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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "MONEY, MONEY" (THE SPIRIT, 1947)

I remarked in THE SPIRIT KILLETH THE MYTH that the Spirit's most mythic aspect was the sexual vibe he had with the many female foes and support-characters he encountered. Certainly Eisner was never interested in building the standard superhero "rogue's gallery," and although he turned out some memorable grotesques, few of them hold a candle to the galleries of contemporaneous heroes like Batman or Dick Tracy.

By the same token, though, though there were many comic-book artists who sprinkled gorgeous man-killers throughout their heroes' adventurers, Eisner seems to be the only one who really gave some thought to the nature of women. Eisner might not be anyone's model of a socially-concerned proto-feminist, but Eisner's world is not exclusively a man's world, as is the case with most action-adventure comics. Even Caniff, who rivals Eisner in terms of presenting many glamorous women with considerable agency, largely writes as if women exist to be both a comfort and a disturbance to men. In THE SPIRIT at least, there's a greater sense that the world belongs to women as much as men, no matter what the former may have to do to get their slice of the pie.

In addition, Eisner seems to be one of the few Golden Age artists who really thought about the effect of money on society's denizens. Though every artist of the time surely had some experience with the Depression, most of the stories deal with money as that stuff crooks stole from banks, or as fabulous treasures unearthed by enterprising young delinquents. The story under consideration here does, in truth, deal with a buried treasure, but only as a device to move the story along, not as a goal in itself.

Of all the Spirit's feminine foes, P'Gell-- named for a disreputable French district, "Place Pigalle"-- is the one who most pushes the boundaries of the 1940s' G-rated society with respect to sex:




Though of course one never sees anything, there's not much doubt that P"Gell is the kind of woman mothers don't want their sons to meet. She marries many times in her career, and though one never knows exactly how many times she actually "gives it up" to her husbands, P"Gell remains something of an inexhaustible well. She and the Spirit naturally fancy one another, though his perpetual Boy Scout persona forces him to keep her at arm's length-- possibly not just because of her shady tendencies, but also because she might well reduce him to the status of a burnt-out husk. Thus their only "intercourse" consists of him seeking to prevent her from committing crimes, and her skirting past him, often as she does at the conclusion of "Money, Money."



One of P'Gell's past lovers initiates the story: a never-seen-before rogue named Ahmed-the-Trader. The Spirit ambushes this burnoose-clad villain as he sneaks into Central City, but Ahmed gets away. Later the Arab confers with an accomplice, Mr. Quinse, The two of them have somehow learned that there's a lost pirate treasure buried under the girls' school run by P'Gell, during one of her infrequent attempts to "go straight." Qinnse has used P'Gell's sordid reputation against her, so that all of her students are removed, leaving her and her stepdaughter Saree penniless.

P"Gell lucks out, though, for she notices that the impatient Arab has broken into her school, though at the time she doesn't know why. She sics the Spirit onto Ahmed in exchange for a profitable bounty, and then makes a deal with Quinse to share in the treasure. ("Ho hum," she sighs, "Wonder why people work so hard when it's so easy to make money.") P'Gell and Quinse return to the school just in time to see the Spirit engage Ahmed in a sword-battle. (Saree, standing to one side, sees the life-or-death fight through the rosy glasses of a romance-paperback.) P'Gell warns Quinse that if the Spirit is killed, Ahmed will come after Quinse for having double-crossed the Arab. Once again Quinse must share his wealth before P'Gell will intervene to help the Spirit.

Ahmed is jailed, after which the Spirit reveals to his cop-confidante Dolan that despite all of P'Gell's conniving, she's worse off than before, thanks to being sued by her students' parents and taxed heavily for her income from the treasure. However, the siren gets the last laugh, revealing that she's seduced and married Mr. Quinse. Thus, she now owns a piece of the same fellow who put her in financial difficulties in the first place, and one suspects that Quinse, like most of P'Gell's husbands, will not be heard from again.

What gives this short tale the heft of a sociological myth is akin to the one analyzed here. Quinse, in the interests of filthy lucre, uses P"Gell's lurid past against her in an attempt to eject her from her house. He succeeds in enraging the upper-class mothers of P'Gell's students, but P'Gell rises to the challenge by outmaneuvering him in the rest of their encounters-- after which she essentially co-opts his wealth by seducing the gullible chump.

Though many Spirit stories give the titular hero no more than a walk-on role, here he does have some symbolic resonance, in that he's the protector of a masculinist social regime that governs who owns what and how money is used in society. However, P'Gell confounds him with her ability to get around the restrictions of the law, as much through her cleverness as her sex appeal. In this she bears a striking resemblance to the con-woman played by Barbara Stanwyck in the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy THE LADY EVE. Certainly Sturges and Eisner display the same enthusiasm for the Myth of the Clever Woman, though Eisner goes even further in positing a woman who gets away with having a lot of sex but is never "tied down" by any of her encounters with the largely male world of "law and order."

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