Even in the salad years of THE COMICS JOURNAL, few critics could avoid making some assessment of Eisner's seminal SPIRIT work, consisting of weekly comics-stories-- usually seven or eight pages in length-- which were published from 1940 to 1952. Though a portion of these stories were ghosted, particularly during Eisner's military service, Eisner is dominantly credited with bringing a level of craft to the comic-book short story of the Golden Age.
From the elitist view of most Journalistas, most Golden Age work was crude and uncompelling save for a few occasional gems. Eisner sometimes promoted himself as a lone crusader for stylistic creativity amid the pedestrian trash represented by most genre-fiction of the time, particularly the superheroes. Though the Spirit was clearly modeled after the example of other masked mystery-men, Eisner avoided most of the tropes associated with the genre and made his domino-masked crimefighter into a sort of genre-dilettante. The great majority of the SPIRIT stories are crime stories that take equal inspiration from the tropes of the "gangster drama" and of the "hardboiled dick," with a modest sprinkling of some more fatalistic tales resembling postwar "films noirs." In addition, the Spirit also wandered into the genre-terrains of the horror-tale, science fiction (usually Earth-based, though one sequence took the hero on a space-voyage), romance, farce, and even a little satire. Eisner showed an uncanny chameleonic talent to reproduce almost any genre-aesthetic he set out to emulate. If he had a parallel to any of the great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, it would probably be Howard Hawks, who showed a similar ability to shift across a variety of genres.
However, most SPIRIT stories were done-in-one episodes, and even when Eisner extended a sequence over several weeks, each episode was still constructed so that readers didn't necessarily need to read any other segments of the overall story-arc. This emulation of the short story's tight construction had its strengths, for it allowed Eisner to provide a level of what I've called "lateral meaning" beyond the abilities of most Golden Age practitioners:
Most readers quite logically are concerned with lateral meaning, which takes in both "the function of sensation" and "the function of feeling"-- RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT.In the series THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, particularly Part 3, I expatiated on the many ways in which the comic strip's physical limitations limited its ability to expand into the realm of super-functional symbolic discourse, a.k.a. "mythicity." Comic-book stories, even short ones, seemed to display more potential than comic strips in this regard, if only because the former could deliver a coherent "beginning, middle and end," and because symbolic complexity functions best against such a developmental background.
Now, though I've enjoyed dozens of Eisner's SPIRIT stories, I would say that their main appeal is the aforementioned "lateral meaning." Whereas many Golden Age stories were almost entirely about sensation, Eisner could usually bring out a wide variety of feelings-- comic, tragic, adventurous and even ironic-- in a manner comparable to the best Hollywood directors. This facility with genre-tropes led some critics, notably Gary Groth, to devalue Eisner even as Eisner devalued his fellow laborers in the comic-book vineyards-- a definite case of "what goes around comes around."
Eisner's space-limitations didn't inherently restrict his ability to infuse a genre-tale with a deeper symbolic underthought, as one may see in my analysis of his story "The Curse." However, very few Spirit-stories seem to traffic in matters symbolic-- and even in "The Curse," the Spirit himself is a figure of low mythicity in a story dominated by his one-shot "guest stars."
In this 2009 essay, I noted that even though the Golden Age BATMAN comic lacked the dramatic heft of the SPIRIT stories, BATMAN was the superior feature in terms of "evoking mythopoeic fantasies." Part of this may be due to what I perceive as Eisner's disinterest in the superhero's "rogue's gallery." Characters like "the Octopus" and "Mister Carrion" had their visual appeals, but they tended to be rather flat as myth-characters.
The only myth-trope which Eisner exploited with great ardor was that of the femme fatale. Some of these were fairly ordinary types, like the first major female foe, the Black Queen:
However, because Eisner had the chameleon's gift for facial expression, he could evoke in his female characters more emotional intensity than one found in the works of most Golden Age comics-artists.
While many of Eisner's genre-tales lack any significant underthought, the "femme fatale" tales-- regardless of setting or plotline-- form a consistent symbolic motif in the SPIRIT tales. "The Curse," indeed, is predicated on the unpredictability of the female heart, and such characters as P'Gell and Silk Satin often displayed the same sphinx-like aura of mystery.
This is rather a long preface to this week's myth-comic. But the body of Eisner's work, whatever its shortcomings, deserves a little more attention to sort out the priorities of the artist who most deserves the sobriquet of "the Howard Hawks of Comic Books."