Spirit (comics)

TheSpirt n6 Feb1975 detail.png
Cover detail, The Spirit #6 (Feb. 1975), Warren Publishing. Art by Will Eisner and Ken Kelley
Publication information
Publisher Eisner & Iger
DC Comics
First appearance Register and Tribune Syndicate, June 2, 1940
Created by Will Eisner
In-story information
Alter ego Denny Colt
Team affiliations Central City's Police
Abilities Outstanding athlete; above-average hand-to-hand combatant; some detective skills

The Spirit (Denny Colt) is a crime-fighting fictional character created by writer-artist Will Eisner. He first appeared June 2, 1940 in "The Spirit Section", the colloquial name given to a 16-page Sunday supplement, distributed to 20 newspapers by the Register and Tribune Syndicate and reaching five million readers during the 1940s. In the 2000s, following Eisner's death, the Spirit returned in comic books published by DC Comics.

The Spirit chronicles the adventures of a masked vigilante who fights crime with the blessing of the city's police commissioner Dolan, an old friend. Despite the Spirit's origin as a detective named Denny Colt, his real identity was virtually unmentioned again, and for all intents and purposes he was simply "the Spirit". The stories range through a wide variety of styles, from straightforward crime drama and noir to lighthearted adventure, from mystery and horror to comedy and love stories, often with hybrid elements that twisted genre and reader expectations.

The feature was the lead item of a 16-page, tabloid-sized, newsprint comic book sold as part of eventually 20 Sunday newspapers with a combined circulation of as many as five million copies. "The Spirit Section", as it was colloquially called, premiered June 2, 1940, and continued until October 5, 1952. It generally included two other, four-page strips (initially Mr. Mystic and Lady Luck), plus filler material. Eisner worked as editor, but also wrote and drew most entries — generally, after the first few months, with such uncredited collaborators as writer Jules Feiffer and artists Jack Cole and Wally Wood, though with Eisner's singular vision for the character as a unifying factor.


Publication history

In late 1939, Everett M. "Busy" Arnold, publisher of the Quality Comics comic-book line, began exploring an expansion into newspaper Sunday supplements, aware that many newspapers felt they had to compete with the suddenly burgeoning new medium of American comic books. Arnold compiled a presentation piece with existing Quality Comics material. An editor of The Washington Star liked George Brenner's The Clock, but not Brenner's art, and was favorably disposed toward a Lou Fine strip. Arnold, concerned over the meticulous Fine's slowness and his ability to meet deadlines, claimed it was the work of Eisner, Fine's boss at the Eisner & Iger studio, from which Arnold bought his outsourced comics work.

In "late '39, just before Christmas time," Eisner recalled in 1979,[1] "Arnold came to me and said that the Sunday newspapers were looking for a way of getting into this comic book boom". In a 2004 interview, Eisner elaborated on that meeting:

"Busy" invited me up for lunch one day and introduced me to [sales manager of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate] Henry Martin, who said, "The newspapers in this country, particularly the Sunday papers, are looking to compete with comics books, and they would like to get a comic-book insert into the newspapers"... Martin asked if I could do it... It meant that I'd have to leave Eisner & Iger [which] was making money; we were very profitable at that time and things were going very well. A hard decision. Anyway, I agreed to do the Sunday comic book and we started discussing the deal [which] was that we'd be partners in the "Comic Book Section", as they called it at that time.[2]

Eisner negotiated an agreement with the syndicate in which Arnold would copyright The Spirit, but, "Written down in the contract I had with 'Busy' Arnold — and this contract exists today as the basis for my copyright ownership — Arnold agreed that it was my property. They agreed that if we had a split-up in any way, the property would revert to me on that day that happened. My attorney went to 'Busy' Arnold and his family, and they all signed a release agreeing that they would not pursue the question of ownership."[2] This would include the eventual backup features, "Mr. Mystic" and "Lady Luck."

Selling his share of their firm to Iger, who would continue to package comics as the S. M. Iger Studio and as Phoenix Features through 1955, for $20,000,[3] Eisner left to create The Spirit. "They gave me an adult audience", Eisner said in 1997, "and I wanted to write better things than superheroes. Comic books were a ghetto. I sold my part of the enterprise to my associate and then began The Spirit. They wanted an heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he'd have a costume. And I put a mask on him and said, 'Yes, he has a costume!'"[4]

The character and the types of stories Eisner would tell, Eisner said in 1978, derived from his desire

...to do short stories. I always regarded comics as a legitimate medium, my medium. Creating a detective character would ... provide me with the most viable vehicle for the kind of stories I could best tell. The syndicate people weren't in full agreement with me. ...[I]n my first discussion with 'Busy' Arnold, his thinking centered around a superhero kind of character — a costumed character; we didn't use the word 'superhero' in those days ... and I argued vehemently against it because I [had] had my bellyful of creating costumed heroes at Eisner and Iger.... [S]o actually one evening, around three in the morning,I was still working, trying to find it — I only had about a week-and-a-half or two weeks in which to produce the first issue, the whole deal was done in quite a rush — and I came up with an outlaw hero, suitable, I felt, for an adult audience.[5]

The character's name, he said in that interview, came from Arnold: "When 'Busy' Arnold called, he suggested a kind of ghost or some kind of metaphysical character. He said, 'How about a thing called the Ghost?' and I said, 'Naw, that's not any good,' and he said, 'Well, then, call it the Spirit; there's nothing like that around.' I said, 'Well, I don't know what you mean.,' and he said, 'Well, you can figure that out — I just like the words "the Spirit."' He was calling from a bar somewhere, I think. ... [A]nd actually, the more I thought about it the more I realized I didn't care about the name."[5]

The Spirit, an initially eight- and later seven-page urban-crimefighter series, ran with the initial backup features "Mr. Mystic" and "Lady Luck" in a 16-page Sunday supplement (colloquially called "The Spirit Section") that was eventually distributed in 20 newspapers with a combined circulation of as many as five million copies.[6] It premiered June 2, 1940, and continued through 1952.[7]

A classic Eisner cover for The Spirit, Oct. 6, 1946. Note the innovative use of title design, the mix of color and black-and-white, and the shadowing and texturing that combine for exotic noir effect. Other Spirit stories could be whimsical, gritty, folklorish, sentimental, horrific, or mystical, yet always humanistic.

Eisner was drafted into the U.S. Army in late 1941, "and then had about another half-year which the government gave me to clean up my affairs before going off" to fight in World War II.[5] In his absence, the newspaper syndicate used ghost writers and artists to continue the strip, including Manly Wade Wellman, William Woolfolk, and Lou Fine.[citation needed]

Eisner's rumpled, masked hero (with his headquarters under the tombstone of his supposedly deceased true identity, Denny Colt) and his gritty, detailed view of big-city life (based on Eisner's Jewish upbringing in New York City) both reflected and influenced the noir outlook of movies and fiction in the 1940s.[citation needed] The strip is notable in that it spun stories of the little people overlooked in the city's maelstrom.[citation needed] In some episodes, the nominal hero makes a brief, almost incidental appearance while the story focuses on a real-life drama played out in streets, dilapidated tenements, and smoke-filled back rooms. Yet along with violence and pathos, The Spirit lived on humor, both subtle and overt. He was machine-gunned, knocked silly, bruised, often amazed into near immobility and constantly confused by beautiful women.[citation needed]

The feature ended with the October 5, 1952, edition.[7] As The Comics Journal editor-publisher Gary Groth wrote, "By the late '40s, Eisner's participation in the strip had dwindled to a largely supervisory role. ... Eisner hired Jerry Grandenetti and Jim Dixon to occasionally ink his pencils. By 1950, [Jules] Feiffer was writing most of the strips, and Grandenetti, Dixon, and Al Wenzel were drawing them."[8] — Grandenetti penciling as a ghost-artist, under Eisner's byline, said in 2005 that before the feature's demise, Eisner had "tried everything. Had me penciling 'The Spirit'. Later on it was Wally Wood", who drew the final installments.[9]

Fictional character biography

The Spirit, referred to in one newspaper article cited below as "the only real middle-class crimefighter", was the hero persona of young detective Denny Colt. Presumed killed in the first three pages of the premiere story, Colt later revealed to his friend, Central City Police Commissioner Dolan, that he had in fact gone into suspended animation caused by one of archvillain Dr. Cobra's experiments. When Colt awakened in Wildwood Cemetery, he established a base there and, using his new-found anonymity, began a life of fighting crime wearing only a small domino mask, blue business suit, red necktie, fedora hat and gloves for a costume. The Spirit dispensed justice, funding his adventures with the rewards for capturing villains.

The Spirit was based originally in New York City which soon changed to Central City, but his adventures took him around the globe. He met up with eccentrics, kooks, and femme fatales, bringing his own form of justice to all of them. The story changed continually, but certain themes remained constant: the love between the Spirit and Dolan's feisty protofeminist daughter Ellen; the annual "Christmas Spirit" stories; and the Octopus (a psychopathic criminal mastermind who was never seen, except for his distinctive gloves).

Ebony White

The Spirit with Ebony White. The Spirit #10 (Fall 1947), Quality Comics. Cover art by Reed Crandall.

Eisner is sometimes criticized for his depiction of Ebony White, the Spirit's African-American sidekick. The character's name is a racial pun, and his facial features, including large white eyes and thick pinkish lips, are typical of racial blackface caricatures popular throughout the "Jim Crow" era. Eisner later admitted to consciously stereotyping the character, but said he tried to do so with "responsibility", and argued that "at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity".[10] The character, who was consistently treated with respect by the strip's fellow cast-members, developed beyond the stereotype as the series progressed, and Eisner also introduced such African-American characters as the no-nonsense Detective Grey who defied popular stereotypes.

In a 1966 New York Herald Tribune feature by Eisner's former office manager-turned-journalist, Marilyn Mercer wrote, "Ebony never drew criticism from Negro groups (in fact, Eisner was commended by some for using him), perhaps because, although his speech pattern was early Minstrel Show, he himself derived from another literary tradition: he was a combination of Tom Sawyer and Penrod, with a touch of Horatio Alger hero, and color didn't really come into it".[11]

The DC Comics' Spirit comic-book series of the late 2000s portrays White as a street kid, driving a stolen taxi.[citation needed] He is portrayed as putting his street experience and his daring attitude to work at the Spirit's service.[citation needed]

Other characters

  • The Octopus is the arch-enemy of the Spirit. He is a criminal mastermind and master of disguise who never shows his real face, though he is identified by his distinctive gloves. In the 2008 movie and in the second issue of the 1960s Harvey Comics Spirit comic book, his name is given as Zitzbath Zark. (Vide sitz bath.)
  • P'Gell is a femme fatale who perennially tries to seduce the Spirit to a life of crime at her side. She seduces and marries wealthy men who invariably die in mysterious ways, and uses their money to fund her crime empire in Istanbul and expand her influence and control over the underworld. After moving to Central City to find the Spirit, she continues her modus operandi of selected marriages with the creme of society, even gaining an ally in the form of Saree, the young daughter of one of her deceased husbands. In the 2000s DC Comics version, P'Gell was once a young socialite in love with a doctor, working in Third World countries, and turned to a life of crime when he was killed.
  • Sand Saref is a childhood friend of Denny Colt, and knows he is the Spirit. Working in espionage, she usually ends up on the opposite side of the law from him. She appears several times, always involved in some criminal scheme. (Vide sans serif.)
  • Silken Floss is a nuclear physicist and a surgeon, who acts as the accomplice to the Octopus.
  • Dr. Cobra is a mad scientist whose chemicals and machinations inadvertently help Denny Colt become the Spirit.
  • Mister Carrion is a morbid con man with a pet vulture, Julia. (Vide carrion.)
  • Darling O' Shea is the richest and most spoiled child in the world.
  • Hazel P. Macbeth is a witch with a Shakespearean motif and apparent magical powers.
  • Lorelei Rox, an apparent siren, appeared in a September 1948 strip and subsequently in 2000s DC Comics Spirit stories.
  • Silk Satin is a tall, statuesque brunette with a white streak in her hair, originally an adventuress who later reformed and worked as an international troubleshooter for the insurance company Croyd's of Glasgow. In the 2000s DC Comics revival, she is a smaller, more slender, blond CIA agent.

The Spirit and John Law

Several Spirit stories were retooled from a failed publishing venture featuring an eyepatched, pipe-smoking detective named John Law. Law and his shoeshine-boy sidekick, Nubbin, starred in several adventures planned for a new comics series. These completed adventures were eventually adapted into Spirit stories, with John Law's eyepatch being changed to the Spirit's mask, and Nubbin redrawn as Willum Waif or other Spirit support characters.

The original John Law stories were restored and published in Will Eisner's John Law: Dead Man Walking (IDW Publishing, 2004), a collection of stories that also features new adventures by writer-artist Gary Chaloner, starring John Law, Nubbin, and other Eisner creations, including Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic.

Assistants and collaborators

Like most artists working in newspaper comic strips, Eisner after a time employed a studio of assistants who, on any given week's story, might draw or simply ink backgrounds, ink parts of Eisner's main characters (such as clothing or shoes), or as eventually occurred, ghost-draw the strip entirely. Eisner also eventually used ghostwriters, generally in collaboration with him.

Jules Feiffer, who began as an art assistant circa 1946 and later became the primary writer through the strip's end in 1952, recalled, "When I first worked for Will there was John Spranger, who was his penciler and a wonderful draftsman; better than Will. There was Sam Rosen, the lettering man. Jerry Grandenetti came a little after me and did backgrounds, and Jerry had some architectural background. His drawing was stiff but loosened up after a while, but he drew backgrounds and inked them beautifully. And Abe Kanegson, who was my best friend in the office, was a jack-of-all-trades but mostly did lettering and backgrounds after Jerry left. Abe was a mentor to me."[12]

Eisner's studio also included:[13][7]

  • Art assistants: Bob Powell (1940), Dave Berg (backgrounds, 1940–41), Tex Blaisdell (1940–41), Fred Kida (1941), Alexander Kostuk a.k.a. Alex Koster (1941–43), Jack Cole (1942–43), Jack Keller (backgrounds, 1943), Jules Feiffer (1946–47), Manny Stallman (1947–49), Andre LeBlanc (1950), Al Wenzel (1952)
  • Inkers: Alex Kotzky (1941–43), John Belfi (1942–43), Don Komisarow (1943), Robin King (year?), Joe Kubert (1943–44), Jerry Grandenetti, (1948–51), Jim Dixon (1950–51), Don Perlin (1951)
  • Letterers: Martin De Muth (years?), Abe Kanegson (years?), Sam Schwartz (1951), Ben Oda (1951)
  • Colorists: Jules Feiffer (years?), Chris Christiansen (1951)
  • Ghost artists (pencilers): Lou Fine and Jack Cole (variously, during Eisner's World War II service, 1942–45), Jerry Grandenetti (1951), Wally Wood (1952)
  • Ghostwriters/writing assistants: Toni Blum (1942), Jack Cole (years?), Manly Wade Wellman and William Woolfolk (variously, during Eisner's World War II service, 1942–45), Klaus Nordling (1946, 1951), Marilyn Mercer (1946), Abe Kanegson (1950), Jules Feiffer (1951–52)

Latter-day Spirit comics


Harvey Comics' The Spirit #1 (Oct. 1966). Cover art by Will Eisner.

A five-page Spirit story, set in New York City, appeared as part of a January 9, 1966 article about the Spirit in the New York Herald Tribune.[11]

Harvey Comics reprinted several Spirit stories in two giant-size, 25-cent comic books published October 1966 and March 1967, each with new Eisner covers.

The first of these two 60-page issues opened with a new seven-page retelling of the Spirit's origin by writer-penciler-inker Eisner (with inking assist by Chuck Kramer). Also new was the text feature "An Interview With the Spirit", credited to Marilyn Mercer; and writer-artist Eisner's two-page featurette "Spirit Lab: Invincible Devices". Seven 1948-1949 Spirit stories were reprinted.

The second issue opened with a new seven-page story by writer-artist Eisner, "Octopus: The Life Story of the King of Crime," giving the heretofore unrevealed origin of the Spirit's archnemesis The Octopus, as well as his given name (Zitzbath Zark). Also new was the two-page text feature "The Spirit Answers Your Mail", and writer-artist Eisner's two-page featurette "The Spirit Lab: The Man From MSD". Reprinted were seven 1948-1950 Spirit stories.


Warren Publishing and later Denis Kitchen's Kitchen Sink Press published extensive reprints, first as large black-and-white magazines (the Warren part of the run eventually having a color section), then as trade paperbacks. The magazines often featured new Eisner covers.

Two new stories were written during this period "The Capistrano Jewels", a 4-page story published in the second issue of the Kitchen Sink reprints in 1972; and "The Invader", a 5-page story (reprinted in The Will Eisner Color Treasury). Issue 30 of the Kitchen Sink series features "The Spirit Jam", with a script from Eisner and a few penciled pages, plus contributions from 50 artists.

In 1976, an oddity called "The Spirit Casebook of True Haunted Houses and Ghosts" was published.[citation needed] The Spirit plays the EC host, introducing "true" stories of haunted houses. The Spirit makes a cameo in Vampirella #50.[citation needed]


Kitchen Sink Press did a complete reprinting of the post-WWII Eisner work in a color comics series. The publisher started another series intended to reprint the stories from the beginning; it lasted only 10 issues.

1990s and beyond

Promotional art by Darwyn Cooke for DC Comics' The Spirit

Kitchen Sink also published a series of original Spirit stories in 1996-1997, including contributions from Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Paul Chadwick, Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale and Paul Pope.

In the mid-2000s, DC Comics began reprinting The Spirit chronologically in the company's hardcover Archive series, in an approximately 8x10-inch format, smaller than the Kitchen Sink and Warren publications.

The final Spirit art by the late Eisner appeared in the sixth issue of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, from Dark Horse Comics.[citation needed]

DC Comics

The DC Comics one-shot Batman/The Spirit (January 2007), by writer Jeph Loeb and artists Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone fully introduced the Spirit into the DC Universe, although he had previously garnered a brief cameo in Batgirl: Year One. The first issue of the ongoing series The Spirit, written and pencilled by Cooke and inked by J. Bone, debuted the following month. It ran through issue #32 (Aug. 2009), with most running a single 22-page story. The series updated some concepts, with Ellen's Internet skills helping to solve a case, and Ebony White stripped of his racial stereotype characteristics. The team of Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones became the series' regular writers beginning with issue #14 (March 2008), with Mike Ploog and later Paul Smith providing the artwork.

In other media

Daily strip

From October 1941 to March 1944, there was also a daily, black-and-white newspaper strip of The Spirit. These were later reprinted in several collections. DC's The Spirit Archives Vol. 25 collected all of these strips.

Reprints of the Spirit's adventures ran in Quality Comics and Fiction House publications shortly after their newspaper debuts.

TV movie

The character was the subject of a 1987 television movie starring Sam J. Jones as The Spirit, Nana Visitor as Ellen Dolan, and Garry Walberg as Commissioner Dolan.


The film adaptation The Spirit, written and directed by Frank Miller, was released in theaters by Lionsgate on December 25, 2008. The film stars Gabriel Macht as the Spirit and Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus.[14]


Denis Kitchen, the Eisner estate's agent, said in a July 8, 2006 online interview that a radio series had been in development: "It was pitched to the estate by a couple of producers, one of whom is very experienced with NPR, so we have been back and forth on how that would work. Again, it would be premature to tell you it is going to happen, but it is in serious discussion."[15]

Collected editions

The comic strips and comics have been collected into a number of volume):

  • Will Eisner Color Treasury (1981, Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-006-X)
  • Spirit Color Album (1981, Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-002-7)
  • Spirit Color Album, v2 (1983, Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-010-8)
  • Spirit Color Album, v3 (1983, Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-011-6)
  • Art of Will Eisner (1989 2nd ed, Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-076-0)
  • Outer Space Spirit (1989 Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-012-4)
  • Christmas Spirit (1995 Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-309-3)
  • Spirit Casebook (199x Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-094-9)
  • All About P'Gell: Spirit Casebook II (1998 Kitchen Sink) (ISBN 0-87816-492-8)
  • The Spirit Archives: (DC Comics)
  • The Best of The Spirit (2005 DC Comics) (ISBN 1-4012-0755-3)
  • The Spirit Book 1, Collects Batman/The Spirit and The Spirit #1-6 (DC Comics)
  • The Spirit Book 2, Collects The Spirit #7-13 (DC Comics)
  • The Spirit Book 3, Collects The Spirit #14-20 (DC Comics)
  • The Spirit Book 4, Collects The Spirit #21-25 (DC Comics)
  • The Spirit Book 5, Collects The Spirit #26-32 (DC Comics)
  • The Spirit: Angel Smerti, Collects The Spirit #1-7 (DC Comics)


  1. ^ Panels #1 (Summer 1979), "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence by Will Eisner", pp. 5-21, quoted in Quattro, Ken. "Rare Eisner: Making of a Genius", Comicartville Library, 2003, n.d. WebCite archive
  2. ^ a b Will Eisner interview, Alter Ego #48, May 2005, p. 10
  3. ^ Kitchen, Denis. "Annotations to The Dreamer, in Eisner, Will, The Dreamer (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2008), p. 52. ISBN 978-0-393-32808-0
  4. ^ Will Eisner interview, Jack Kirby Collector #16 (June 1997)
  5. ^ a b c "Will Eisner Interview", The Comics Journal #46 (May 1979), p. 37. Interview conducted Oct. 13 and 17, 1978
  6. ^ Eisner, The Dreamer, "About the Author", p. 55
  7. ^ a b c Spirit, The (Register and Tribune Syndicate, 1940 Series) at the Grand Comics Database
  8. ^ Archive of Groth, Gary, "Will Eisner: Chairman of the Board",The Comics Journal #267, May 2005. Original site.
  9. ^ Arndt, Richard J. Jerry Grandenetti interview (2005), "The Warren Magazines: Interviews" (requires scrolling down). February 3, 2010 update with nine interviews. WebCitation archive.
  10. ^ Arnold, Andrew D. "Never Too Late" (Will Eisner Interview), Time, September 19, 2003. WebCitation archive.
  11. ^ a b Mercer, Marilyn, "The Only Real Middle-Class Crimefighter", New York (Sunday supplement, New York Herald Tribune), Jan. 9, 1966; reprinted in Alter Ego #48 (May 2005)
  12. ^ Transcript of March 24, 2010, Feiffer interview at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, published as "Backing into Jules Feiffer: An Exclusive Q&A", p.2, FilmFestivalTraveler.com, 18 April 2010. WebCitation archive
  13. ^ Credits based on Leiffer, Paul, and Hames Ware, eds., The Comic Strip Project (WebCitation archive), plus Yronwode, Cat, and Wes Tumulka. ed., The Spirit Checklist at WildwoodCemetary.com (WebCitation archive)
  14. ^ The Spirit (movie official website)
  15. ^ Archive of Will Eisner: A Spirited Life Interview Series: "Denis Kitchen Interview", ASpiritedLife.com (official site, A Spirited Life author Bob Andelman), July 08, 2006. Original page


External links

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