Wednesday, September 7, 2011


In October 1966 a Fiction House newsstand hero of the forties made a comic-book comeback hoping to ride on the coat-tails of the James Bond boom. It was The SPIRIT, Will Eisner’s tongue-in-cheek vigilante hero. The publisher was Harvey Hits, Inc., whose usual fare was such nursery stuff as Caspar, Wendy, and Richie Rich and the armed services favorite Sad Sack. Americans paid a quarter while Canadians were charged 35 cents.

Harvey, trying to become relevant in the adventure comics field, threw out a huge array of 35 cent titles with a talented group of artists that included Wally Wood (fresh from THUNDER AGENTS), Al Williamson (FLASH GORDON), and superhero pioneers Simon and Kirby. Titles included SPYMAN, PIRANA, DYNAMITE JOE, JIGSAW, JACK FROST and B-MAN. Most were hard to find. They appeared sporadically, often a single issue to a store, then disappeared from the newsstands altogether.

I was ecstatic (newsprint was so beautiful) when I found a copy of The SPIRIT No. 1 at a Penticton, B.C. newsstand since my only previous view of the comic was in a February 1962 Help Magazine section which reprinted seven pages, and Jules Feiffer’s short Playboy article which preceded his 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes with a few reprinted panels from the Spirit Comic Sections. As you can see from the shape of the cover I read this book to pieces and copied every page, every panel, and every bit of the fine lettering style in search of enlightenment. On many pages the registration was off, Ben Day dots were visible, and the color was muddy, but I have always preferred the Harvey comic version to anything put out since. The comic-books were filled with a glorious mystery, not only the mystery of the Spirit, but the mystery of cartooning.

The first seven pages told who the Spirit was and how he came to be and introduced mad scientist Dr. Cobra. The art was new, in a slicker style than the reprints that filled the rest of the book. This was followed with an interview with The Spirit by Marylin Mercer, which featured jokes about a plot to cut the Beatle’s hair and references to a super syndicate presided over by The Octopus who controlled SMERSH, SPECTRE, and THRUSH.

“Does this mean you’ll be teaming up with James Bond and the boys from UNCLE ?”

“Well,” said The Spirit, “I don’t know about that. I’ve known Bond for years, and I don’t mind telling you that I’ve had to pull him out of trouble a number of times…”

Issue 1 of The SPIRIT reprinted Lorelei of Odyssey Road, the story of Carboy T. Gretch and his doppelganger Cranfranz Qwayle, Beautiful Cosmek, agent of Mars, Freddy, a murderer whose life was “one big tilt,” Thorne Strand whose husband blew his brains out over her infidelity with a mobster, the Spirit’s Reader, and the flight of Gerhard Shnobble. Two more pages of new art showcased the Spirit’s Bond-like gadgets and featured a caricature of Kotchiturian from UNCLE. Four stories from the next issue were previewed.

I haunted newsstands for months until I found a forlorn copy of The SPIRIT No. 2 to read. Seven new pages began the issue with the life story of the Octopus, two pages of filler had The Spirit jokingly answering reader mail, and two more pages of new material poked fun at the Man from MSD, a delivery man showing his defensive salami for spies. Reprints were Plaster of Paris, a story of a fiendish child seeking revenge for a confiscated Awful Book, a barbershop frequented by a gangster, The Spirit’s Reader, a lovely western, a tale of a talking cockroach and a Halloween story featuring Miss Macbeth.

Could Will Eisner have planned to return with new stories that were more in tune with sixties pop culture? It seems from all the topical spy references that Will Eisner may have planned to take the Spirit and make him more relevant to the sixties, a rival of James Bond and Matt Helm. If so he was out of luck, -- in Eisner‘s own words it “ didn’t go anywhere.” A page at the end of issue 2 previewed four pages from a promised 3rd issue which was never printed. The marvelous Spirit went missing-in-action until his return in a color section of James Warren’s EERIE during the eighties.

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