The Spirit: Quality Comics
Created by Will Eisner
NAME + ALIASES:
Denny Colt, Jr.
Denny Colt, Sr. (father, deceased), Unnamed uncle
FIRST APPEARANCE: The Spirit Section [#1] (2 June 1940)
The Spirit was the cornerstone of The Spirit Section, a special 16-page comic book sized insert syndicated to newspapers by Quality and its partner, the Register and Tribune Syndicate. The feature was by some measures Quality’s most successful. Over 600 editions of the Section appeared between June 2, 1940 and October 5, 1952. At its height, it appeared in twenty papers. The Sunday adventures were reprinted in Quality’s Police Comics from 1942–49, and in The Spirit comic book from 1940–50. (These were not reprinted chronologically, and only reached through mid-1946.) In addition, “The Spirit” daily newspaper strip ran from 13 October 1941 to 11 March 1944.
The Spirit made a lasting impression on a whole generation of Sunday comics readers. It influenced comic creators, too. The strip’s (and Eisner’s) reputation is one of experimentation; it stemmed from Eisner’s growing desire to use comic books as a medium to tell graphic stories for grown-ups.
Will Eisner always owned the Spirit, per his original agreement with Busy Arnold and the Register and Tribune. Today his estate manages the reprinting and licensing of the character. Both Dark Horse and DC Comics have publishing original ongoing series, though they were produced without input from the Estate.
Because of the vast amount of extant research, exposition, and documentation about “The Spirit,” this profile only provides an overview of the character and its publishing history. You can find suggestions for further reading in the Bibliography (in addition to the core series listed at the beginning of this profile).
Considering its lofty reputation as a pillar of the comic book form, “The Spirit” began rather unexceptionably. (By Eisner’s own admission, some of his best work was done after he returned from the Army.) Limited to only seven pages, each episode of “The Spirit” had to move quickly. The remainder of the Spirit Section was rounded out by two other regular features: Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic. Eisner wrote and illustrated the densely packed action, setting the pace in the feature’s very first installment.
The Spirit was Denny Colt, a criminologist and private detective who worked closely with Commissioner Eustace Dolan of the Central City Police. One night, Colt tracked the escaped villain Dr. Cobra to a Chinatown hideout. Shots were fired and a vat of chemicals washed over Colt. By the time Dolan arrived with officers, Colt was dead and shipped off to the morgue. The following night, Dolan was visited by a man in shadows who called himself the Spirit. Both men tracked Dr. Cobra through his henchmen, beginning at the site of Colt’s rebirth: Wildwood Cemetery. Dolan took a cab there, driven by a young African-American (named Ebony White in the third episode).
There the Spirit revealed his identity to Dolan, explaining that the chemicals had placed him in suspended animation, and that he’d crawled out of his own grave. Instead of returning to a normal life, he chose for Denny to remain “dead.” He now preferred to fight crime in a manner that could extend beyond the reach of law enforcement. When the Spirit flushed Cobra into the open, Dolan shot him. Before departing, the Spirit left his calling card, a tiny tombstone reading “The Spirit, Address: Wildwood Cemetery.” (The Spirit Section 2 June 1940)
The Spirit wore no mask in his first appearance. It appeared the next week, when Eisner expanded the supporting cast to include Dolan’s daughter, Ellen. She met the Spirit when he hitched a ride in Ebony’s cab at the same time as Ellen and her fiancé, Homer. She fell prey to Dr. Cobra, who’d returned without explanation. After their rescue, the Spirit gave Ellen a kiss that made her reassess her engagement. (9 June 1940)
Off to War: The Creative History
Eisner talked about his waning role in creating the Spirit after his enlistment. (Alter Ego #48) Naturally, he would need to hand off the feature’s production to other creators. Cat Yronwode’s “Spirit Checklist” names many of the creators and others spoke to Jim Amash. (To find the Checklist, search the web for “Spirit checklist.” Yronwode’s web sites have lapsed into disrepair, but it’s recoverable.) Will Eisner was the primary creator of “The Spirit” before he left for the Army, with occasional help by Bob Powell. He was also assisted in writing by Toni Blum. But after May 3, 1942, Eisner was forced to work remotely, and cut his duties back to scripting and layouts. Only occasionally was he able to provide the art. Instead, Lou Fine became the primary artist, inked by John Belfi, Joe Kubert, Aldo Rubano, Jack Keller, Robin King and Alex Kotzky. Manly Wade Wellman and Bill Woolfolk stepped in to write. Throughout the war, it was primarily Fine on the art, with additional help from Robin King and Jack Cole (who probably wrote his own episodes). Gill Fox wrote six weeks of the daily strip.
The British agent Silk Satin became a recurring guest-star. She was sent on a mission to get the Spirit, who had a vial of experimental explosive. Satin fell for him as he cozied up to her, in disguise. In the end, the Spirit revealed that he was hired by the Army just to “raise a scare” and divert attention from the real explosive, which Satin somehow secured anyway. For her success, her superiors expunged her criminal record. (5 Oct. 1941)
In following decades, there was renewed interest. Publishers like Harvey (1966), Kitchen Sink Press (1973), and Warren (1974) reprinted and contracted new Spirit stories. Eisner never produced it again regularly, aside from drawing new covers and some stories for the Harvey magazine (and another new story in 1966 for the New York Herald Tribune).
The original Sunday Spirit Sections have been reprinted chronologically in hardcover archives by DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics. Both of those publishers also created new Spirit stories without creative input from Eisner or his estate. The 2007 DC series by Darwin Cooke was particularly adept in capturing the excitement of those early adventures, while applying a sort of “nostalgic update.”
In Other Media
In 2008, the Spirit was updated and brought to the big screen, played by Gabriel Macht and directed by comic book creator Frank Miller. It featured the Octopus and Sand Saref.
The Spirit had no super-powers but given his cheat of death, he acted as if he had no fear of it. Once when doctors examined him, they remarked how he’d run for miles yet had a normal heart rate. (The Spirit Section 21 July 1940)
He wouldn’t hesitate to jump out a window (but might admit, “Someday I’m going to get hurt doing this!”) Like a cat, he always landed on his feet. He was an excellent hand-to-hand fighter. In early stories, he and Ebony used the Autoplane, a car that took to the air.
- The Spirit Section (2 June 1940–5 Oct. 1952)
- Police Comics #11–87 (September 1942–May 1949) • The Spirit 22 issues (1944–August 1950)
- The Spirit, 22 issues (1944-50)
- The Spirit, 2 issues (1963, I.W. Publishing)
- The Spirit #1-2 (1966, Harvey)
- The Spirit #1-2 (1973, Kitchen Sink Press)
- The Spirit, 16 issues (April 1974–Oct. 1976, Warren magazine)
- The Spirit, 41 issues (Wtr. 1977–June 1983, Kitchen Sink Press)
- The Spirit: The New Adventures of the Spirit #1-8 (1998, Kitchen Sink Press)
- The Spirit Archives, 26 vols. (2000–09)
- Batman/The Spirit, one-shot (2007)
- The Spirit, 32 issues (2007-09)
- The First Wave, 6-issue limited series (2010)
- The Spirit, 17 issues (2010–2011)
- First Wave Special #1 (2011)