Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Spirit of Things To Come

What with the dizzying amount of information and outrage flying around Das Interweb on a daily basis – Something I monitor from my high tech console at Fanboy Rampage towers, accompanied by a blonde who can split herself into twenty versions of herself and get possessed by a scary shadow-like dude – it’s not unsurprising that everything eventually seems to bypass lengthy critical focus in favor of assembly-line-like immediate decision making, with most of it tending towards the negative. Wonder Woman killing someone: Outrage! House of M not having much of a story halfway into the series! Outrage! Brian Michael Bendis reupping his Marvel exclusive contract: No surprise at all! And normally, I’m right there with the mass consensus on the burning issues of the day. But occasionally, there are times where I’m left thinking, “Wait, what? Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t get it”.

Case in point: The disappointment over DC’s announcement that Darwyn Cooke will be working on a new series starring Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

I’ve heard people complaining that The Spirit was not only Will Eisner’s creation, but also somehow his character and his alone; that no-one else should be working on the character now that Eisner’s dead, and that any attempts to resurrect the character are an insult to, or a hijacking of, Eisner’s legacy. But that ignores the fact that, even during the original run of the series, Eisner wasn’t the only creator working on it, what with all the various ghosts and uncredited studio hands who were involved, not to mention the period when Wally Wood and Jules Fieffer took over the reins entirely and sent the character into space for awhile. It’s also not as if Eisner was against other creators doing something with the character once he himself had moved onto other endeavors – 1981 saw The Spirit Jam, with then-new-creators like John Byrne, Frank Miller and Chris Claremont (amongst others, like Brian Bolland and Bill Sienkiewicz) taking on the character and supporting cast, and 1998 brought a new anthology series, The Spirit: The New Adventures, where creators like Alan Moore, Paul Pope, Eddie Campbell and Neil Gaiman tried their hand at the series. Sure, The Spirit undeniably bears Eisner’s mark – and is undeniably his creation – but the notion that he’s remained purely Eisner’s, and should always remain so, is – well – kind of completely wrong.

(The New Adventures series, which only lasted eight issues – I think because the publisher, Kitchen Sink, went bankrupt not long after its launch, although that could be my memory playing tricks on me – really deserves to be reprinted. Hopefully, if this new series is a success, DC might put out a trade or two…)

Another complaint that I’ve seen is that, despite the pedigree of The Spirit, Cooke doing any non-creator-owned work at this stage in his career is a bad thing. And this, to be honest, is where I end up on my soapbox (I know, I’m sorry. But everyone has their pet peeves, and this is one of mine). Let me start by saying I have nothing against creator-owned work. In fact, I’d even say that I’m a fan of creator-owned work, in theory, as much as one can be. But what I’m a much greater fan of is good work. It’s a strange and out there idea, I know, but if a book’s good – if it draws me in and entertains me and makes me believe in it for however long, if it moves me in some way, if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it – then that’s all I really care about, ultimately. As a reader, I don’t really give a shit about who owns the copyright and the intellectual property (As someone who pays attention to “the industry”, that kind of stuff fascinates me, I’ll admit, but I’d like to think that comic readers outnumber comic industry watchers somewhat, even today). It strikes me as a sad sign that some people have lost sight of what’s really important about comics when they make blanket statements along the lines of “Anything published by Marvel or DC is not a great comic” or whatever; it’s losing sight of the forest for the trees, surely? Judge the comics on their own virtues and stop losing the narrow ideal of One True Way To Push Comics Forward. Cooke seems excited to be working on The Spirit – in a Newsarama interview not long after the announcement, he said “I'm feeling exhilaration, fear, excitement, anxiety, and some naked terror… Will's genius has created a strip where I can explore the human condition from virtually any conceivable angle.” If even half of his enthusiasm comes across in the finished work, I’m convinced that it’ll be worth reading, despite what it says in the indica at the end of the issue.

(John Jakala, once of the Grotesque Anatomy blog and now posting at The Low Road, pointed out the odd double standard of fans being upset at Cooke for reviving The Spirit while applauding Grant Morrison’s new editorial position at DC, where he’ll revive many forgotten superheroes. He suggested that perhaps they’re not upset because Cooke is reviving an old character instead of doing his own creator-owned work, but instead are upset because he’s not working with characters that they would rather see revived. Pointing out things like that is just one reason why I love John.)

Maybe I’m blinkered, though. It’s a possibility. Just as I’ll never concede that Kirby’s Fourth World series are just like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, but in the ‘70s instead of the ‘90s, there’s the chance that I’m letting my love for Cooke’s work blind me to the potential pitfalls in this new project. But still – Why isn’t everyone excited about this? Cooke is one of the most interesting creators in mainstream comics today, and The Spirit plays to all of his strengths. There’s the old school pulp fiction element to the set-up that we’ve already seen Cooke can handle in his Solo issue and the Selina’s Big Score graphic novel. There’s the interest in stories outside of the normal “Good guy versus Bad guy” set-up, which was one of the joys of The New Frontier’s vignettes within the larger picture. And perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that The Spirit is known for being visually creative. The original Spirit series widened the scope of what comics could do visually to the point of almost recreating the entire language of comics altogether; it embraced experimentation and the influx of outside graphic sources in a way that no single comics strip has done since. In his relatively short career in comics, Cooke has shown that he’s a versatile artist - compare the various styles used in each of the strips in his recent Solo issue, for example – who understands the vocabulary of comic images as well as anyone else in the industry today. His New Frontier covers reinvented themselves each issue, bringing in different aesthetics and styles as necessary, and his sequential pages play with pacing and metaphor in a way that’s almost seemed forgotten for years, if not decades. The idea of putting this artist on a strip where it’s almost expected that new tricks will appear on a regular basis is something that I think is very exciting, and like I said, I’m not sure why other people don’t seem to be embracing that.

I mean, sure; there’s the possibility that it might end up lousy. That Cooke will lose his nerve or get so locked into the source material that he gives up innovation for recreation. But there’s always the opportunity for suckiness on every project; I don’t understand why that can’t just be taken as a given, but put in context alongside the track record of the creator involved and the potential the series has.

Like I said, I don’t get it.