sin spirit

Denny Colt aka The Spirit by Will Eisner

It was the first fair I went to alone. The side shows attracted me a lot, all the gambling booths not so much. Except one. It featured those moving stairs littered with coins. The player’s task was to insert coins which roll down a movable rail and then drop onto the moving stairs. The goal is to drop the coins in order to have the stairs triggering an avalanche of coins. The avalanche then falls into an abyss and resurface in a tray outside of the game-apparatus’ glass-cage. From this tray you then can pick up your gain, hoping that it amounts more than the sum of coins you already have invested.

The game itself didn’t interest me a bit, as I had observed the players, and from what I had seen it was quite obvious to me that there was hardly any chance to win. Of course the apparatus is designed in a way so that the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the house. But the booth I attended featured a particular knack. You didn’t throw regular currency into the glass cages, but you had to buy game-coins at first. Large silver dollar replicas in fact. At the end of the game you could hand in your silver dollars, that is, if you still had any, and the carnival-man gave you some prize from his shelves. The shelves were filled to the brim with all kinds of stuff. To each piece there was a small card attached, upon which stood, in neat handwriting, the amount of silver dollars necessary to claim that particular prize. Those cards hung at the usual knick-knack, there was nothing on display you really cared for, nothing you wanted to own. With one exception. A graphic novel.

For quite a time I already was fluent in the universes of superheroes, both Marvel and DC. Back then Batman was my favourite and men in tights with masks on their faces were my daily companions. But the cover of this graphic novel on the gambling booth’s shelf was different. It showed a man running towards the looker-on. The man wore a black mask around his eyes, but he wasn’t clad in colourful tights, there was no emblem, no superhero’s logo on his breast, no cape flapped behind him. He wore a business suit, complete with white shirt, tie, and … a hat! Of course we kids of the 1980’s knew men in suits. Bank clerks and the occasional teacher. We knew men sporting heads also. Old men. But in the 80’s no man in his prime would have worn a hat. Imagine, a hat! Like the guys in the film noir crime thriller flics. I just had to have this book and the amazing stories it for sure contained. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is very well as a motto, but in this case …

For some time I fed the glass-caged stairs with a wealth of those silvery currency substitutes. Until I realized that this would lead to nothing, except to loosing money, but surely not to winning that graphic novel. So I turned to the booth operator and asked him if I could buy that graphic novel, over there, upon his shelf. “Yes, of course,” he replied, handed me the book, and asked for a prize being a fraction of what I already had thrown onto his dreaded stairs. I did not even silently curse because of that, as I was perfectly happy with finally owning the book and headed straight home, to my grandma’s place.

The graphic novel was “The Spirit by the late Will Eisner (1917-2005), one of the true grandmasters of pen, brush & ink. Brian Doherty’s April 2005 obituary from sums it up perfectly. We will listen to reason:

Will[iam Erwin] Eisner, who died in January, was a founder of the graphic novel—a medium in which serious, extended narratives appear in comic-book form. With his 1978 work A Contract With God [and Other Tenement Stories], he began a series of semi-autobiographical tales about big-city ethnics, earning acclaim both inside and outside the comics community.

But that was phase two of Eisner’s career. His first claim to fame lay in his weekly newspaper supplement, The Spirit (1940–1952). Those comics told tales of a masked crime fighter who battled grotesques and gangsters in a comic-noir New York called Central City. They dealt more with archetypes than with characters, and they often offered more violence than insight. But they were tense, funny, deeply urban, and deeply human; they have been reprinted repeatedly, continuing to capture readers even as the original pulp they were printed on flakes away to nothing.

As with the film noir of the ’40s that The Spirit resembles, unique craftsmanship—even in so “low” a field as comics or B movies—will not only attract new audiences; it will often be embraced, eventually, by cultural gatekeepers. On the front page of the Los Angeles Times, the image teasing Eisner’s obituary was not an anguished old man yearning to God but a lithe young Spirit punching out a crook.

No new medium is instantaneously accepted by a given cultural establishment, or even academia. Quite to the contrary. Platon considered the ability to write as dangerous for humankind. Painting and photography harvested comparable opinions. During the last century the emergence of cinema, comics, television, and computergames succeded each other. And each had to struggle against similar hostilities. Within every single of this arts or crafts the story again is quite the same. Take painting. When the airbrush arose there was strong opposition against this new tool. The main argument in its disfavour was: In contrast to the traditional brush, the airbrush doesn’t touch the canvas, the artist is haptically separated from its medium. And that does make the creation of art impossible? Now think of computer graphics—there isn’t even a canvas anymore.

Eisner indeed set milestones towards the acceptance of comics as art. Of course Eisner’s art at first was discussed within the comic community or scene, got journalistic, intellectual, and sometimes even academical response within the milieu’s own publications. On the fanzines’ pages Will Eisner’s graphic novels were especially praised for the succesful implementation of cinematic style, particularly film noir elements. ‘Camera angles’, lightsetting, particular graphic elements, and dramaturgy were mentioned in the discussions. The reviewers obviously were more than eager to demonstrate that this comics indeed were art, and devised a certain strategy to build their arguments: They used cinematography’s reputation, which by then already was accepted as an art, as a legitimation for graphic novels being an art, too. So Eisner’s succesful transponing of movie qualities to the medium comic was the big thing to praise.

I am tempted to say that with “Sin City”—which I watched and re-watched last night— it’s the other way round; it has to be praised for succesfully transponing a graphic novel, it’s style, outstanding elements, and unique qualities to the big screen. “Sin City”, the adaptation of Frank Miller‘s—Miller is the heir apparent to Eisner—graphic novel masterpiece, is the definite proof that graphic novels can be adapted to the medium of the moving image. The influences are a mutual thing.

A mutual thing at best, as I see the case slightly different.

The storyteller, the writer, the movie director, the game developer. The draftsman and the writer fuse and give birth to the comic book artist. Cinema influences comics. Comics influence cinema. All of them influence computergames. Computergames are adapted to movies. And so on. The possible timelines of development and influence are of historical interest and value, for sure, and they of course help to understand. But they are possible timelines, the actual connections can not be projected upon a straight line, can not be reduced to the development of the tools, to the history of technology. The connections form a more complex thing than an axis. Within “Sin City” everything fuses: storytelling, novel, painting, comics, movies, computer graphics. “Yeah, of course,” you’d say, “but in the end it is a movie which I can watch on the silver screen.” Yeah, and in the end “The Spirit” is a book you can read. That’s not the point. Artists are inspired by other artists, artists are inspired by artefacts of their own craft, but also by artefacts which lie way outside their own craft. In the end every artefact, or class of artefacts is unique, and has to be dealt with accordingly.

Central City—Basin City—Noir York City … got it?

Marv and Wendy leaving Basin City

The top pic shows Will Eisner himself on the right, and his creation Denny Colt aka The Spirit on the left. The pic at the end of the entry is a screencap from “Sin City”, showing Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Wendy (Jaime King) leaving [Ba]sin City in Wendy’s Jimmy-Dean Porsche—by the way, does anybody ever notice my careful choice of pics and screencaps?
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