The Spirit: A 1991 comic book cover. Artist: Will Eisner.


Original Medium: Newspaper Comic Book
Distributed by: Register and Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1940
Creator: Will Eisner
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The Spirit was something very unusual in the history of American comics — a comic book that was distributed through newspapers. Each week, from June 2, 1940 through Oct. 5, 1952, readers of subscribing papers were treated to a special supplement among their Sunday comics, featuring original characters, not seen elsewhere, courtesy of The Register and Tribune Syndicate (The Louisiana Purchase, Jane Arden). The backup features, Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic, made little impression and were …

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… eventually dropped (bringing the booklet from 16 pages down to eight), but the lead — The Spirit, by Will Eisner — became a classic.

The title character (who may have been inspired by The Clock, an earlier comic book masked hero) was Denny Colt, criminologist and frequent assistant to Central City's police commissioner Dolan, who viewed him not just as a valued ally but also as a future son-in-law. While fighting a criminal mastermind named Dr. Cobra, Colt was injured and believed dead. He decided to use his supposed death to lull his foes into a false sense of security. Disguised only with a domino mask, he continued to fight crime as The Spirit. (This origin story was later retconned to include a more prominent villain, The Octopus.)

Eisner was responsible for the creation of quite a few long-running comics characters, including Blackhawk and Doll Man. In most cases, he quickly turned over the story and art to other talents; but for most of The Spirit's run, he handled those chores himself. Exceptions were during the time he served in the U.S. Army (1942-45), and toward the end of the feature's run, when P.S. magazine, which he produced for the U.S. Army, began taking up most of his time and attention. The reason for his continued interest was simple: In this feature, more than any other he'd been responsible for, he found a way to do every type of story he was interested in — delicate character studies, flights of fancy, cautionary fables, whatever he wanted. Sometimes The Spirit was only a minor character in his own stories, but that was okay, because Eisner, one of the outstanding geniuses of American comics, always let the needs of the story take precedence over the needs of its title character.

The Spirit was a success not just in the papers, but also in more conventional comic books. Starting in 1942, his seven- and eight-page stories were reprinted each month in Quality Comics' anthology Police Comics, where Plastic Man was the established cover feature. He remained there until a 1950 format change resulted in the ouster of all the costumed characters. From 1944-50, he also held down a title of his own at Quality Comics.

The Spirit also succeeded in more conventional newspaper comics, albeit for a shorter period of time. From Oct. 13, 1941 until March 11, 1944, it was a daily strip. Eisner only managed to write and draw the first few weeks before his Army duties became too demanding, and he was forced to pass that, too, on to assistants. Jack Cole, creator of Plastic Man and Betsy & Me; and Lou Fine, known for his work on The Ray and The Black Condor, completed the strip's run.

In the 1950s, The Spirit was reprinted for a brief time by Fiction House, whose best-known comics character was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (another that Eisner had a hand in creating). In the '60s, there was an even briefer reprint series at Harvey Comics, as part of their short-lived adventure comics revival (which also included Fighting American and The Three Rocketeers). Super Comics, a fly-by-night publisher, also did a couple of reprints, but theirs were unauthorized. In the '70s, Kitchen Sink Press, a prominent publisher of underground comix, made The Spirit their first "aboveground" publication. (They later put out excellent editions of Li'l Abner, Steve Canyon and other classic newspaper comics.) Later in the '70s, Warren Publications, known for Creepy and Vampirella, began a series of magazine-size reprints, and this series was taken over by Kitchen Sink when Warren dropped it. In 1980, Ken Pierce Publications brought out a four-volume edition of the daily strip's complete run. Kitchen Sink continued as Eisner's main publisher, and managed to get almost the entire run of The Spirit into print before its own demise in 1998. Eisner has since brought his work to DC Comics, which began a deluxe reprint series in 2000.

Needless to say, those 1940s stories, with their 1940s dialog and their 1940s clothing styles, looked more dated with every reprint. Nonetheless, readers have enthusiastically bought new editions of The Spirit in every decade since its inception — proving that true quality never really goes out of style.


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Text ©2000-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Will Eisner.