirit, yet again. Darwyn took a different tack from his predecessors: he placed The Spirit firmly in the present day and wasn't scared to do updates where necessary. For example, in the original series, Ebony White, The Spirit's cab driver, was visually a stereotypical Black caricature, with big eyes and lips, and problems speaking the King's english. Although the character was respected by other characters in the strip and did have a sense of dignity, it was a less than desirable presentation. In Cooke's update, Ebony is a young, good looking savvy Black kid who may be the smartest charater in the book.

For twelve issues, Darwyn, along with his talented inker J.Bone, editor Ben Abernathy, letterer Jared K. Fletcher and colorist Dave Stewart, produced the best comic book of 2007. Unfortunately, Darwyn's run on the book ends with the current issue, #12. Due to personnel changes beyond his control, Darwyn opted to leave with his team intact, on a high note. Ironically, this last issue may be the best of all.

Based on Will Eisner's original story, 'Sand' concerns the true love of The Spirit's life, Sand Sareef. It's a sad story about love lost, that taps into the best of Darwyn's strengths: character, mood, motivation and beautiful artwork. If you've ever considered giving a comic book a try, The Spirit #12 is a great place to start. However, it should be made clear that this is a creator operating at a very high level and most books don't come close to it.

No comments: