David Hine's Dream Come True: Writing THE SPIRIT

The Spirit gets a new writer this month as David Hine begins a new storyline in Issue #4.

Based in the pulp-inspired First Wave universe created by Brian Azzarello, The Spirit has remained true to the main character while tweaking his surroundings and supporting cast. Hine takes over the series with artist Moritat as they start a four-part story titled, "Frostbite."

Although he's been writing at Marvel a few years, Hine has just recently established himself as an up-and-coming writer at DC, since this year saw him taking on Detective Comics, Azrael and The Spirit. The British writer, who has a self-acknowledged knack for exploring the darker side of his characters, takes over The Spirit after a three-issue launch by writer Mark Schultz.

Newsarama talked with Hine to find out more about his take on the classic pulp hero and why the character has been so central to his love for comic books.

Newsarama: David, what was it that attracted you to the opportunity write The Spirit? Was it the history of the character?

David Hine: Oh, where do I start? I guess with the first Harvey reprint that came out in 1966. Back then, in the UK we would get all kinds of American comic books turning up almost randomly in the spinner racks of newsagents (these shops are a little like your drugstores). You might get anything from Marvel or DC from the previous two or three years and occasionally an odd item from other publishers like Charlton. But the Harvey Spirit collection was like nothing I had ever seen. To me it was ground-breaking stuff. The cinematic visuals and beautifully compressed plots that told a complete story in 7 pages were just mind-blowing. I also loved the film-noir elements. It was hard to comprehend that most of the material in this comic was originally from the 1940’s!

I was so impressed with this comic that I used it in a presentation to my English Literature class on “Why comics are literature.” It was a while before I saw any more Spirit stories. I had to wait for the Warren reprints and then the Kitchen Sink series. Re-reading those strips now I guess the quality wasn’t always consistent – that would be near-impossible with the turnover of material required, but at its best, The Spirit was and remains one of the very greatest and most innovative comics of all time.

Being offered the chance to write the character was an opportunity I couldn’t possibly turn down, even though I know it’s a poisoned chalice in the sense that whatever I write will always be inferior to what has gone before. I even have the genius of Darwyn Cooke hanging over me. His run on the book was mind-blowing. Who else has worked on the character? Lessee…Alan Moore…Neil Gaiman…hmm, maybe I should just shoot myself now.

Nrama: In what ways are you keeping those elements of The Spirit that have been in place for so long, and in what ways are you adding to the character's story?

Hine: The Spirit was always a kind of template for the mysterious unassailably heroic and noble hero. But he was also kind of goofy and innocent and fallible. No other hero has taken as many physical knocks as The Spirit. But he always comes back for more and he never gives up and he is utterly incorruptible. I intend to keep all those elements in place. The Spirit doesn’t have a lot of backstory and I like that about him too. I prefer him to be a man of mystery. He’s Denny Colt. He may have died once and somehow returned from the dead. He lives in a cemetery, he fights bad guys and he’s a sucker for a beautiful woman. He is also intensely loyal and he really doesn’t like guns. I think that’s about it, and that’s all we need. I don’t intend to mess with or revamp his character at all.

Nrama: You've been exploring some deep, dark psychological issues lately in your Batman universe stories. Is The Spirit a change of pace for you as a writer? Or do you intend to do the same type of thing with The Spirit?

Hine: There will be some very dark elements to the story, but that was always true of The Spirit. I won’t be messing with his psyche though. You won’t be seeing a “Dark Spirit.” As long as I’m writing the series, he will be the same humane, good-natured and slightly batty hero he has always been. It’s the contrast between his nature and the corruption around him that made him a great character. He doesn’t have superpowers, and he’s not even a particularly smart guy. He makes mistakes, he loses fights, he falls for all the wrong women, but he will always come through, he will always be the last man standing, he will always rescue the puppy from the burning building.

Nrama: As you begin your story, who are the main supporting characters, and how have they changed from their original incarnations? What's your take on them?

Hine: Commissioner Dolan is a little different because of the set-up of the First Wave universe. This is an alternative world, where gangsters are an even bigger force than they are in the real world. In the real world gangs have huge economic and political influence in parts of South America, and in the world of First Wave, that situation is world-wide. Dolan has to take account of that, and on the surface he appears to be corrupt. In fact he’s just trying to keep the lid on things and that means playing along with the gangs, while he’s also feeding information to The Spirit so that he can deal with the worst of the criminal activities.

In the first story arc, there’s a new drug dealer in Central City who is crossing the line of acceptable behavior. The question is whether the Octopus will let him keep operating. The Octopus, in our new version, is an unseen and mysterious manipulator who controls the eight major crime families of Central City. In Eisner’s version, he was a psychopath who always lurked in the shadows – only his gloved hands were clearly seen. In our version he’s never seen at all, and is all the more terrifying for that. He’s a truly monstrous character.

Ellen is still The Spirit’s sweetheart and, as with the Eisner story, their relationship remains chaste. Our Ellen is more political. She is actively involved in organizing the citizens of Central City against corruption and that sets her against her own father. She is uncompromising while her father is the epitome of compromise.

The biggest change, inevitably, is to Ebony White. The original character was an embarrassment, even in the context of the period when he was created. There was undoubtedly no racism intended on Eisner’s part, but the depiction of Ebony was a caricature that was patronizing at best. Brian Azzarello came up with a complete re-think of the character. She’s female, she’s older – around 18 – and she is a lot more than a sidekick. I’m giving her a very strong role in the first arc. She also has a mysterious background, and we’ll be gradually revealing more of that as the series progresses. I think it was a good decision to completely re-model the character rather than airbrush Ebony out of the story.

Nrama: Are you adding any new characters?

Hine: Mark Schultz has already introduced the heads of the eight gangs who make up The Octopus and also The Centralettes, a group of street kids who function as a kind of Greek chorus; they comment on the story in verse and they also have an almost supernatural ability to know what is happening in every corner of Central City.

In my first arc, I’ve introduced Carmine Kass, who is the slimiest creep you would ever hope not to meet. I’ve got a very appropriate end lined up for this guy. Then there are a few peripheral characters, minor gangsters who add to the tapestry of the city. I’m really concentrating on Ebony in this arc and building the Octopus and the gangs he controls. Each arc will introduce a couple of new characters. The second arc will feature my first attempt at an Eisneresqe femme fatale.

Nrama: How does your first issue kick off?

Hine: This is the first part of a four-issue arc called ‘Frostbite,’ and it’s about a new drug called Frost that hits the streets of Central City, introduced by Carmine Kass, who is a freelancer working under license from the Octopus gangs. There’s a fragile agreement between the gangs and the forces who police Central City. The gangs are an integral part of the economy and the politics of the city. The police turn a blind eye to most gang activities, provided they don’t cross certain boundaries. Frost definitely crosses the boundaries. A lot of kids are dying of overdoses and Dolan needs The Spirit to shut down Kass’s operation. All this is set against the worst blizzard Central City has ever experienced.

I’ve always enjoyed the way Eisner used the weather as a backdrop to set off the action – rainstorm or heat wave or a tropical cyclone, these extreme conditions often become another antagonist for the Spirit to overcome. In this story the snow transforms the city into a winter wonderland, hiding the corruption and filth under a layer of pristine white. Beneath that appearance, the city is as corrupt as ever and by the second part of the story, with the transport systems shut down, the snow and ice become hellish obstacles for The Spirit, as he is forced to make his way on foot across the city with every mobster in town after him to collect a massive bounty on his head.

Nrama: How has it been working with Moritat?

Hine: I’ve known Justin (Moritat) for years. He’s a terrific artist whose work I’ve gotten to know on Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen books. It’s great to finally be working with him. Justin has developed a style that has elements of the original Spirit, but also is influenced by Eisner’s later work, particularly in his depictions of Central City and its inhabitants. He’s a great storyteller and has an incredible knack of capturing the personalities of The Spirit, Dolan and Ellen in a seamless transition from the original depictions by Eisner. Justin is working very closely with Gabriel Bautista and Andre Szymanowicz to take the art from pencils to full color

Nrama: Then to finish up, David, is there anything else you want to tell fans about The Spirit?

Hine: I guess what I’m hoping to do is pull in a new audience for one of the truly iconic characters of American comics, while remaining faithful to Eisner’s vision. I have enormous respect for Eisner’s work and I hope that comes through. This series is about adventure, humanity, and very dangerous women – just like the original.

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