Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Spirit is Willing, but...

The recent film of “The Spirit” is not really a story, to paraphrase the character's creator Will Eisner, “for little boys.” In other words, it is not for comic book fans who expect to see a faithful rendering of the Eisner classic strip. They really ought to know better. How many films based on comic book properties made it to the screen without revision and revamping? When will they learn?

Nevertheless, this type of revamping is sacrilege in some quarters. Those aware of comic book history revere Eisner, not just as an artist and writer who created his own characters – most notably, The Spirit – but who put a lot of thought into the form of the stories he put to paper. The limitless possibilities he saw of how to put together a story in comic book pages makes his work one of the few inarguable cornerstones of the industry.

What many forget is that the form itself in Eisner’s work more often than not overshadowed substance. Moreover, when Eisner went for the substance later on in life, trying to tell the Big Story with capitals B and S, he became to me a boring preacher instead of a stimulating artist. (Think Sullivan trying to make "O Brother Where Art Thou" instead of "Ants in Their Pants 1939"...)

For the star of this story: Eisner himself never really fleshed out the Spirit as a full-blown character, but rather used him as a tailor’s dummy on which to design his latest fashion. Mysteries, comedies, westerns, science fiction, combat, and romance: all fictional genres eventually made their way into the Spirit’s life “story.” The only constants: he got beat up a lot, he generally met incredibly motivated and beautiful women, and he always wore a blue mask and a red tie.

So here comes writer/director Frank Miller with his film revisioning of Eisner’s character. Miller is a successful comic book writer/artist, who not only knew Eisner well (a book of their conversations on the art of comics was published a while back) but who also creates stories of style over substance. His Sin City stories probably claim the largest fame -- best known by those not comic book fans -- as Robert Rodriguez made them into a largely successful film a couple of years ago.

To Miller’s credit, this is not Sin City II, and “The Spirit” is not a shot-by-shot recreation of Eisner’s stories. He has created a stimulating amalgamation of his work and Eisner’s and for frustratingly long moments in this film, it successfully wows us with a campy piece of visually entertaining work. Where it bogs down is in the all-too-frequent scenes where tedious dialogue goes on and on and on and on without much in the way of something visually interesting to sustain us.

That is the crime here and the root of my frustration. The entertaining parts are extremely entertaining, but because of the bad parts and the extremely bad reviews, not many will know that Miller, like Eisner’s Gerhard Shnobble, knew how to fly in this film. He just did not fly often enough.

p.s. If you would like to learn more about Will Eisner’s The Spirit, to see what all the fuss is about, pick-up “The Best of The Spirit”. It’s a decent sampler of his work with the character. If you would like to see a more successful comic book re-imagining of Eisner’s character, check out both Darwyn Cooke’s excellent modernization and Alan Moore’s “The New Adventures of The Spirit”.

p.p.s. Of course, any book links above should be ignored if you live in the St. Louis area. You don't need any links because you can more-easily visit the friendly folks at Starclipper (see link to the right) who, if they do not already have the books in stock, will be glad to place your order.

And now, we fly off with an Eisner-drawn Shnobble...

BONUS REVIEW: Writer/artist (and Will Eisner fan) Kyle Baker weighs in on the movie.

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