Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: The Spirit #1

Written by Mark Schultz; art by Moritat / Co-feature written by Dennis O'Neil, art by Bill Sienkiewicz

(This review contains spoilers.)

It's always a bit baffling when you're immediate reaction to a work is mostly negative, but then you find out that the overwhelming majority of reviews were positive. This is what happened to me with the first issue of The Spirit. I came away from my first reading thinking it was poorly written and already considering dropping it from my pull list. Then over the next couple of days, I saw plenty of reviews online praising the book. Newsarama even called it "the best-written, best-drawn and best-packaged book out in the market this week." After a second read, my opinion of the book did improve, but I still have mixed feelings about it.

I was looking forward to this book for three reasons. First, although I've never read Will Eisner's celebrated original run on the title he created, I know it by reputation and was curious to see how DC would breathe new life into this character. Second, this book spins out of the First Wave mini-series and takes place in this alternate "pulp" universe, which sounds like a lot of fun and nice break from the continuity-heavy mainstream DC universe. And finally, there's the amazing cover by Ladrönn, which is dynamic and has an old-school Indiana-Jones-meets-Dick-Tracy kinda feel.

If only the issue had featured anything as exciting as the scene depicted on the cover. I know it's a long-standing tradition for comic book covers to feature scenes that are not even in the book, but I felt a bit cheated by this one, considering nothing comes even remotely close to it. I'm assuming the woman holding on for her life with The Spirit on the cover is Ellen, the police chief's daughter. She appears in four consecutive panels in the book, where she has an argument with her father in his office – that's it.

But let's forget about the cover and concentrate on what we do get in the book. The opening pages are by far the strongest, from the opening splash page that embeds the title into the shape of the buildings (a tradition apparently carried on from Will Eisner's classic series), to the brief but stylishly laid-out fight on page 3 (where the title is again embedded into the art, this time in the shape of the panels themselves), to the classic full reveal of our protagonist as he walks away from an explosion on page 4. It sets up place, character and mood remarkably well in a relatively short amount of space.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't keep up this pace. The next several pages deal with The Spirit collecting information throughout the day, first disguising himself as an old geezer and collecting notes from singing street urchins, and then paying a visit to police headquarters, where he eavesdrops on the aforementioned argument between Ellen and her dad, Dolan. The Spirit then goes for a walk with Dolan and they end up at a diner, where Spirit eats a hotdog (shown below in what is without a doubt the ugliest panel of the entire book - how does he talk with his mouth full like that?). The problem with this section is that although it's meant to establish the relationships our protagonist and his supporting cast, we learn almost nothing about any of these people. The conversation with Dolan goes on for three pages, but all we get are clichés about corruption and a rehash of things we already know. The art also starts to suffer at this point. Moritat's depictions of the cityscape are very good, but he sometimes seems to be struggling with the characters, especially their facial expressions and hands.

In the second half of the story, the crime families meet and express their frustrations with the Spirit. They've been trying to get rid of him for two years, so they've decided to hire a European assassin called Angel Smerti. No one seems to have met this guy, but they've all heard stories about how ruthless and deadly he is. This buildup takes us to the last scene, in which a hot woman arrives at the airport and convinces the customs officer that he neither needs to look at her passport nor check her luggage, simply by flashing her boobs at him and promising to make him "a very happy fellow." I guess this is supposed to be a convention of the pulp genre, but you could also simply call it a tired cliché. It's also extremely implausible and mildly offensive. And in case the readers haven't guessed it by now, the last page confirms it: Angel Smerti has arrived in Central City.

It's not a terrible issue, but it's not great either. Writer Mark Schultz has just two more issues before his run ends. Hard to say at this point whether that means the book is going to get better or worse, but a change of staff this early on certainly does not bode well for the longevity of the title. I've committed to buying the first few issues, so I'm going to keep reading until this first arc wraps up, but seeing as there are so many other titles I'm looking forward to this summer, I'm probably going to jump off after issue #3.

Bill Sienkiewicz's black and white art for the backup story is stylish and kinetic, and probably the best thing about the issue. Unfortunately, Denny O'Neil's writing doesn't live up to it. The story is a simple one, but that's not where the problem lies. It's the dialogue that is really cringe-inducing. Said during a gunfight: "The mask! Now I got him. Wotta target! Missed! I'll hit him next time, though!" Ugh.


M W Gallaher April 25, 2010 at 5:29 PM  

"Hart to say"?!?! I know all the kids are using a glottal stop instead of pronouncing the letter 'd' these days, but does it have to extend into the written word, too?

Yan Basque April 25, 2010 at 6:32 PM  

It was a typo.

M W Gallaher April 26, 2010 at 8:12 PM  

Just kidding, Yan. Looks like you've got an interesting blog rolling here. I'll be reading!

Yan Basque April 26, 2010 at 8:16 PM  

Honestly, I wasn't sure. But thanks for reading. :)

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