[Featurama] It Came From the Quarter Bin: The Holiday Spirit
[It Came From the Quarter Bin highlights comics that time seems to have forgotten]
I’ve been looking up and down my street at my neighbors houses the past few weeks and I’ve noticed that their similarly built homes are much flashier than normal. Yes, everybody is blinging their houses up with garish lights, plastic snow people and a small few even have a baby Jesus lying out front in a cardboard manger. The holiday season is in full swing and I’d be remiss to let it pass with no specials to highlight it.
That’s why this week we take a look in a book that celebrates that holiday spirit by splashing the words “Holiday Special” all over the front cover.
Will Eisner’s The Spirit issue 13
Why I Bought It
I was a huge fan of Darwyn Cooke’s take on The Spirit when he was still around on it. Not only that, Darwyn also penned a pair of excellent holiday stories while working on Spider-man’s Tangled Web. Throw in my love of New Frontier…and actually I’m really just spouting off books now that you all should be reading. In short, I very much enjoy this man’s work.
So when I saw this little gem alongside a few of the latter issues on his short run, I picked them up and hoarded them as if somebody other than me would actually want a holiday issue of a book in September. It had a nice festive cover on it and I was just itching for it to get just festive enough for me to enjoy it as it was supposed to be enjoyed. On my couch peering out my window while my neighbors try to out merry one another with inflatable Santas and plywood wise men seems like the best time to read The Spirit.
Will Eisner first circulated The Spirit in newspapers in 1940. For reference, that is so long ago that the character actually predates Captain America. Like many masked crime fighters at the time, he was no more special than you or I. He simply was a masked man that worked with the police to fight crime. Eisner himself would become a beloved figure in the industry with his pioneering of the graphic novel, his work as a teacher of the medium and his many years crafting and supervising The Spirit. He was one of the originals like Jack Kirby and he helped build this hobby in to what it is.
In June of 2000, DC would pick up republishing the original newspaper strips in a series of trades known as The Spirit Archives. Just a year or so after Will Eisner’s death, they would bring together Jeph Loeb, Darwyn Cooke and Darwyn’s partner in craft J. Bone to bring the character back in to relevance with the award winning crossover Batman / The Spirit in 2006. Following the obvious popularity with a title like that, Darwyn would launch the character in his own series to a good deal of success. Despite being in a super powered industry, his talents lie with characters more grounded. This made him a perfect fit for the Spirit.
Sadly however it wouldn’t last. J. Bone would have to leave the Spirit after issue 12 and with editorial shuffles occurring at DC, Darwyn felt ill equipped to continue producing the same quality. He would leave the project by adapting one of Will Eisner’s original stories in to his own and DC would have to find a replacement for him.
In issue 13, the series would take a special winter’s theme similar to what they did in issue 7 with it’s summer theme. A group of 3 artists and writers would take to crafting 3 shorts celebrating the season while DC made the transition between writers. A second year of work was outlined, but ultimately he couldn’t continue on with the character.
So despite the fact that Darwyn Cooke has a very lovely Christmas themed cover art to the front of this book, he has no other contributions other than the lovely cover. Better yet, it is not even Christmas themed. If you squint really close to the publication date in the corner, you can see that it actually came out in February of 2008.
What The Spirit Holiday Special Is All About
It is about 3 separate events the Spirit would involve himself in. We’ll break them down one by one:
A crime is afoot as Mister Flehman and his posse of cronies plan a Halloween diamond heist dressed from head to toe as the Spirit. Flehman is a sophisticated man harking of the similar smugness that an evil more annoying Frasier Crane would possess. His escape route takes him through the Central City Zoo and the Spirit gets a drop on him. The diamonds are thrown in to a tiger’s cage while the villains flee. Only one the mysterious circus star Felicia Stripe can be called in to tame the animal peacefully (as it is a endangered breed) and grab the diamonds unharmed. As they begin to take the diamonds away Flehman strikes and the tiger bears its teeth. Stripe would have to shoot the beast while the Spirit takes care of his robber. The more precious thing would be lost that day.
Or at least until he finds out her little secret.
Our blue suited hero is asked to help protect the poor immigrant Sonia get a lost family treasure before some ruffians take it from her. With some very easy sleuthing, the Spirit reasons that it must be buried with the corpse of her recently deceased uncle as he died just before she arrived in the country. A little grave digging and a bit of graveyard fisticuffs lead to the realization that the man was buried with a bearer bond worth plenty of cash.
When the Spirit waves to her walking down the street a while later, her only reply is to ignore them proving once again that money changes everyone.
The Cold Depths of the Icicle Heart
Isolde “Ice” Mcqueen is running a protection racket around town and it is getting serious. The Spirit looks to save the day and sadly gets knocked unconscious. The ice queen wishes to live up to her name by dumping the body in the frozen lake half naked. Our hero survives like heroes do and proceeds to harassed around town as he tries desperately to find some clothes before freezing to death. Fortunately some homeless men give him a spare set of patchwork clothes for him to run out and save the day in. He stops Isolde, repays his kind new friends with a nice meal, and is set to enjoy the rest of his evening in front of the fire with some cocoa.
Is It Good?
Well it’s certainly a terrible book for the holidays, that’s for sure. Gail Simone and her crew do an absolutely bang up job of putting together a fun story by only using imagery. That alone adds lots of heart to it. When I asked her why she went with pictures only, she replied that “if you are writing a Spirit story, you want the TELLING of the story to be interesting.” Really, it is and it looks like it should accompany a hit animated series. The other two unfortunately just fill the pages until you get to the Cold Depths of the Icicle Heart.
The fact that the book clearly missed publication by two months when it originally came out is also a bit disheartening. Just looking at the wonderfully festive Christmas cover and finding the book to be filled with a Halloween story, a generic robbery situation and a simple winter’s tale really knocks the wind out of you. Certainly it wasn’t the best way to jump segueway in to a new writing team.
With the shift in talents and editors, this issue was caught in the middle and it really does absolutely nothing for the holidays. Maybe that’s the Holiday Spirit in me ‘bahumbugging’ the other two in spite of wanting a good Christmas/Channukah/Kwanzaa tale, but I have a hard time believing the local comic shop was quite happy getting a holiday book like this in February.
It’s not just that though. See, the Spirit has this one thing that should be the heart of the very first big splash page. Fancy title pages. Eisner used to cleverly design The Spirit in big splash images. It didn’t happen all the time, but it did happen enough to be a defining feature for the brand. If you are doing the book in a series, you get leeway with only throwing in the occasional one every now and then. If you as an artist are asked to draw the Spirit in a random collection of one shots, make that logo sizzle like Will did.
Phil Hester and Ande Parks did it nominally and even Ty Templeton did it in a simple but certainly compelling way. What image opened it however? A somewhat plain page with “The Spirit” in tiny letters in the corner.
The stories are all so drastically different, that most people should find one they can respond to. It does showcase what The Spirit is with a Villains peace, a detective story, and a classic heart warmer. Gail Simone’s The Cold Depths of the Icicle Heart however is the most interesting by far simply because it fills the role properly. The story fills the role of having an open heart, the winter theme is right on the money and the art even is a bit like the love child of Bruce Timm and Darwyn Cooke which just works for the bridge between creative teams.
One Hundred! and Family Treasure just don’t really do it. Family Treasure is an old school detective comic without enough pages to become something and One Hundred simply puts the Spirit in the role as an observer. Good twist to it too, but Flehman can get to be a bit much in 8 pages and it just isn’t extraordinary.
So one really good story out of three works just enough to keep this holiday spirit alive.