Brand Echh: The Spirit #1

As we’ve spoken about before, the super hero fad of the mid-1960s was a juggernaut across popular culture. Reaching its peak during the frenzy surrounding the network premiere of the twice-a-week full color BATMAN television program, this hunger for all things super-heroic compelled publishers to make entries into the field of comic book publishing with their own costumed avengers, hoping to grab for themselves a little bit of this exploding marketplace. One of the more unlikely publishers to enter the super hero arms race was Harvey. While they had done super hero books in the dim past, by the 1960s Harvey’s fortunes had been made by Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich and other such properties aimed at the very youngest audiences. But the siren call of dimes and pennies and quarters being spent was simply too strong to be ignored. In addition to rolling out its own home-grown collection of new super heroes, a line overseen by Joe Simon, Harvey also struck a pair of deals to showcase older, classic works as well. The first of these, for FIGHTING AMERICAN, we’ve already covered before, in the piece linked below. Today, we’re going to speak about the other one.

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Will Eisner had spent a decade and a half working on the production of P.S. Maintenance magazine for the armed forces, and was worlds away from the days when he was one of the most studied practitioners of the comic book form–a position he would return to in the late 1970s. Eisner’s classic series THE SPIRIT had been largely forgotten–while it had been much reprinted during publication (The Spirit was produced as a newspaper insert, rather than a traditional comic book sold on the stands. As such, it had a tremendous circulation.) it had largely faded from view and memory by 1966. A few of the folks connected with it and Eisner attempted to keep it in the public eye: harvey Kurtzman reprinted a single Spirit story in an issue of Warren’s HELP, and Jules Feiffer had included a favorite early SPIRIT story in his THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES hardcover. I.W had also reprinted a few (largely non-Eisner) stories illegally in their line of pre-Code reprint titles. And a short reminiscence about the strip accompanied a brand new SPIRIT story created by Eisner for the January 6, 1966 New York Herald Tribune magazine that featured a bevy of articles about the growing interest in comic books. It was a string of disparate activity, but Feiffer’s book in particular caused there to be some interest surrounding the defunct character.

And so, figuring that there might be enough heat here to warrant a new title, Harvey reached out to Eisner and struck a deal to reprint some of his classic SPIRIT material in an all-new reprint series–the first the character had headlined since the early 1950s. Eisner had been canny enough as a businessman to make sure that he owned his work entirely, so despite the fact that the Spirit hadn’t been published for 15 years or so, the rights were entirely his to bestow. As part of the agreement, Eisner agreed to produce a new lead Spirit story for each issue, starting with an origin tale. The original origin had been done so long before that Eisner didn’t have any good reproduction materials available for it, but Harvey surmised that the new audience who’d be coming to the comic book would need a basic primer on who the character was before they’d be able to enjoy the later stories that would be reprinted in that issue. It was the first genuine comic book story that Eisner had worked on in a decade and a half (discounting that piece for the Herald Tribune as not being intended for a comic book.)

Because the Spirit would see print not in a comic book first off but as a newspaper feature, Eisner had a bit more leeway as to the kinds of stories he was able to tell. Veering swiftly away from simple good guy/bad guy beat-’em-up adventures, Eisner and the assistants who labored alongside him brought a more adult sensibility to the feature–correctly surmising that more adults were likely to peruse the strip in the Sunday newspaper than would ever encounter it in the comic books. So the work was a lot more emotionally nuanced and grown up than the typical golden age comic book fare. And the artwork was polished and innovative–Eisner would play around with storytelling, with page and panel layout, with design and syncopation. He innovated several narrative techniques, drawing inspiration from the movies he’d avidly watch. THE SPIRIT was a cut above most everything else that was being done in the field at that time, a reason why it has been reprinted time and time again over the years.

Eisner’s new SPIRIT story in the first issue of the reprint title was accomplished, but a bit more open and overtly cartoonish than his earlier work. But it was an effective recap of the character’s origin, depicted in only seven pages. And it contained one of Eisner’s trademark brutal and realistic fight sequences–one of the things that separated the Spirit from other super hero characters is the fact that he’d often get hurt, occasionally cripplingly so, to the point where he’d be laid up for the next few weeks, and carry the reminders of the encounter for several more. It isn’t top-flight Eisner work, but it’s still pretty good, given that he hadn’t really tilled these fields in a long while.

Harvey’s THE SPIRIT ran for only two issues, but for many silver age fans, they represented their first encounter with both the character and Eisner’s work. This helped to set up a beachhead of interest in the strip that would end up bearing further fruit in the 1970s, when first Warren Publications and then Kitchen Sink began reprinting the older SPIRIT stories in magazine form, in black and white.

Unfortunately, in 1966, THE SPIRIT didn’t sell all that well. Thanks to Eisner’s thoroughness in keeping all of his paperwork and material straight, we have access to a royalty report sent by Harvey to Eisner detailing the sales of the two issues, the amount of revenue that he would earn from them, and both the print runs and sell-through numbers of the two issues. This first issue moved 101,401 copies on a print run of 364,812, and earned Eisner a royalty of just over $500.00. The second issue, with a smaller print run, sold only 79,169 copies. In 1966, those were cancellation sales figures, and Harvey packed it in.

But this was still one of the best and most readable comic books of the mid-1960s, even if it failed to find a receptive audience.

In addition to the new origin, the issue reprinted seven classic SPIRIT stories from the 1940s, including the well-remembered “Ten Minutes” as well as Eisner’s personal favorite story, “Gerhard Schnobble”

There was also a faux text interview of the Spirit written by Marylin Mercer (who had also written the remembrance of the series in the Herald Tribune magazine) as well as a comical two-page strip contrasting the Spirit’s approach to crime-fighting with the style of the big adventure characters of the period, notably James Bond. It was a goof, but it was also a new piece, and so, welcome.

6 thoughts on “Brand Echh: The Spirit #1

  1. I have no idea why but I have never connected the Spirit, his knockoffs, or even Eisner. What’s weird is I do enjoy most of the art by those who learned from and worked with him.

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  2. It’s funny – I saw these comics at a camp that I was attending in the late 60’s but was unable to get my hands on them because someone else was always reading them. I had no idea who the character was but just the covers made me intrigued. It wasn’t until Warren reprinted the Spirit stories in their B&W magazines that I finally figured it out – who this mystery character was that I had wondered about for years. Amazing work.

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  3. In retrospect, this could have seemed like an inspired idea at the time. The Spirit strip was extremely popular in its day, is relatively more Batman-ish (ordinary human/detective fighting often weird villains) than much of the Batmania knock-offs, has well-proven art and story quality. The cartoonishness may have been trying to capture the camp flavor of the Batman TV show. And it all didn’t work, in terms of sales.

    I suppose it’s another proof that sometimes the market is just overcrowded, and even the best material doesn’t find an audience.

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  4. Wow. I never heard of this incarnation of the Spirit before. I see Eisner’s flare for splash panels hadn’t deserted him.
    I was one of the people impressed by him in Great Comic Book Heroes, then I bought a bunch of the Kitchen Sink reprints. The essays inside the cover by Eisner were fantastic.

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  5. Fun fact: Eisner redrew (and slightly rewrote) some of “Gerhard Shnobble” for the Harvey reprint, and later redrew it again for the Warren reprint in 1974! It’s that last one that’s been in circulation ever since (except “A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics,” which reprints the 1948 version).

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