Here’s my entry in the For the Love of Film Noir Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. This year the blogathon is raising money for the preservation and restoration of The Sound of Fury and you can donate here.
It’s Michael Chabon’s fault.
Four years ago, I was so knocked sideways by his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay that I started chasing up the references. One name kept cropping up: Will Eisner. Chabon began his novel with a quote from Eisner and, in his acknowledgements, he thanked Eisner first. And once I started into reading about this Eisner bird, I found that he was considered the big cahuna of 20th century comic creators.
Alan Moore, the boss, once said that Eisner “came up with a complete philosophy of comics that applied to every detail of them, the drawing, the writing, and, most importantly, the storytelling, the kind that occurs between the drawing and the writing.” A few Ebay searches later, and I was in possession of a great deal of Eisner’s weekly adventure strip The Spirit. What struck me immediately was the visual affinity with film noir. Eisner’s cityscapes are full of deep black pools of ink, deep enough and dark enough for a reader to get lost in forever.
In Chabon’s novel, young comic creators Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay go to see an early screening of Citizen Kane. The revelatory experience of Welles’ filmic innovations inspires them to reinvent their own chosen art form:
“Joe struggled to express, to formulate, the revolution in his ambitions for the ragged-edged and stapled little art form to which their inclinations and luck had brought them. It was not just a matter, he told Sammy, of somehow adapting the bag of cinematic tricks so boldly displayed in the movie – extreme close-ups, odd angles, quirky arrangements of foreground and background; Joe and a few others had been dabbling with this sort of thing for some time. It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had ever seen, the total blending of narration and image that was – didn’t Sammy see it? – the fundamental principle of comic book storytelling, and the irreducible nut of their partnership.”
In part, Chabon had based his Kavalier & Clay on the Will Eisner studio. Between 1940 and 1952, Eisner and his collaborators turned out a weekly 16-page supplement distributed by 20 newspapers, each one containing an eight-page Spirit story.
Eisner’s strip tells the story of Denny Colt, a detective who is murdered and comes back to life as the Spirit. Like all those embittered returning war vets, the Spirit has experienced the world of death, and lived. Visually, he’s very different from his contemporary costumed heroes. No underpants on display here – The Spirit solves crime in a blue suit and snap-brim fedora, Eisner modelling his physical appearance on Cary Grant. The one concession to the conventional superhero is the Spirit’s mask, something which Eisner was always trying to lose:
“I didn’t want him to be a superhero. Over the years, I tried so hard to get rid of his mask; he wore dark glasses for a while, and he even went blind once.”
Is the Spirit a noir hero? Well, not really. He’s far too light-hearted, for a start. Often mugging to the reader, breaking the fourth wall to shrug or smile at the events of the strip, Denny Colt is a bit too at ease with himself to qualify. He might be a dead man, but he’s hardly cadaverous. He’s even got a steady girlfriend (don’t ask how that works), Ellen Dolan, daughter of Police Commisioner Dolan, with whom the Spirit enjoys a benign relationship. And of course there’s the Spirit’s sidekick Ebony White, a black street kid whose comical patois often veers into minstrelsy. Our hero wanders down mean streets, sure, but he’s usually got company.
Crazy as a couple of waltzing mice, but at least he's got his pants on.
Many critics have drawn parallels between Eisner’s comic work and 1940s cinema, but it was an association that he was keen to discourage. He preferred to talk about the strip in terms of “stagecraft”. Discussing his experiments with blank panels, Eisner explained, “The real difference between film and this medium [comics] is in what the reader supplies. In film, the viewer gets a realistic portrait which provides everything but smell. The director has sound and vision to work with, and can provide it exactly. The viewer sits in the dark and reacts. In comics, the reader is able to supply sound, the action between panels, the way dialogue is delivered, and in this case, the background. Those are the things an artist must enable a reader to supply.”
It’s especially difficult to claim the Spirit as a noir hero due to the strip’s lack of interest in its protagonist. Noir is about psychic anguish, about being stranded in an alien city, about rushing towards your own demise. But Eisner always kept the Spirit on the sidelines, a deus ex machina who allowed him to tell quirky, subversive stories.
One always gets the sense that Eisner is more interested in his secondary characters, particularly his ever-present cast of femme fatales. While Ellen Dolan is an archetypal ‘good girl’, the Spirit often finds himself tempted by the voluptuous sirens that he encounters on his cases. Eisner sure knew how to draw a broad, and his relish is evident in the inventive names he gave them: Silk Satin, Sand Saref, Silken Floss, Lorelei Rox. The most dangerous of these, and the most compelling, was P’Gell.
The poor sap never had a chance.
Tellingly, while Eisner often played down his cinematic influences, he was happy to account for P’Gell’s ancestry: “Her jawline was inspired by Carole Lombard, who had a very sexy, provocative face. Hedy Lamarr and Marlene Dietrich are part of her, too.”
The Spirit strip’s claim to a noir reading lies in Eisner’s vision of a world ruled by fate. Unlike more recent noir comics (e.g. 100 Bullets), the strip eschews the stylistic pleasures of Hammett, Chandler or Billy Wilder. Instead, Eisner’s stories speak to an understanding of the social deprivation at the root of noir. While the Spirit enjoys a cosy existence on the outskirts of Central City, Eisner frequently takes us into the slums, showing how extreme poverty engenders cruelty and suffering. The fact that these truths are delivered with a wry sense of humour makes them even more devastating.
The splash-page for ‘The Criminal’ (2 November 1947) is typical. Over broken fences, urchins watch the lights of the big city dim as the switch is pulled on a murderer. Some of them are foreseeing their own grim future. Yet, as always with Eisner, there is humanity amid the squalor: observe the Oriols A.C. sign nailed to the shack.
Central City is a threatening, unfair place and this is often visualized through expressionistic compositions. In ‘The Partner’ (26 January 1947), a cynical tale of political racketeering, Eisner sets up the whole story in his splash page. The play of shadow and light anticipates the self-destructive greed of the main players, whose carefully wrought schemes are doomed to go up in smoke.
Most importantly, Eisner consistently shows a commitment to telling the stories of little men, guys whose desperation leads them to sin. In ‘The Killer’ (8 December 1946), we follow the life of Henry, a poor nobody working a dead-end job to support his trampish wife. Going away to war makes Henry an accidental hero, but when he returns to America, he finds that nothing has changed. He’s back where he started. And unsurprisingly, he breaks. What’s so extraordinary about this particular strip is the decision to take us “inside” Henry’s head.
It’s as though we’re pulling the trigger with Henry, momentarily enjoying his pyrrhic victory. Of course, the strip ends with him being led away in handcuffs (the Spirit is quietly sympathetic), but not without Eisner suggesting that repressed violence is an endemic problem in ante-bellum America.
No less tragic is ‘The Story of Gerhard Schnobble’ (5 September 1948), an insignificant little schlub who dreams that he can fly. After 35 years of faithful service to a bank, he fails to prevent a robbery and gets fired. Hoping to prove to the world that he’s a somebody, he leaps from the top of a skyscraper, taking wing as the city reaches up to meet him. But it’s Gerhard’s misfortune to catch a stray bullet from one of the robbers as he falls. The Spirit catches the villains, and Gerhard’s body is taken away, already forgotten by the crowd.
Or there’s Freddy in ‘Ten Minutes’ (11 September 1949), who shoots Max, a candy store owner he’s known all his life, for the coins in the cash register. “I didn’t mean it. Believe me, Max,” he screams at the smiling corpse, “I needed dough to leave town… I’m sick o’ this block… A fresh start… That’s all I want…” Seven minutes later, he is dead too, crushed by a subway carriage.
This preoccupation with fatal mistakes and desperate lives, the very essence of noir, runs through The Spirit. And without fail, Eisner ends these tales with a twist of gallows humour, a reminder that it’s all an awful joke. ‘Ten Minutes’ is a good example. As the Spirit and Dolan muse on when Freddy went bad, a passer-by comments, “What’s ten minutes in a man’s life?”
In this eight-page story, a “perfect blending of narration and image”, Will Eisner shows us that ten minutes can mean the difference between a lifetime of frustration and a cold slab in the Central City morgue.