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The Spirit Strikes Back

The Spirit Strikes Back

There was only one great comic book in the ’40s and ’50s, the days when comic books were in their first muscular prime. It was set in a place called Central City, which was obviously New York, and it was filled with darkness. Great dark Gregg Toland shadows, men standing in Fritz Lang pools of light, women with dark hair and inviting bodies. “My name is P’gell,” she said, staring with brutal directness from the splash panel, “and this is not a story for little boys…” The comic book was called The Spirit, and in the last year, as always, The Spirit has risen from the grave.

The old Will Eisner classic is back in a series of handsome buck-a-copy reprints published by Warren Publishing Co. The covers are new, beautifully drawn and colored, and, thankfully, the stories are old. The hard coloring of the ’40s comic supplements and comic books has given way to handsome gray Bendays, which emphasize the lush blacks of the drawings and give the stories a feeling of some old Warner Brothers film, caught forever in the ambiguous light of late afternoon. The stories are brilliant — Jules Feiffer was one of Eisner’s writers — and the artwork is the most expressive ever practiced in comic books — among Eisner’s assistants were Wally Wood, who found his own style in the early Mad, and Alex Kotsky, who now draws the newspaper strip, Apartment 3-G. But more than anything else, The Spirit contained great characters, starting with the lead character himself.

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In the first episode of The Spirit, published as a newspaper supplement on June 2, 1940, a young private detective named Denny Colt challenges the police commissioner, a knuckle-faced character named Dolan to find one of those arch-fiends of the day, a mad scientist named Dr. Cobra (the comics, even before the atom bomb, napalm, herbicides, and the founding of the military-industrial complex saw that warped science might be our greatest danger). Pursuing the mad doctor, Colt gets in a fight, has a vat of chemicals spilled on him, and seems to die of heart failure. Dr. Cobra gets away, and Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery. But Colt is not dead. He rises from the grave, visits Dolan, announces that he will stay legally dead because “there are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but The Spirit can reach them!”

It was a hoary beginning — even down to the stiff, crude artwork — for something that would later become a glory of the cultural backwater known as comics. Now, 23 years after the last Spirit comic, the masked man is back.

I went to see Eisner recently and talked to him about the comeback.

“I kept hammering him back into the box,” said Eisner, a neat 58-year-old New Yorker with precise features, a trim mustache, and a businessman’s style. “He kept coming out. I was the head of a firm that marketed educational materials, social studies enrichment material, and I was heavily involved in that until suddenly… well, not so suddenly, something started to happen. Over the years, there had been European reprints of The Spirit, and gradually I began to get a lot of mail. Guys wrote in asking for originals, which I never sent, and then they asked for old proofs, and then there were requests for interviews. Suddenly I became aware that there must be something going on out there. Then, two, three years ago, somebody out of a clear blue sky asked me to attend a comics convention, to give me an award. Hell, even from the plumber’s convention an award is good.”

Eisner laughed, doodled with a pencil.

“So I went down there. Burne Hogarth (the best artist Tarzan ever had) was down there and I gave a talk, and I suddenly became aware of the enormous underground market. You must understand that the underground concept is very close to me. I started as an underground sort of artist, although it wasn’t called underground in those days. My whole origin came from breaking into established markets from the outside. Original comic books were practically non-existent when I started. It’s hard to claim that you’re the first of anything, because you never know what the guy across the street is doing, but certainly I was among the first guys to make original comic books, with original art, rather than reprints of newspaper stuff.

“It was, let’s see, ’37. 1937. My first work was sold to something called Wow Magazine, which was an attempt at a broad juvenile magazine, and it very promptly went broke… But it made me aware that there was a potential there. So I formed a partnership with a fellow named Jerry Iger. I was like 19 years old, but very entrepreneurial.

“At the time, something else was happening: the pulp publishers were going broke. Popular Publications, Street & Smith, Muncie were all dying. They started looking for new things to publish and some of them were even putting comic strips inside the pulps. So we hit on a publisher and convinced him that he ought to publish comics. He said yes, but that he had no way to get comics. At that time, the comic books — like Famous Funnies — were just daily strips pasted into a sequence. So I said, ‘We’ll do original work.’ He said okay, but he would only pay the rate he would pay for proofs from newspaper syndicates, $5 a page. So we told him we had five artists as Eisner and Iger, which wasn’t true. And I turned out five different scripts in five different styles.” Eisner laughed: “There’s a lot of stuff around with names like Willis Rensie, which is my name spelled backwards, and Spencer Steel. Spencer Steel: I always like to be called Spencer Steel. Especially where I come from. It had a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it.” (He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)

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“I soon had a staff of 15 guys working an operation that looked like a galley ship. I sat in the center and along the oars were the pencilers and paste-up people and inkers and so forth. I was writing the stories, and passing them down, and drawing the heads or something. At $5 a page, we made about a buck and a half net profit, which added up, strangely enough. Later on, as the publishers got smarter, they insisted on owning the properties, so that features we owned, like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, ended up with a separate life.”

By late 1939, after Superman and Batman had taken off, some newspapers started inquiring about having ready-made comic books of their own. Eisner teamed up with a man named “Busy” Arnold, a former newspaper press salesman, and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

“You know, we were just emerging form the depression,” Eisner recalled, “and there were a lot of new ideas generating, and newspapers were beginning to smell death at the time. Technology was improving, offset was coming in, and all of these things were having an impact on the publishing industry. Anyway, after some discussion, we formed a partnership. Newspaper delivery systems, as you know, are very inflexible, with six-weeks lead time, and you need someone producing the material who is dependable. I had that reputation. We had a big package deal, that included Police Comics and Uncle Sam comics, and Busy Arnold and I became partners. His real name was actually Everett, and I don’t know why he was called ‘Busy,’ because he wasn’t always that busy. Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much in my hands, including the editorial judgement, which was a tremendous break, especially when you’re 21 years old and full of beans. I had no idea what I’d do, except that you always have something on the back burner that you want to do if you’re let loose. For me, that was The Spirit.”

Eisner knew from the beginning that the key to its success would be its stories. Most comics at the time were simple-minded versions of movie serials. Eisner’s work had to be self-contained, and so he focused on the short story as his model.

“I was an avid short story fan, but more importantly, I suppose, I was a frustrated serious painter and a frustrated serious writer. I could do both reasonably well, but not well enough to make a name for myself in either media by itself. But with the euphoria you bring to something when you know it’s the big time, I attacked it as if I were a young Dostoevski. I also equated myself with Ben Hecht and some of the pulp writers, who were my heroes at the time. Short stories are sort of dead now, but they were very big in the ’30s.

“The title — The Spirit — was the result of about 15 names I’d listed, and I really had no intention of making him a ghost. I didn’t want him to be a super-hero, because I had been grinding out super-heroes, and knew what super-heroes were all about. But at the same time, I knew that I had to have an identification; there were certain perimeters you stayed within, or accepted formulas that would augur success. The syndicate sales­men were selling a product, and they wanted it to look like a product they could sell. I promised them a detective. That was fine: a detective could sell. And I promised them a complete story every week, and that was novel, because most people had to wait six weeks to finish a story in a newspaper strip. So we tried to get as much plot into a single episode as the dailies got in six or eight weeks.”

The first 16-page weekly comic book featured The Spirit and two other features. Eisner decided that the load was too much and sold his interest in Eisner and Iger (which was still free-lancing comic art to other publications) so he could concentrate solely on The Spirit.

“When I think back about it now, it was an enormous decision,” Eisner said. “But when you’re that young, you know, you feel impervious. It’s like young pilots in Vietnam, saying: ‘What do you mean I’m going to get killed? No one can kill me: I’m 21 years old.’ I remember Iger trying to dissuade me, saying that The Spirit might not sell in the newspaper business, it could be dead in a year. I said, “I’m immortal. I’m Superman. I’m going to do it.’ ”

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The high quality of The Spirit was probably traceable to the oddity of its being a newspaper supplement, rather than a newsstand comic book. Eisner said that in those days the average comic book was written for an eight- or 10-year-old mind.

“But I had a totally different audience. When you’re writing, you’re writing for someone: you, or a little old lady in Brooklyn, or whomever. I was writing to adults. I was writing to college students. I was writing to kids. We started with three papers and grew to 19 or 20, and I also knew that I had a Bible Belt out there to worry about. If you spent a dime on Superman it was because you wanted Superman. But here was a comic that came into the house on Sunday because Pop went out and bought it for the news.

Eisner quickly discovered an enormous freedom and range in possible stories.

“I could pull out the stocking and I could make mistakes,” he said. “If I did a lousy story this week, it was only that week, and I could do a good story next week. And I did have ups and downs, because there are weeks when you go dry. In the beginning I had more good ideas than I could produce, but as time went on, of course, I used them up. Then I started generating new stories out of the newspapers themselves. That went on for a year and a half, and in 1942, I was invited to join the armed forces.”

In the army Eisner was an aide on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, and later started doing cartoon instruction strips for a magazine called Army Motors; he still maintains an interest in the use of comics as an instructional device. The Spirit continued, with Lou Fine drawing it for a while, along with the great Jack Cole (famous in his own right as the artist of Plastic Man and then as a Playboy cartoonist in the magazine’s early days).

In early 1946, Eisner came back to New York and The Spirit and, from 1946 to 1950, had what he calls “four glorious golden years.” It was at this time that Jules Feiffer went to work for Eisner. “We’ve had a remarkably good relationship over the years,” Eisner said of Feiffer. “There’s a tremendous empathy between us. Psycholo­gically we’re very much alike, philosophically we’re much alike… Those were the vintage years for me… A lot of collectors are into the early, pre-war Spirit, but as I look back now the drawing is very, very crude. I think what attracts the collectors or so-called historians is the obvious fact that I was experimenting so vividly, so aggres­sively. There just was nothing like The Spirit in existence. King Features came out with an imitation called ‘Red Barry’ or something, but it died in a couple of months. It just didn’t haveI guess the word is elan.”

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The post-war Spirit was the world of lush blacks, unusual angles, great humor, all of which had been present in a cruder form in the earlier version. The difference, Eisner said, was that the war had matured him — ­and his work: “The early Spirits were done by a young kid barely out of high school, who lived a very cloistered life, when you con­sider that most cartoonists live a cloistered life. I mean, 90 per cent of a cartoonist’s time is spent at a drawing board in a fantasy world. Occasionally you get up and tell the plumber, ‘Yeah, the pipe is over there,’ or whatever it is, and you do go out and buy lunch. But one of the great occupational hazards of this life is that an artist spends an enormous amount of his life in the nice soft womb of a studio. Now with the rates higher, it might be possible to spend six months on one book, as if you were writing a novel. In those days, I was functioning the way, say, a TV series writer works, and you don’t expect great masterworks under the circumstances. Of course, I was functioning as the writer and the director. I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and I keep telling the students that you’re the actor, you’re the author, you’re the screenwriter, you’re the cameraman, you’re the director, and you’re the cutting editor. I hold to the idea that the comic strip author should be writer and artist.

I asked Eisner how much he had been influenced by movies.

“My early life was spent in the Brooklyn movie houses, those marvelous temples of fantasy. That’s where my life experience came from, by and large, with the exception of a couple of street fights. As a kid, I used to go and look at Man Ray movies, all the experimental films that the New School used to run in the ’30s, and in high school I very seriously considered going into theatrical design. I was very theatre oriented. The answer is yes: I was always motion picture oriented. I thought of a comic strip as a movie on paper. Or put another way, movies are comic strips made to move.”

Eisner loved Fritz Lang’s movies: his cartoonist heroes were Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Popeye’s E.C. Segar, and George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat pages ended up in museums. But he said he didn’t con­sciously steal from anyone.

“There’s no such thing as stealing, really. There’s a difference between stealing and imitation or slavish emulation. If you’re emulating a guy, and you’ve got a strong personality of your own, you’ll always devel­op your own style anyway. Some artists serve as jumpoff points for other artists. For example, George Herriman showed me that you could develop odd and abstract back­grounds without any realistic relation to what was going on. It isn’t much of a jump to say, ‘Ah yes, he showed me the way and now I’m going to improve on the idea.’ Writers showed me. Conan Doyle, for example, helped me tremendously in writing balloons. Balloons are like writing telegrams. You’re constricted in space, you have to make every word count. You learn there’s a dynamics of words, that words have visual impact. The word ‘shit’ on paper doesn’t look as horrible as it sounds, so you have to find another word to make it sound as horrible. ‘Glak!’ sounds like a man choking or dying when you write in on a page, but it doesn’t sound the same when you say it. Conan Doyle’s style was largely dialogue, three or four pages of crisp back-and-forth dialogue where the reader knows exactly what is going on, and even knows how the man feels. So I learned from that. And combined with pictures, it becomes an art form in itself.”

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The Spirit revival started when Eisner granted a man named Dennis Kitchen the right to reprint some old Spirits in an underground comic, for which Eisner drew a new cover. It sold out. They did a second and that too sold out. Meanwhile, a magazine called Tin Tin in France was also publishing the old Spirit stories, with Eisner’s permission, and “soon I was back in the Spirit business.” Then several New York comic publishers offered to revive the strip. But Eisner started talking to Jim Warren, who wanted initially to do a Spirit poster, then to scatter Spirit stories through existing publications, and finally agreed to a full-scale revival in a magazine entirely devoted to The Spirit. “I know Warren,” Eisner explains, “and we have a philosophical compatibility. But if someone asked me why I gave it to Warren, I’d say, because he cares.”

Eisner had saved all the original artwork, which was in good shape “except for a coffee cup stain here or there.” Warren hired a fine underground artist named Rich Corben to color the first two issues: Eisner and an assistant did the coloring in the six that have followed, and he has also directed the appli­cation of the gray Bendays that have given the strips such a handsome texture. There are 240 old stories, and they will start to run out in 1976. So Eisner is preparing to write new ones. Where will the new material come from?

“The newspapers,” he said. “I did that from the beginning. I remember, back in 1941, they were building the Lincoln Tunnel and there were a lot of stories about sand­hogs dying and so forth, so I used that and built a story around it.” I mentioned a fine Spirit story of 1947, based on the great blizzard that year, in which The Spirit is trapped in a sewer because he can’t raise the snow-covered manhole covers. All of the stories seemed to draw on the life of cities.

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Only a city dweller can be aware of the real signifi­cance of a snowstorm. A snowstorm in the country is really something to ride over, you know. It’s part of the landscape, no different than the rocks and the mud. But a snowstorm in the city is the equivalent of dropping the atom bomb. Think about it for a minute. If you and I were mad scientists here, and we were going to tie up the city of New York… Let’s say it’s a military exercise, so that the people of the city of New York couldn’t get out of the city of New York. You wanted to capture New Jersey, but you wanted the people of New York to be immobilized for 48 hours or more. Well, you could bomb all the bridges at the same time, but they would still get across the river. But settle 14 to 20 inches of snow on the city! It does things like immobilize manhole covers, it immobilizes traffic, it’s a real thing! Only a city kid, only a person who’s lived in the city and learned how to survive in the city and regards the city as his jungle, so to speak, can be aware of how enormous that would be.”

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Eisner’s work at its best contained a kind of urban poetry, and I asked him if the lyric strain had come from the same things that had produced similar qualities in such di­verse Brooklynites as Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.

“We were doing different things, but sure! What we were doing, all of us, was weeping inside the ghetto walls. ‘Outside the ghetto walls was another world,’ we were told. But I mean ghetto, inside the walls of the city, a kind of medieval city in which you’ve grown up. Your plan is really to climb one of those walls. Some guys do it by marrying a nice blonde Gentile girl and living up in Westchester with her family. Some guys do it by becoming a basketball player, or a boxer: in those days everybody was going to be a boxer. Or the other guys say the hell with it, I’m going to join the mob and I’m going to make it. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. From the time I was eight years old! So guys go to movies, read books, they know there’s another world out there, and how things could be. You learned from everything. You lived in the tenements and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cohen living to­gether. As a kid I could watch him banging her, or him beating the shit out of her. Now, television does that. It’s like a window into somebody else’s house, from which you glean what life is about. Even television. It shows you a world that doesn’t have a sense of realism, but from which you draw some of your life experience.”

Eisner is clearly enjoying the increasing interest in The Spirit and the realization that some of the strips approached art.

“Sure, most of it was crap,” he said. “But when I grew up, along with my peers — the Jack Kirbys, the Jack Coles, the Siegel and Shusters — we were learning the merchan­dise. We were cobblers, not shoe designers. When I was at the Art Students League, I was taught that art was synonymous with one or two mediums. An oil painting is art. An etching is art. A mural is art. But a comic strip is not art, or was not art. This seemed always to me a great injustice. But we were making art. I prefer to call it sequential art. Daumier, Goya, the people who made 13th-­century broadsheets: they were making se­quential art. I think we’re poised now to treat other kinds of subjects. More sophisticated subjects. Comics have dealt with only one theme for the last 30 years and that was Crime Does Not Pay. Yes, there were Jiggs and Maggie subjects, or A Monster Is Going to Take Over the Earth. But it’s still ‘crime does not pay.’ My one condescension to the medium — the way I had to pay my dues­ — was to make The Spirit a crime fighter. Your new people will be touching on subjects that are more sensitive, if not more serious. Me: I’d like to do a novel in this medium. I’m at a stage of affluence where I can afford to do it without worrying whether it will sell or not. The trouble is that it’s a two-year project, because the fastest anybody can move is about a page a day. At least that’s as fast as I could go. But even then it’s not so much the length and the physical limitation, it’s the story, the plot. It would have to be serious stuff. What I’m talking about is that instead of doing ‘Crime and Punishment,’ by a fellow named Dostoevski, I would have a story by Will Eisner.”

Eisner smiled, and doodled.

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Will Eisner’s Universal New York Stories

“I have problems with villains,” the comic-book virtuoso Will Eisner once said in an interview. “I’ve never been able to see a villain as absolute! Always in the back of my mind I say, ‘I bet he’s good to his mother.’ ”

Humanity leavened with contradiction, pathos, and humor describes the cast of characters Eisner (1917–2005) created in his trailblazing career, most notably in the adventures of a heavy-fisted, lighthearted crime-buster, the Spirit.

The Spirit has been called the Citizen Kane of comics, and it would be accurate to say that Eisner and Orson Welles — the actor/writer/director who brought Charles Foster Kane to life in that 1941 masterpiece — sprouted from the same loam of pulp magazines and cliff-hanging radio serials. Welles apprenticed in classical theater, while Eisner studied narratives almost as psychologically complex (and more innately American): reams of newspaper strips and Sunday funnies. Both auteurs expanded their mediums in ways we still reckon with today.

The Society of Illustrators’ two-floor retrospective of Eisner’s work reveals that as early as the March 1940 issue of Smash Comics, he was employing noir shadows and dramatically angled viewpoints in tales of global intrigue. Even before the United States entered World War II, Eisner was drawing skulking figures with swastika armbands. The long shadow cast by a dissenter on the street echoes the foreboding of Edward Hopper’s famous Night Shadows etching (which the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised Eisner might have seen at the Metropolitan Museum as a teenager, when he sketched the old masters there). In the next panel, this figure has been gunned down; a frightened reporter witnesses the crime, her torso gridded by windowpanes.

The eldest child of immigrant parents (his mother was born on a boat sailing to New York from Romania), Eisner had a true appreciation for the downtrodden. Few artists have had as deep a love affair with New York City’s vast stage-set of elevated trains, sewer grates, streetlights, fire escapes, and clotheslines strung between tenement buildings. Eisner was a poor athlete, but he impressed neighborhood toughs by drawing national hero Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane in chalk on the sidewalk. Eisner was not the first artist to focus his love of physical action in his wrist and fingers, and decades later, in a discussion with the consummate draftsman Milton Caniff (the virtuoso behind the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon newspaper strips), Eisner described contests with other budding cartoonists as they developed inking skills: “[L]ike two local bullies hand wrestling, one of us would draw a long line and the idea was for the other to go over it without appreciably thickening it, until one or the other would waver his line. I usually lost and bought the beers but it was a great learning process.”

From Will Eisner’s Spirit Casebook of True Haunted Houses and Ghosts, 1976
From Will Eisner’s Spirit Casebook of True Haunted Houses and Ghosts, 1976

Like many aspiring illustrators, Eisner initially tried to break into the world of high-end advertising, but he bumped up against anti-Semitism in that WASP-dominated business. In those Depression-straitened circumstances, he was willing to do almost any kind of illustration, but he balked at an offer to crank out pornographic comics for a Mobbed-up printer. Eventually he partnered with Jerry Iger, a flamboyant businessman who was trying to get traction in the nascent comic-book field, which had begun by reprinting newspaper strips before branching out into new material modeled on the adventure tales, set in urban alleyways or steaming jungles, found in the pulp magazines of the 1920s. In 1938, Eisner made one of the few bad business decisions of his career when he and Iger turned down a new character mailed to them by two twentysomethings from Cleveland. Later that year Superman took America by storm, heralding the stratospherically popular superhero genre that continues to this day on multiplex screens across the country. But as biographer Michael Schumacher put it, Superman seemed like “kid stuff” to the serious-minded Eisner, requiring “a suspension of belief that dipped into the realm of bad science fiction or fantasy, as well as a format that demanded more action, less story.”

Instead, Eisner wanted street-level drama. In 1940, the 23-year-old sold his half of their comics packaging business to Iger and struck out on his own. He soon hit gold with the Spirit, whose underground hideout in a cemetery contained comfy living quarters and a crime laboratory. Influenced by such pulp magazine heroes as the brawny Doc Savage and the mysterious Shadow, along with Caniff’s adventure strips and the surreal landscapes found in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat panels, the Spirit was a righteous outlaw reliant only on his wits and his fists to defeat corrupt politicians, oily crime bosses, small-change ward heelers, foreign spies — anyone betraying the public trust. Often, the backgrounds of manholes, fire hydrants, and barred windows were drenched in rain, but the characters rose above cliché. Yes, Police Commissioner Dolan could be a bumbler, but he had a professional pride that could get bruised when the Spirit bagged crooks through extrajudicial methods. The boss’s daughter, lovely blonde Ellen Dolan, was predictably in love with the Spirit — but was also independent enough to get elected mayor of Central City, the Gotham stand-in where the stories took place. And Eisner gave his star an African-American sidekick, Ebony White, who, despite the blubber lips and Amos ‘n’ Andy–esque inflections common to many fictional black characters of the time, was presented as a smart and brave assistant who got his boss out of more than one near-fatal scrape.

Packaged in a Sunday newspaper supplement, the self-contained seven-to-eight-page Spirit stories proved a hit with readers, and by 1941 the young artist/writer/entrepreneur had a busy studio employing a staff of ten. As with Rubens before him and Warhol later, Eisner’s name was signed to artwork he never touched; many soon-to-be giants of the medium, including Batman creator Bob Kane and future Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, did apprenticeships in the Eisner studio. In a mark of his business savvy, Eisner insisted on owning the rights to his characters, and he even had the prescience, as war with Japan threatened, to buy a wholesale quantity of finely crafted Japanese ink brushes — which he preferred over domestic brands — fearing that imports might soon come to an end. Decades later he would joke that he was still using brushes from that stockpile.

An early Spirit board from 1941, displayed in the show, features flailing crooks and bent floor diagonals, hinting at the graphic dynamism to come. Eisner was divining a potential in the medium well beyond what most of his peers could fathom, and a newspaper article at the time noted Eisner’s belief that comic strips had the potential to become “an illustrated novel” offering “material for limitless intelligent development.”

But first came World War II. Eisner enlisted, turning most of the Spirit duties over to his studio. He convinced his superiors in the Army that comics could be an entertaining way to instruct soldiers in the proper care of equipment, and his instinct that the medium would mature with its audience was borne out — at the height of the war, 30 percent of all mail sent to servicemen overseas was comics. To educate the troops, Eisner created Joe Dope, a bumbling private who constantly mishandled equipment. In one watercolor in the show, an angry aviator manhandles Joe for overheating a .50 caliber machine gun and warping the barrel. The brass deemed the pamphlets effective, and Eisner’s company cranked out preventive-maintenance comics into the early 1970s.

But it was after Eisner returned to civilian life, in 1945, that he did his best Spirit work, represented in the show by a story about attempted murder among syndicated cartoonists, a parody of the wildly popular Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie sagas. The four panels of the opening “splash” page (an industry term denoting a dynamic graphic treatment) progress like a boom shot from Citizen Kane, rising from the overflowing street gutter up to and through a skylight where a victim is sprawled across his drawing board. The word SPIRIT blows along the curb like an abandoned newspaper. Eisner was a master of physical typography, crafting the Spirit logo out of everything from apartment buildings to a chair for one of his bombshell anti-heroines to lounge upon. The newspaper syndicates complained, believing the design changes would confuse readers, but Eisner argued that having a bold splash page would grab those readers as they flipped through the four-color cacophony of a Sunday edition. Eisner’s “logotecture,” as it came to be known, influenced the design of many later comic-book covers, and one wonders how many of those plunging 3-D titles for Fifties sci-fi films took cues from this postwar master. Academy Award–winning director William Friedkin acknowledged that an Eisner cover featuring the Spirit racing along elevated train tracks was a major influence on the hair-raising chase sequence in The French Connection. Eisner’s graphic pyrotechnics — along with vertiginous perspectives, evocative body language, and dead-on details of furniture and moldings — smoothed over the occasional plot hole that sometimes arose through the series’ relentless weekly production schedule.

Title page to “Teacher’s Pet,” The Spirit, September 10, 1950
Title page to “Teacher’s Pet,” The Spirit, September 10, 1950

Comics fell into a bad odor in the 1950s, accused in U.S. Senate hearings of contributing to juvenile delinquency. The Spirit ended its run in 1952 and Eisner spent the following two decades concentrating on his educational comics for the Army and industry. In 1966, however, he revived the Spirit for a five-page story in the New York Herald Tribune about the previous year’s mayoral race. The catalog notes that the word balloons had been attached to acetate overlays that have since been lost, perhaps appropriate for a contest where the always tart conservative Bill Buckley, when asked what he would do if he won, famously replied, “Demand a recount.”

In the early Seventies, Eisner was pleasantly surprised when comics aficionados who remembered The Spirit from their youth approached him about publishing reprint editions. Fans who had only heard of the legendary character were thrilled, and while there were a few angry exchanges in letters columns over whether Ebony was a racist caricature or a fully realized character whom Eisner had endowed with true dignity, the times were definitely a-changin’. It was in this period that Eisner began realizing the “illustrated novel” concept he’d first envisioned over three decades earlier. The result was A Contract With God (1978), represented in the exhibition through boards depicting the grumpy super of a tenement building who sums up his attitude toward tenants with one phlegmy gesture: “Ptooy!!” The story’s opening page features a graphic spaghetti of basement pipes and steps, setting the mood for interwoven tales of poverty and perseverance. Boards from the serialized story Life on Another Planet include imaginative panel layouts that segue between vast reaches of space and a man in an office chair; scattered stars on one page are echoed on the next by torn shreds of paper containing a message from aliens. Eisner had long mastered the inspired leaps across time and space that can be implied between comic panels on the same page (one of the medium’s big advantages over the linear flow of movie scenes), and the existential narratives of his graphic novels explore wide-ranging subjects, from the death of a child to the anti-Semitic calumnies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the early 1980s Eisner described his struggle to convey these melancholy themes: “I had to feel it. I sat there at the board and acted it out in my head,” he told the brilliant caricaturist Jack Davis during a shoptalk discussion, adding, “We are actors who haven’t got the courage to get up on the stage and do it.”

But Eisner had been brave enough to drive a young art form toward its full potential, even after he’d been dismayed to discover at the start of his career that, as he later put it, “Everybody who edited comics decided that comic-book readers were ten-year-old cretins in Kansas City.” Starting with The Spirit and through a half-century of innovation, Eisner never wrote down to his audience but instead embodied his 1941 prophecy of “limitless intelligent development.” And while he did not create the first “graphic novel” — there were many antecedents, including Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut narratives from the 1930s — Eisner set a standard for such later masterpieces as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. The reigning genius of the field, Moore once summed up the biggest achievement of the kid from Brooklyn: “Eisner is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains.”

Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917–2017
The Society of Illustrators
128 East 63rd Street, 212-838-2560
societyillustrators.org
March 1–June 3 (opening reception March 10)

 

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BEHIND THE PANELS

Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library has recently been building a Scrooge McDuck–like vault of comics history, acquiring the archives of such creators as Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men), Wendy and Richard Pini (Elfquest), and Al Jaffee (Mad). Now Comics at Columbia: Past, Present, Future invites you to swim among those riches, displaying treasures from the university’s vast collection such as Charles Saxon’s New Yorker cartoons, scripts and notes from former DC publisher Paul Levitz, and letters from such pioneers as Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Eisner. Tonight’s reception features presentations from comics luminaries.

Tue., Oct. 7, 6 p.m., 2014

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HONORING 
‘A CONTRACT’

Comics pioneer Will Eisner’s 1978 book, A Contract with God, has been erroneously called “the first graphic novel.” It’s not; it’s not a novel, for one thing, but a collection of short stories set in the same Bronx tenement. Semantics aside, it remains an ambitious, groundbreaking work. Eisner’s vivid characters wail, sing, connive, and fall in love—in the grip of emotions larger than life, yet rooted in it. Now the Scott Eder Gallery is exhibiting original pages, sketches, and drawings from the book for the first time. Brooklyn Brewery provides the drinks for tonight’s opening reception.

Fri., June 14, 6 p.m.; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: June 14. Continues through Aug. 15, 2013

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SPIRIT OF INNOVATION

From his creation of The Spirit (and with it, much of comics’ visual vocabulary) in the 1940s through later groundbreaking works like A Contract With God and The Plot (his 2005 history of the anti-Semitic “Elders of Zion” hoax), Will Eisner always gave his audience plenty to chew on. Appropriately, MOCCA launches its Dinner and a Movie series tonight with Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, a full-length doc about the comics pioneer. A buffet dinner precedes the film; afterward is a panel discussion with director Andrew D. Cooke and acclaimed comics writers Dennis O’Neil and Paul Levitz, moderated by Danny Fingeroth.

Wed., Nov. 7, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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LAUGH LINES

If you’re weary of the sensory overload of stormtroopers from the Galactic Empire milling around Eleventh Avenue and the gunfire erupting from the video game booths at that other New York comic con, the MOCCA Festival this weekend offers a more contemplative experience. Attracting publishers ranging from solo artists hawking their color-Xeroxed epics to the eclectic volumes turned out by Fantagraphics, First Second Books, and Drawn & Quarterly, MOCCA Fest is the thinking fan’s getaway. Erudite panels this year include “Reciprocal Influence: Comics and Graphic Design,” “The Enterprising Will Eisner,” and New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff leading a discussion about the future of the magazine’s cartoons. It’s all a fundraiser for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.

Sat., April 9, 11 a.m.; Sun., April 10, 11 a.m., 2011

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A Dance to Himself: Jules Feiffer’s Backing Into Forward

Now that Frank Gehry is designing a monument to President Eisenhower—an idea about as incongruous as asking Banksy to do the official state portrait of Dick Cheney—it might not be a bad idea to recall just how oppressive and uncomfortable the years of the Eisenhower presidency really were. In other words, it’s a good moment to think about Jules Feiffer. His talky, exuberant, politically astute comic strip, which ran for four decades in the Voice, began as the perfect rebuttal to the Eisenhower era and went on to make us laugh at all of our self-deceptions.

In a lively and engaging new memoir, Backing Into Forward, Feiffer says that his anti-authoritarian stance began at home. Born in 1929, he grew up in the East Bronx, “which I’m told was a fine place to be if you were a different kind of poor Jewish boy than I was.” His father’s business ventures failed, while his mother, who had once hoped to be a clothing designer, bitterly and resentfully supported the family by selling fashion sketches. Jules’s mother bullied him, the other kids bullied him, school couldn’t teach him what he needed to know. “I felt ill at ease from birth,” he writes. “I hid in my sleep. I hid in my dreams. I revealed myself only in comics.”

So he says he drew obsessively, in the style of heroes such as Milton Caniff and Will Eisner, with the ambitious plan of escaping from his mother while at the same time avenging her disappointments. (The irony of this is not lost on him.) An uncle advised him not to put all his eggs in one basket. He countered, “I only have one basket.”

At 16, having finished high school but failed to get into college, he brought his drawings to Eisner, who took him on as an unpaid assistant. Feiffer self-deprecatingly claims he wasn’t much use as an artist: “My line was soft where it should be hard, my figures amoebic when they should be overpowering. The wimpiness of the inner me . . . emerged on paper with every line I drew.” But it wasn’t long before he was writing scripts for Eisner’s The Spirit.

By the mid-’50s, when he was looking for his own style and struggling to support himself without selling out, the suspicious, conformist atmosphere of his parents’ house seemed to have taken over America. He followed the HUAC and McCarthy hearings with horrified fascination: His older cousin, the one whose hand-me-downs he used to wear, was Roy Cohn. He hated the “sterility and seeming permanence of Cold War America,” partly because of the artistic self-censorship that prevailed in those years, partly because dishonesty and sexual bafflement kept poisoning his relationships with girls.

In 1956, when he couldn’t find any other publisher for his “nonconformist” comics, he came to the start-up Village Voice, which didn’t pay but gave him all the room he needed to invent as he went along. Within a year or two, he had settled on the loose, expressive line and improvisational style that finally made him a star. His urbane, neurotic, mostly anonymous characters attacked convention, worried about dating and sex, warned of the dangers of the Bomb. This was new. “Readers of my generation did not expect to see their thoughts and language and way of explaining themselves in print. On some level they believed it was illegal,” he writes. The question he got asked most often was how he got away with saying what everyone knew.

In a section of the memoir called “Famous,” a new Feiffer appears, a partygoer, charmer, and raconteur. Dropping names the way Hansel dropped bread crumbs, he recalls what happened at Elaine’s, what Marlene Dietrich said about Hemingway, how Norman Podhoretz got put down by Lauren Bacall. He remembers “the dinner parties at Jason and Barbara Epstein’s, where [Philip] Roth and I played the class clowns, the dynamic duo brought in to lighten up an evening with Auden and Spender and the Pritchetts and the Lowells.”

In the ’60s, he turned to drama, writing bitingly satirical plays (Little Murders) and movies (Carnal Knowledge). In the ’80s, he wrote and illustrated children’s books, drawing on the tender whimsy that was always a part of his art. (His 1961 illustrations for The Phantom Tollbooth complement the book’s contrarian humor so well it’s not surprising to learn that its author, Norton Juster, was his roommate at the time.) He was prescient about the violence of the late ’60s and an early opponent of Vietnam. With an almost uncanny ability to see through our illusions about ourselves, he mocked the contradictions of the left as easily as he took apart the pretensions of the right. And if he has a few pretensions of his own, he’s charming enough to convince you he deserves them.

Although his fortunes and the Voice‘s were linked, he says little about the paper. By the ’90s, his strip was not what it had been, but longevity had made him the paper’s best-paid contributor. In 1997, the Voice announced it could no longer afford him. Offended but unbowed, he took his strip to the Times. (Feiffer returned to the Voice in 2008 to do two full-page political cartoons.)

“Have you noticed my cartoon voice is more ambivalent than my writer’s voice?” a cartooned Feiffer asks at the book’s end. Maybe. Or you could say that his pictures and words work in complex harmony, yielding more layers of insight and pleasure. (His comics are being reissued now by Fantagraphics and hold up remarkably well. Backing Into Forward is also generously illustrated with early Feiffer cartoons, along with family photos and juvenilia.) In writing, he’s occasionally cranky, especially when he’s complaining about bad reviews of his plays, and often too reticent, especially about his own two marriages. Still, Backing Into Forward is a fine companion to his art. It’s also an illuminating book about the creative process, an entertaining read, and a cautionary tale about an era that really doesn’t deserve a memorial.

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The Spirit Rendered a Grim Shade of Dull

With the fanboys anxiously eying Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation, Frank Miller’s version of The Spirit sneaks into theaters almost unnoticed on Christmas Day—good thing, too. Miller, comics-writing icon turned director, has rendered comics-industry revolutionary Will Eisner’s crime fighter Denny Colt a grim shade of dull—all talk, no action, save for a few slapstick mash-ups of old Warner Bros. cartoons and Miller’s own Sin City, which has the effect of turning Eisner’s Technicolor comic into a gray glob of hardboiled mush. Colt (Gabriel Macht, ehh), dead and deadpan, is a killed cop resurrected courtesy of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson turned up to 11), a baddie who now wants the good guy dead, I tell ya, dead. Complicating matters are the femme fatales stopping by between Maxim shoots: Eva Mendes as the lost love, Jaime King as the angel of death, and Scarlett Johansson as the Octopus’s extra tentacle. Miller gets away with his revisionist redo because, at this late date, The Spirit‘s been spirited away to the history books. Besides, the movie’s so full of nods to comics and their creators (from DC Comics founder Harry Donenfeld to artist Steve Ditko) that the fanboys will find room in their heart to forgive the desecration. Everyone else won’t care at all.

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Welcome to New York Comic Con

I once had an editor—long gone to presumably greener pastures—who was clueless enough to equate TV’s gothic-fantasy series Beauty and the Beast with the teen soap opera 90210. Even if she were unable to appreciate the Jean Cocteau homage in Beauty‘s set designs, she should have noticed the literary quotes and allusions in Beauty‘s scripts, which lent unprecedented depth to an otherwise formulaic, star-crossed romance. This late-’80s series did what the best comic-book titles also try to do: elevate the style and impact of their storytelling. But people either get the power of dramatized myth and fantasy or they don’t. The New York Comic Con—held this year from April 18 to 20 at the Javits Center—was for people who get it.

In 2006, Reed Exhibitions, the company behind NYCC, took the format of the fan-created, nonprofit Comic-Con International in San Diego and launched a smaller, tighter version for Manhattan, birthplace of the comics industry. While it gets bigger every year, our New York comics convention has yet to hit the dizzying six-figure attendance heights of San Diego’s event. But with official attendance this year at 64,000, it’s well on its way.

Let’s face it, even The Simpsons makes fun of comic-book fans, although few of us are as snarky, obese, and unwashed as that show might suggest. Imagine the determination of an adult wedded to the innocent enthusiasm of a pre-adolescent; the money we save by not dressing up, dating, collecting SUVs, or smoking, we spend on the “flat crack” of narrative art. As publishers, toymakers, and filmmakers know, there’s gold in them there geeky hills: When thousands of us converge to indulge our insatiable hunger for books, films, games, animation, funny T-shirts, and plushy Cthulhus, captains of industry pay attention. And unless we trip and impale ourselves on plastic figurines of Ayanami Rei or get immolated in our apartments when unstable stacks of graphic novels spontaneously combust, our addiction does us no harm.

On Saturday the 19th, between prolific parents herding progeny and ambulatory clots of hyper fanfolk, you could hardly move through NYCC’s comics- and merch-packed exhibition halls. Multitiered parallel programming meant that you had to plan your shopping around panel discussions, game playing, movie viewing, and autograph hunting. Thick, snaky lines for movie previews in the 3,000-seat IGN Theater started forming an hour before they began. Once inside, I worked my way down to a seat near the front, for the panel on Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Hellboy II. To my left, two pretty women were speaking French. To my right, two British dudes clutched freshly purchased back issues from the dealers’ hall. Black, Hispanic, and Asian teens abounded, reflecting the increasing diversity of a field in which Cuban artist Joe Quesada heads up Marvel and Deepak Chopra contributes to Virgin Comics’ “India Authentic” line.

Jolly, chubby, and cursing like a stevedore, del Toro introduced the panel for Hellboy II, a group that included collaborator Mike Mignola, creator of the Hellboy character and comic. Geeking out like a fanboy, del Toro invited portfolio-toting audience members to e-mail him for an internship or design creatures for his next film. Then the grinning papa showed a clip of his latest “Take a Hornless Devil to Work Day” brainchild. When the lights came up, he was surrounded by life-size, troll-like creatures as ambulatory and realistic as the faun in his critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. Eschewing excessive CGI for monsters built by hand, del Toro­—like Dr. Frankenstein­—gave us all an unsettling peek into his creative process.


By the time director Frank Miller and the producers of Will Eisner’s the Spirit took the stage, expectations were pretty high. The Hellboy, Star Wars, Hulk, and Angelina Jolie fans had already gotten their fix—now the room was jones-ing for a hard-boiled detective tale. Miller’s sexy, chiaroscuro Spirit trailer didn’t disappoint. Part Raymond Chandler, part O. Henry, part Sin City, Miller’s project (due out next January) promises to be the most sophisticated green-screen movie made to date. Not that the line of goofballs wasting Q&A time hitting on actress Eva Mendes cared about that, nor the slightly older gentleman who routinely asked every director to accept a copy of his own novel. But Comic Con is tolerant of all that: The light-saber brats, desperate wannabes, carriage-pushing moms, and legions of female readers in love with Neil Gaiman are all part of our tribe.

Though you might trip over Sailor Moon–costumed mangateers on your way to an erudite presentation on political graphic novels, there’s nothing about this convention that’s just for kids. From top-selling fantasist Gaiman referring to ants eating elephant cum during an anti-censorship fundraiser, to a sensitive male at the “Women in Comics” round-table confessing to writer Gail Simone that the racy covers make him embarrassed to read Catwoman on the subway, encounters here between creative icons and their public were honest and intimate.

During his own panel, British-born animator Gavin Blair told scores of avid twentysomethings how ReBoot—television’s first and hippest computer-generated cartoon—survived near assassination after Disney bought ABC. Then he and Dan Didio (former ABC Kids exec turned ReBoot writer turned DC exec) gleefully revealed their running battles with censors in the Broadcast Standards department—and how they used to model the bodies of their favorite female characters on specific dancers from a Vancouver strip club.

Those who worry about “America’s youth” and the future of American education would admire the models of mentoring and apprenticeship that remain standard in the comics world. Generations of big-name talent have risen under the avuncular guidance of vintage creator/entrepreneurs like Marvel co-founder Stan Lee, DC comics prexy and über-artist Carmine Infantino, and comic-art-school founder Joe Kubert, all available for advice, autographs, and anecdotes at Comic Con. Isamu Fukui, a Stuyvesant High School student whose S-F novel Truancy (Tor) imagines an urban dystopia in which schools are no better than prisons, was a guest star at this con because he has much in common with these kick-ass comics legends, who also published young and had minds of their own.

The industry’s love of its history and artistic innovators doesn’t preclude constructive criticism. Anchoring this year’s NYCC was a fascinating Will Eisner documentary that, while praising his multifaceted genius, still allowed famous peers and former students to bemoan his use of “darkie” caricature for a central character in The Spirit series of the ’30s and ’40s.

Frank Miller, who befriended Eisner in the late ’70s, says Eisner insisted that, unlike film, every comic “frame” must convey information that advances the plot of the story. This subtle narrative density was something Miller took to heart when writing and drawing subsequent projects, and it’s now part of what you see incorporated into the triumphant film versions of comics like 300, Sin City, and (soon) The Spirit. Such emphasis on visual innovation and raising the bar of craft is why, though comics fandom embraces all comers, it reserves true love for those who dare to push the boundaries of their art. Fandom has only one request to make of every hot-shot contender aspiring to that love: “Astonish me.”

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2007: The Year in Comics and Graphic Novels

Comics. They began more than a century ago as a circulation booster during Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspaper wars. But with an ever-refreshing youth demographic, they remain eternally hip and popular. How best to sort through 2007’s many offerings?

Start with Douglas Wolk’s deeply engaging historical survey Reading Comics (Da Capo, 405 pp., $22.95)—his warts-‘n’-all analysis of Will Eisner is alone worth the price of admission. (One of the giants of the medium, Eisner couldn’t completely escape the racism of mid-century America in his otherwise wonderful seven-page Spirit melodramas.) Wolk’s two dozen chapters also include an exegesis on Chester Brown’s primitively drawn tales of a deranged clown, a philosophical journey into Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula, and a pert dissection of the 1,600 pages that compose Grant Morrison’s phantasmagorical paean to psychic liberation, The Invisibles. Additionally, Wolk offers help to readers (like me) who adored the Hernandez Brothers’ artwork in their Love and Rockets comic books, but were flummoxed by their unfettered narrative jump-cutting. Wolk’s analysis proves a handy companion to Fantagraphics’ chunky 25th-anniversary collections of Gilbert Hernandez’s magic-realist Palomar stories (three volumes each of 288 pp., $14.95) and bro Jaime’s Locas tales (three 288-page volumes each, $16.95). The decades-long story arcs follow the loves and betrayals of Gilbert’s earthy characters in Central America and Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey, hot punk chicks who love each other while aging realistically (though not exactly growing up).

Jaime is a flat-out great figurative artist, and it’s insightful to learn from Todd Hignite’s gorgeously illustrated In the Studio (Yale, 320 pp., $19.95) that one big influence on his noirish eye candy was Bob Bolling’s early ’60s Little Archie. We also discover that Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes is obsessed with the biomorphic blobs Alvin Lustig painted for old paperback covers, and that Charles Burns’s teen-plague victims are derived from ’50s romance comics. Additionally, Art Spiegelman tells Hignite of his “Oh, my God!” moment on first seeing Fletcher Hanks’s 1940 Stardust comic books, now collected in I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets (Fantagraphics, 120 pp., $19.95); no less an authority than R. Crumb notes that “Fletcher Hanks was a twisted dude.” The grotesque physiognomies of Hanks’s criminal masterminds (all bent on apocalyptic destruction) and the overamped colors are as trippy as anything that appeared in ’70s underground comix. Stardust, a Superman knockoff, quickly foils the crooks and spends the remaining pages devising baroque punishments: A gangster seeking to murder government leaders is devoured by the “Headless Headhunter . . . the hugest giant in the universe.”

The writing is as bad as that because early comics grew from the loam of pulp novels, which were too often cranked out with penny-a-word paychecks rather than logical plot points in mind. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (Vintage, 1,168 pp., $25), edited by Otto Penzler, chalks up serious body counts in hard-boiled yarns from Chandler, Hammett, and dozens of lesser lights, and includes Adolphe Barreaux’s wonderfully sleazy 1930s strip Sally the Sleuth, originally published in Spicy Detective magazine. Suffice it to say, Sally routinely investigates gangsters who can’t resist binding her and/or ripping off her clothes.

Comics are more literate nowadays, but thankfully retain some of Stardust‘s strangeness. Chris Ware edited Best American Comics 2007 (Houghton Mifflin, 368 pp., $22), which swings from Ben Katchor’s beguiling tale of shoehorn worshippers to Alison Bechdel’s stirring coming-of-age story about the death of her “manic-depressive, closeted fag” father, to a Peter Max’d–out take on Seinfeld-as-acid-flashback by the art collective Paper Rad. But if you really want weird, Osamu Tezuka’s 1976 MW has been beautifully repackaged by Vertical (584 pp., $24.95). The manga master, who gave the world Astro Boy, offers a lad who is kidnapped and then survives the leak of an American chemical-warfare agent on a remote Japanese island, only to grow into a polymorphously perverse serial killer whose fawn-like eyes seduce a politician’s daughter and Catholic priest alike.

Aaron Alexovich applies a manga gloss to Kimmie66 (Minx, 176 pp., $9.99), plopping teenage girls into a futuristic goth matrix, where avatars avoid meeting their BFFs in the flesh. It’s Neuromancer for the Hello Kitty crowd. Ripped from tomorrow’s Web headlines is Anthony Lappé’s and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War (Grand Central, 192 pp., $21.99). While making a video for his anticorporate blog, rugged Jimmy Burns serendipitously films a terrorist bombing at a Brooklyn Starbucks. Hired by a sensationalistic cable-news network—”The terrorists don’t sleep and neither do we”—he lands in Iraq, where President McCain is continuing the troop surge. Burns unwittingly publicizes a revenge beheading; befriends a sage, flak-jacketed Dan Rather; and dallies with online groupies. Goldman’s desert-landscape screen-grabs and kinetic graphics rush to keep pace with Lappé’s balls-out script.

Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds (D&Q, 168 pp., $19.95) is a quieter take on Middle East carnage. A ne’er-do-well father may or may not have died in a suicide bombing; his younger girlfriend and his son traverse Israel seeking clues, fall in love, and find that the missing old man looms between them. Deft artwork and the theme of loss partially regained make this one of the most poignant books of the year. Maira Kalman, however, provides stiff competition. Part memoir, part travelogue, The Principles of Uncertainty (Penguin, 336 pp., $29.95) is loaded with vibrant gouache paintings—portraits, interiors, historical events—captioned with wry ruminations on life and the philosophers who have tried to make sense of it.

But hey, comics were born in newspapers, and All the Rage (Three Rivers Press, 280 pp., $16.95) showcases one of its sharpest practitioners. Before morphing into an Adult Swim cartoon, Aaron McGruder’s daily Boondocks strip happily rode America’s third rail of race, getting censored and banned along the way. There’s no denying the bite in a Sunday strip featuring a perky blond dude in shorts and T-shirt jogging through the snow past a bundled-up black kid, who mutters to his buddy, “White people.” What’s even funnier is McGruder’s annotation: “OK, if you’re mad at this you’re just a hater.”

Seemingly gentler, but pungent in their own right, are Tove Jansson’s 1950s Moomin strips, gathered into a beautiful, oversize volume (D&Q, 96 pp., $19.95). The happy family of hippo-like Moomins outwits self-absorbed jocks and uptight neighbors with aplomb; what gives the strip edge are its insouciant figures, expressive areas of rich black, and judicious sweeps of Zip-a-tone. Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny(Top Shelf, 104 pp., $10) also artfully deploys black and white, in a wordless parable about a fox who, unable to hate his age-old prey, tearfully embraces his inner bunny.

Although there are only the occasional funny animals inside the lavish, two- volume Completely Mad Don Martin (Running Press, 1,200 pp., $150), Martin’s famously pliable people satisfied our basest instincts during his tenure at Mad magazine from 1956 to ’88. Accidental amputations and knockout B.O. were reliable visual punch lines; as early as 1957, a two-page gag featured a teenage boy, an inflatable woman, and a men’s bathroom. Who says our culture is more debased now than back in the good ol’ days?

Alright, so a case can be made that The Perry Bible Fellowship (Dark Horse, 96 pp., $14.95) is some seriously sick shit. Redlining the eclectic meter with drawing styles that include Flash Player bold, Edward Gorey quaint, and treacle pastel, Nicholas Gurewitch’s weekly strips fascinatingly manipulate time. Two rabbits are trapped in a pit—in the second panel, one says, “With love, anything is possible”; in the third, they climb out atop a writhing heap of their children. Or a man loudly proclaims his desire to a woman as they sit beneath an overhanging precipice of snow—the final panel reveals flattened skeletons on verdant spring grass. Gurewitch’s art wonderfully implies that entire novels lurk in the void between panels.

Economy of form in service to sweeping imagination—the best comics have always let you do your own thinking.