Many articles have been written about The Spirit, but the best man to recount his origins was his creator.
“When we started,” Will Eisner told The Comics Journal in one of the many interviews he gave that magazine, “they said what are you going to do? And I said I’d like to do a series of short stories, and they said no, it has to be a recognizable, syndicatable character. And they said, do a costumed character. They didn’t call them super-heroes in those days; it was ‘costumed characters.’ So, I just couldn’t bring myself––I had a belly full of Sheena, Wonder Man, the Flame, all the other things I had done—I really wanted to do a human being.”
This was not revisionist history. Eisner had been saying it since the beginning.
“When I decided upon the Spirit, I worked from the inside out, you might say,” Eisner told The Philadelphia Record in 1941. “That is, I thought first of his personality—the kind of man he was to be, how he would look at problems, how he would feel about life, the sort of mind he would have. When that was worked out, I didn’t have to imagine him as a person. I began to see him. Handsome, obviously, and powerfully built, but not one of those impossibly big, thick-legged brutes. He was the kind of a man a child could conceive of seeing on the street.”
Publisher Everett “Busy” Arnold suggested possible names, such as The Ghost and The Spirit. Reluctantly, Eisner accepted the latter. The character belonged to a generation of mystery men who included the likes of The Saint and The Shadow. But Eisner wanted him to be unique.
As he told The Comics Journal, “I remember one rainy night—it always seemed to be raining when I’m making big decisions—I got a call from ‘Busy’ Arnold when I was finalizing the character, and he said, Has he got a costume? And I put a mask and globes on him, and I said, Yes, he’s got a costume. That was how the costume came about.
“But the Spirit himself was as confused about society as I was. I could never figure how super-heroes—where they get the absolute, unmitigated gall to stand up and say, ‘Well, I will solve the world’s problems.’ I. The Spirit was a very middle-class kind of guy. Always was.”
Operating out of a thinly-disguised Manhattan dubbed Central City, detective Denny Colt, pretending to be dead and operating out of his own tomb in Wildwood Cemetary, fought crime with only his wits and his gloved fists.
“New York City is a fountainhead of stories,” Eisner told The A. V. Club website. “It’s a big theater, and there’s always something going on. I’m never really out of stories. There’s always a new challenge, and my style is to constantly explore or experiment, so I’m constantly probing beyond what I’ve done before. I’m never happy with what I did yesterday—not because I think I did a bad job, but because there’s more to do. This is a medium that has not fully reached its potential.”
This was another theme Eisner propounded the length and breadth of his career.
“In 1940, The Spirit had just appeared in the Baltimore Sun,” Eisner said in 2002, on the occasion of the Will Eisner Symposium held at the University of Florida, “and a reporter came by and did an interview with me, and I told him that I believed that this was a fine art form, and that someday it will be recognized as such. I got back into New York and the kids in the shops kept laughing and saying, ‘We read that, are you trying to be uppity?’ Nobody really believed that this was what it later on seemed to prove itself to be, which is a true means of expression, story, and idea.”
Eisner transformed what was supposed to be just another super-hero strip into a hardboiled vehicle for warm-hearted stories. This off-center blend of superheroics and human interest struck a chord no other writer-artist thought to try.
“I was very lucky in doing The Spirit because I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted within that frame,” Eisner told Fantarama in 1979. “I constantly had to drag The Spirit in by the heels… In Gerard Snobble, which I decided is my favorite story, The Spirit came in as incidental. The story could have been told without him.”
For such an enduring feature, The Spirit’s original run in newspaper strips and comic books was barely a decade, 1940-1955. In 1966, Eisner wrote a new 5-page Spirit story for the New York Herald. A few months later, Harvey Comics began reprinting the original stories. In 1972, a new story appeared in Snarf #3, an underground comic. This led to Kitchen Sink’s Spirit reprints, which birthed the long-running Warren magazine.
Since that time, The Spirit has never faded from the public consciousness.
“I must say I was amazed that the character has survived,” Eisner told Comics Scene. “It’s still got young readers. Apparently, the basic stories have survived largely because they’re fundamentally sound stories. You must remember that these stories were written for an adult audience, for a newspaper audience. Consequently, there’s more depth to the stories than you would have if they were written for young comic-book readers. As a matter of fact, the proof of that is that The Spirit was never successful on the newsstand in competition with Batman and Superman or any other super-heroes. But the last report I got from DC said that the first Archival Edition has sold well beyond what they expected, so it’s doing very well.
“I’m still astonished a little bit by that because I never thought in all my experience––I’d been the head of the newspaper syndicate, and I’ve been in the syndicated business––and I’ve never a comic strip that had ended and come back. To my astonishment, the Spirit has survived. In 1952, when I stopped the Spirit, I thought that’s it. This was the end. I never thought I would see or hear from him again. But apparently it has survived all these years. And the only thing that I can think of that might make any sense, a European publisher once told me, ‘What you have is a Sherlock Holmes on your hands.’ When he said that, I began to realize what he meant. That the stories I was telling where fundamental stories and it didn’t matter if the costume was 1940’s, if the lapels were wide.
“I know the next question you going to ask me: It is why do I think that is? The reason for that I think is essentially the fact that when I undertook the Spirit, it was an opportunity for me to get out of the comic book field or ghetto, and write to an adult audience. Which is what I always wanted to do. From the very earliest, even from the beginning of the Eisner-Iger experience, I realized that this was a medium that had “literary” potential. And that I was going to spend the rest of my life in this medium.”
Through the ensuing decades, fans continually clamored for more Will Eisner Spirit stories. Eisner held firm to the end.
As he told The Comics Journal in 1984, “I feel the same way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—to be presumptuous, putting myself in his company—felt about Sherlock Holmes. I’ve done it. I’ve done it well. As well as I could, anyhow. I see no reason to do it. I have no objection to doing a cover for The Spirit once in a while, or doing The Spirit graffiti here and there.”
Near the end of his life, I asked Will Eisner, “After 60 years, have you finally reconciled yourself to the fact the Spirit needs to wear a mask?”
“I’ve been fighting that all of these years,” he admitted. “I’ve tried desperately several times to eliminate that. It was one of the concessions I made that I always regretted doing. I think I could have written better stories if he didn’t have a mask.
I used to start my stories with my hands on the lapel of the reader and saying, ‘Look. Believe me. I’ll tell you the story.’ In the Spirit, this masked man would be walking through the subway with nobody paying attention to the fact he’s wearing a mask is a little silly. And yet, it works somehow or other.”