Will Eisner's The Spirit was born in 1940, and now he's going back thanks to Matt Wagner in July.
Writer/artist Matt Wagner is leading off an all-new The Spirit series, acting as a writer, cover artist and art director alongside interior artist Dan Schkade and a cavalcade of other cover artists like Eric Powell, Alex Ross and John Cassaday. Although Wagner's pulp roots shine brighly in works like Grendel and his Batman stories, the comics veteran hadn't ever worked on Eisner's The Spirit until asked by Dynamite.
And at first, he turned them down.
Newsarama talked to Wagner about his long fascination with Eisner's signature creation, going into various interpretations by Darwyn Cooke and Frank Miller, and how he's approaching taking on Central City, Denny Colt, and the whole crew. First step? Killing the Spirit.
Newsarama: Matt, what do you have planned with The Spirit ongoing series?
Matt Wagner: This year-long storyline goes against the grain of what had always been the province of Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit—the short story format. I figured that Will pretty much covered the entire gambit of narrative possibilities in 7 page increments so I decided to go with a longer, continuous storyline to try and strike some new ground in the character’s lengthy history. Additionally, the longer story format gives me the opportunity to both introduce new readers to the characters as well as present all the familiar elements to long-time fans. I’m also steering away from what DC Comics had done in setting the character in a modern time-frame. I thought that was a valiant effort and can see why they attempted it, but I’m pretty firm about grounding classic pop culture characters in the time frames in which they were created. So, my story arc takes place in the late 40s, after the Spirit has been operating in Central City for some time.
Nrama: What about Denny Colt's ensemble cast -- who can we look forward to seeing early on?
Wagner: Well, as I said, this is a chance to introduce new readers to The Spirit so of course we’re going to see his supporting cast of characters as well. Commissioner Dolan, Ellen, Ebony and Sammy are all on hand…as well as a selection our hero’s rogue’s gallery and his roster of deadly femme fatales.
Nrama: Spell it out for us – who or what should Denny be worried about?
Wagner: The gist of the story takes up after The Spirit has been missing and presumed dead for two years. All of his friends and colleagues have tried to their best to move on with their lives but find that they just can’t quite forget this masked vigilante. In a sense, his memory haunts them like…a wayward spirit!
Nrama: You seem like a a natural fit for The Spirit -- so much that I'm surprised you've never done something with the character before. What were your impressions of the character before you got the call to write this series?
Wagner: I first discovered The Spirit via the over-sized, B&W reprints from Warren Publications in the mid 70s. I was bowled over by Eisner’s artistry and sophisticated use of sequential narrative but also by the enormous emotional punch these stories seemed to pack into a brief 7 pages. Whether it was humor, romance, pathos or irony, I found a depth of character and resonance that seemed to be missing from the mainstream comics of the day. I can honestly say The Spirit changed my perceptions of a comics creator and made me consciously aware of the artistry involved in rendering these tales. I’m a comics artist and writer today because of Will Eisner and The Spirit. As a result of my reverence for the property, I at first said “No” when Dynamite offered me the chance to write an all-new relaunch in honor of the character’s 75th anniversary. But both Dynamite publisher Nick Barrucci and their Editor-in-Chief Joe Rybandt were both persistent in getting me on board; “We think you’re perfect for this gig!” Eventually, they broke through my resistance and now I’m happy they did.
Nrama: And once you got involved with the series, how'd you acclimate yourself beyond being just a fan to write this?
Wagner: I basically stuck to the original material. I checked out Darwyn Cooke’s first collected edition from DC but only long enough to realize that I didn’t want to continue the modern setting scenario. I haven’t read any of the other versions by other creators nor have I seen the Frank Miller film. I didn’t want other artistic visions muddling my own take on the character and narrative. So…I went back to reading the Eisner material that had so inspired me in the first place. And, it’s funny…I found it most pleasurable and accessible for me to read it as I originally experienced it—in the over-sized B&W reprints from the mid-70s. I’ve still got nearly all of the issues as published by Warren and I just find the art resolution is so much more distinct at that larger size. I also find the color as rendered in the DC Archive editions flat, garish and distracting. Those 70s magazine-sized reprints were done with gray tones, which I feel really adds to the only noir-ish atmosphere of the strip.
Nrama: You're working on this one with artist Dan Schkade. I know it's still early on in the process, but what is he adding to your vision of the book?
Wagner: Man…we went through a lot of possible artists looking for the right match on this one. Eisner’s unique blend of narrative style proved to be hard to replicate by modern comics’ standards. We had samples done by many, many artists who were incredibly talented…but just too grounded in the high-realism, action style that’s so popular these days. The Spirit demands a lighter tough than that; not all-out cartoony, but with a sense of simplicity and style…and almost animated quality. Dan’s a young, up-and-coming artist and was brought to my attention by my son Brennan Wagner. Dan’s simple style and bold graphics really combined to bring the right mix that we’d found missing in so many other contributors. Brennan is also coloring the series and, in direct contrast to what I said earlier…I love the enhanced richness his hues bring to Dan’s stark renderings. They make a perfect team and really complement each other’s talents in every way.
Nrama: Some of The Spirit's best stories have been by writers drawing the comic themselves. Now you, as an artist yourself but here working with someone else, have you thought about taking steps to lean into that to mitigate any style problems that might occur?
Wagner: As with very project I’ve done for Dynamite (and most all projects I do these days), if I’m not drawing it myself, I act as the series’ Art Director. As I said, Dan’s a young talent and, yeah, I’m often offering suggestions on how to better achieve a look that complements the material and yet stays true its own unique vision. In the case of Dan, that’s really quite easy for several reasons; 1) He’s very receptive to any input I offer him and he’s really eager to make this the best we possibly can and 2) He lives here in Portland, so we’re able to actually get together in person to review and discuss the art. We’ve been doing so on a once-a-week basis since out production on the series began. In fact, we had lunch with Brennan just yesterday and then rendezvoused at Brennan’s studio to lay-out his art for the first issue on a large conference table. It’s all turning out terrific and I’m anxious for people to see it!