For those who weren’t aware, Will Eisner’s classic comic strip The Spirit, enormously important and hugely influential in comics history despite being almost entirely unknown to a wider audience, is coming to the big screen.
It’s being directed by another comics giant, Frank Miller, taking a solo spot in the big chair after enjoying his collaboration with Robert Rodriguez on Sin City.
The question: how does Miller’s aesthetic overlap, if at all, with Eisner’s?
Some of Miller’s early quotes make it sound a lot more like a Miller Spirit than the original Eisner spirit. For example, from the wiki page for the film, we have this:
I’m cautiously optimistic. Most comic book fans agree Miller has gone mad over the last few years, and all his recent work reeks of worse-than-average adolescent power fantasies, heavy misogyny, and an over-the-top hard boiled attitude that goes above and beyond even Sin City.
BUT, Miller was good friends with Will Eisner in real life, and they even published a book, Eisner/Miller that was just them discussing comic books as an art form and an industry, riffing off each other and sharing ideas.
Plus, Eisner’s *Spirit * comic strip never had one set style. It veered between shadowy crime-noir, pulpy adventure, wacky absurdity, and occasional campy humor. Eisner himself created plenty of voluptuous femmes fatale to tempt the hero, including all the characters Miller put in the movie. I think this will be a very different take on The Spirit, but Miller definitely knows the source material. How much of that will make it into his own take on the characters remains to be seen (although so far, it looks like “not much”).
I don’t know that it really is abandoning what Will Eisner had. It’s Miller’s art style, sure, but his art has gotten so idiosyncratic since the mid 90’s that I am not sure he is capable of creating anyting that doesn’t graphically look like Sin City. And it’s not like he is going to hire a graphic artist.
But The Spirit could be surprisingly dark and noirish, and I would say is a direct ancestor of what Miller ended up doing (for the most part) in comics. Batman Year One, The Dark Night Returns, Sin City, Ronin all look and feel like they came directly from the tradition that Eisner started, just less family friendly.
I am interested to see what comes of it. There are bits of the trailer that give me chills, and there are bits that have me rolling my eyes. But I think Miller has more respect for, and understanding of, what Eisner was doing than anyone else who might make this flick.
Getting the tone of the older Noir inspired super heroes just right is trickey buisness, it is very easy to walk off the edge into campy parody (see the film of, The Shadow). That is my biggest fear. Sin City didn’t do a great job of walking that line, maybe he will do better this time around.
So far, it seems to be Sim City in all but name. Frankly, no matter how much Miller claims to admire Will Eisner, it looks like he’s trashed everything for yet another Dark Knight. This is the Spirit without a soul.
Yes, there were dark moments in the original. But most of the time, it showed a sense of humor and fun. Miller isn’t interested in fun, but just tortured heroes agonizing over life. Denny Colt was never tortured (though sometimes criminals in the strip were).
The Dark Knight characterization was a real breakthrough in 1986. Twenty years later, it’s cliche, and it’s sorry to see that that’s all Miller can think of for characterization.
Maybe not emotionally tortured, but I can’t think of any costumed heroes who got tied up, beaten up, and knocked out more than the Spirit. Hell, even the action figure I have comes with an alternate “beaten-up” head with scars and scrapes, a black eye and mussed-up hair. He was just one in a long line of noir heroes who get the crap beat out of them but keep coming back for more, and that’s one of Miller’s trademarks.
I have to admit, I love Miller. He’s an agent provacateur, and I love how he gets the fanboys all riled up. Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, Dark Knight Returns, and the first four Sin City stories (haven’t read the others), but I’m well aware his recent work is pure crap, and I know better than to buy it. However, I love reading the horrible handwringing comments from everyone who still picks up All-Star Batman and Robin, knowing it sucks, and still bitches about it anyway. As *The Spirit * gets closer, I’m looking forward to more hysterical bleating and cries of “He’s raping my/my parents’/my grandparents’ childhood!”
BTW, Miller’s comment about the Spirit being “a bit of a slut” is way off base. The women loved the Spirit, sure, but he usually wasn’t interested. Women throw themselves at him, but he always runs away (except for Ellen Dolan).
Now if Miller were truly being innovative, he could have suggested that the Spirit was a closeted homosexual. That fits his behavior – even in his relationship with Ellen, she was the one making all the advances. If any women kissed him, he’d turn red and run away. One could also make something out of his friendship with Ebony White. (Ebony’s age was never firmly established and it fluctuated as the story required. In some episodes, he drove a taxi, which means, despite his size, he was probably over 18.)
It wouldn’t be true to the original, of course. Homosexuality didn’t exist in the 40s as far as mainstream America media was concerned (and the Spirit was even more mainstream than other comics, since it appeared in newspapers, not on newsstands), so Eisner would not have meant to imply it (and would have strongly objected to the suggestion) By the standards of the time, the Spirit was just shy around aggressive women.
This would have been trashing the original, of course, but in a somewhat more daring way. But Miller seems stuck on the cliches he invented.
This is a major reason why I started the thread, and why I’m inordinately fascinated by the project over and above the possible merits of the film itself. Nobody can really claim to be personally offended by Miller’s interpretation, because the original strip is largely an unknown quantity; not only has nobody read it, nobody’s even generally familiar with the basics of the premise (except the hardcore history-minded geeks who have made a deliberate effort to seek it out). It exists on the same sort of higher plane of meta-awareness as stuff like Pogo and Krazy Kat, where a fraction of the public has heard of it and is vaguely aware that it’s important somehow but hasn’t actually picked it up to see for themselves.
So the weirdly nebulous reaction is enormously amusing to me: A lot of comments are sort of like, “Yeah, I guess I should probably have some sort of reaction to this, and if I actually had more than a molecule of information about the subject I’d probably be able to get all angsty about it, but I’m even more completely ignorant about this than I am about all the other stuff I commonly spout off about, so I’m only going to make a sort of half-hearted little grousing, just in case somebody comes along and challenges me to prove I know what I’m talking about.”
It’s very entertaining to watch the reflexive complainers trying to get a handle on the debate.
Well, it showed up now and then. The two young men living together in the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope (1948) were homosexual in all but name. And the biggest news when the Kinsey Report was published in 1948 was the high incidence of homosexual behavior in American men. Homosexuality was also referenced in plays of the 1940s, such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Gore Vidal’s novel The City and the Pillar (1948) became a public scandal.
That having been said, I really would not like some gay subtext introduced into the story. The Spirit was faithful to his sweetheart Ellen Dolan, even as he tried to ignore the various femmes fatal who threw themselves at him.
Agreed, and I say that as a gay guy and a big Spirit fan.
See, the big thing for me isn’t even the visuals. Yeah, a bright blue suit would probably look weird on the big screen, and you want to avoid the Spirit’s world looking like some big technicolor nightmare. So I can understand applying a sort of Sin City aesthetic to it.
What I’m afraid of is this - as Walloon says, the Spirit had heart. His world is absolutely filled with crime, corruption, murder, and more Femme Fatalles than you can shake a stick at, but the comic wasn’t depressing, didn’t wallow in the seedier aspects of society, had a strong moral core, and was fun. It wasn’t some serious, hard-boiled crime book. Yeah, the Spirit gets beat up a lot, but it’s really all in good fun.
My concern is in Miller’s ability to do anything that isn’t - you’ll excuse the pun - mean-spirited. Miller definitely knows how to spin a fun crime yarn, but there’s something inherently mean and brutal in his work that has absolutely no place in The Spirit’s world. I’m not really sure that Miller can pull off what makes the Spirit so special, and I’m afraid that he might instead of just fall back on what he’s good at.
You can see here an example of something that makes me uneasy:
I can’t remember where I read this (might have been this board), but I think someone summed it up well when he said that Frank Miller writes bad-asses. The Spirit is not a bad-ass. He’s a mensch.
I absolutely love ASBR, but I can see why a lot of people don’t. The biggest thing to remember, if you don’t know, is that Miller is writing it as a prequel to Dark Knight. In that context, it makes it a much better read unless you just don’t dig it.
I’ll admit, Miller’s become almost a caricature of himself, but just like with Alan Moore, I’ll be a fan boy for him until I die.
That’s certainly true; it wouldn’t be The Spirit without gorgeous women hanging all over him. What do you make of Miller calling The Spirit “a bit of a slut,” though? I think it’s a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of the character, assuming that he’s actually working under that assumption and it’s not something that he said just to be funny. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.
I also think that calling the Spirit a noir needs to be qualified a bit, just because that’s a pretty broad term. It certainly is, of course, but I think that it has elements that make it a whole lot different from, say, Sin City.
I think that the latest Spirit series tends to veer a bit too much into comedy (moreso under Aragones than Cooke), which isn’t exactly right either.
Miller definitely has a huge respect for Eisner and his work. I’m just concerned that in putting his own spin on the material, we’re going to wind up with Sin City with Spirit aesthetics grafted over it. That’s what we’re getting in All-Star Batman and Robin, after all (although I do actually like that book).
I think I’d actually be more interested in seeing Miller’s take on The Spirit in a comic book than a movie. If I were to pick someone to head up a Spirit movie, I would have chosen Brad Bird.