Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: The Spirit, Vol. I by Darwyn Cooke

The Spirit is a classic comic book character created by the legendary Will Eisner. The Spirit has no super-powers or even much in the way of a costume, as you can see in this picture.

He's basically a cross between a hard-boiled private detective and a costumed street-level vigilante. Like the classic vigilante, he wears a mask, doesn't carry a gun, does his fighting with his fists, and has a rogue's gallery of very offbeat characters. Like a private eye, he gets smacked around a lot, has a wise-cracking sense of humor, uses his wits and contacts to follow up on cases, and deals with a lot of femme fatales. (This collection even has a story featuring the Batman and the Spirit, so you can see the contrasts between them.

Artist and writer Darwyn Cooke has brought the Spirit back in a recent series. I picked this up on a whim, and I was startled at how well done it is.

You might be familiar with Cooke's work on the DC Elseworlds mini-series Final Frontier, which reimagined the emergence of the Silver Age heroes of the DC universe in a 1950s that was truer to the politics of the time than contemporary comics were. The comics were also turned into a DC Animated-style movie. I found The New Frontier interesting but not particularly inspiring, to be honest. And I thought the ending was rather confusing and a bit cliched.

This new Spirit series just crackles with energy and style, however. Cooke's art is crisp and classic, evoking memories of old newspaper comic strips but with an updated sense of design. The coloring in particular is superb, really adding to the emotional nuances of the panels. And the title pages read as homages to Eisner's constant experimentation with design, introducing each story with a distinct visual style designed to tie into its theme.

It's the stories themselves that are a delight, however. Unlike the classic newspaper comics that it reminds me of, Cooke's Spirit moves through each storyline at a brisk, efficient clip, packing in little details of character and plot with great efficiency.

And the stories collected in this volume are self-contained within a single comic issue, which is remarkable in this age of decompressed storytelling. It would take Brian Michael Bendis at least three issues to tell most of the stories in this volume. Characters and subplots seem to carry over from one issue to the next, but you could simply drop in on any of these "chapters" with no prior knowledge of the Spirit and immediately pick up on the characters and plot. And be satisfied with the story arc and its conclusion. This is a completely different approach from that of Fables, which is also excellent, and it's one that is a real pleasure to encounter as a busy parent.

Cooke throws interesting characters out right and left. The pacing is fast and accentuates the sense of action conveyed by the art. Brief flashbacks deftly reveal key details about the main protagonists. There's humor mixed in with adventure. All in all, I give this collection an A+. I admit I was completely surprised by what it had to offer.

1 comment:

The Martian Death Ray said...

Nice review.

I agree with you on Cooke's New Frontier—it was a book I wanted to like for both story and art, and I wound up enjoying the art.

Eisner too was efficient in his storytelling; he had only seven pages to work with. Check out a story in The Spirit called "The Elevator". It's from the late 40s. It's reprinted somewhere around issue 50 in the Kitchen Sink reprints. It's unbelievable how much Eisner to pack into seven pages. Cooke's pacing is pretty amazing and breezy like you pointed out since he has more space to draw the story out.