The Spirit: Femme Fatales, written and illustrated by Will Eisner and others (1940-1949; this collection 2008): I’m not always in the mood to read classic Spirit stories, but when I am, I read a lot of them in a row. They’re always 7 pages long. And models of narrative economy and experimentation within a rigidly constrained format (those 7 pages).

The Spirit, blue of suit, red of tie, headquartered in Wildwood Cemetery in crime-ridden Central City, is more hard-boiled detective than superhero, his only concession to superheroics being a tiny mask. In that little domino mask and his blue suit, the Spirit always seemed embarrassed to nominally be considered a superhero. His primary attribute was an unrivalled ability to take punishment and bounce back up, which is a good thing given that no superhero has ever been hit on the head more often. I shudder to think what the Spirit’s mental state would have been in later life.

The Will Eisner studio wrote and drew these gems during the 1940’s and early 1950’s with Eisner supervising more and more and writing and drawing less and less as time went by — the studio produced a lot of work. But Eisner’s innovative fingerprints (and his committment to experimenting with the embryonic rules of the comic-book page) are all over each story; very few of the writers and artists involved would ever reach such heights on their own.

Herein we get 23 stories about the Spirit’s various female antagonists, all of them extremely va-va-voomish femme fatales, some of them entirely bad, some of them on the same side of the law as the Spirit. All the women and most of the men here have the half-joking, half-WTF names that Eisner handed out to all of his non-regular characters. We get the semi-heroic Sand Seref, the manipulative P’Gell, the tragic Plaster of Paris, the sinister Lorelei Vox, the homicidal Lorelei Vox, and so on, and so forth.

For what are formative, foundational texts in comic-book history, the Spirit’s adventures remain remarkably fresh and engaging, and they’re still studied by writers and artists today for their narrative and formal innovation and excellence. And their awesome splash pages. Highly recommended.

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