Toon Musings: Sorrow for Spirit Lost


A Cruel Mistress

A neat bit of animation history surfaced recently. It delighted me, yet filled me with sadness and longing for what might have been. Oh cartooning, you’re a Cruel Mistress. I shall explain, but first, a flashback.

When I was a sprout, I enjoyed comic books. I used to buy them from a vending machine in the vestibule of the Topps on Plainfield Road. I enjoyed Blackhawk, a World War Two-era multinational team of ethnic tropes who battled the Axis powers. They had a nifty emblem and matching outfits and lots of camaraderie. I also liked Adam Strange, a guy with a raygun and a jetpack and a hot girlfriend. He battled aliens, I guess; my memory’s a bit foggy. From there, I gravitated toward Batman and Superman and the Flash. Then I discovered the Marvel universe, with the Avengers and the X-Men and Spiderman.

It was most likely in my later childhood that I ran across an old reprint of the Spirit. Will Eisner’s noirish masterpiece debuted almost exactly 75 years ago as a newspaper supplement on June 2nd, 1940. I say “noir-ish” because although it had cynicism, atmosphere, antiheroes, treachery, and femmes fatales in abundance, it also had a playful sense of humor and a strong humanist theme; the stories told were human stories, people were motivated by normal, mundane emotions and impulses, and the outcomes were generally optimistic in that the bad guys generally got their comeuppance.

Here’s a little biography of the Spirit, courtesy of Wikipedia:

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. (To be precise, Dennis Colt Jr.) 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 with the aide of his assistant, Ebony White, 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).

From the start, the stories were what interested Eisner. Sometimes the Spirit would only appear at the beginning or end of a story, serving as a kind of framing device for the real tale. He was anything but the over-the-top, bombastic superhero that most comics readers are accustomed to.

In 1980, Brad Bird and a group of animators from Cal Arts took five months of their lives to create a pencil test of a proposed movie starring the Spirit. You might remember Mr. Bird from such films as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. The pencil test was conceived as a sort of mock trailer, and was done in the old-timey style of 40’s-era cartoons, displaying the kind of fluid character design and gritty urban sensibility that… well, here. See for yourselves:

I would watch that movie, you betcha.

Instead, this is what we got:

Yes, they’re beating each other up with toilets. Note the Looney Toons touches; but you can tell it’s grown up because the Spirit gets hit in the nuts. The wit is almost Swiftian.

Frank Miller, the cartoonist responsible for the comics’ Dark Knight Returns, 300, and Sin City (the latter two of which were made into movies) was reportedly friends with Will Eisner, and in 2008 took it upon himself to “interpret” his friend’s creation. The feel of it is very Miller-y, in the style of Sin City, but with lots of slapstick and pratfalls because…comics, I guess. It certainly has the look of a Frank Miller comic: very high-contrast and impeccably composed, with each shot resembling a panel in a comic book. Chiaroscuro, with the occasional splash of red, predominates. It’s also imbued with a truly adolescent nihilism. In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m not really a fan. I did rather like the goofy henchmen, though. I just wish that Miller had made the movie with his own characters, instead of peeing in somebody else’s pool, friends or no.

Bird’s Spirit will most likely never be made. The kind of lush, human-produced 2D animation is out of style now. Stories often take a back seat to how realistic the CGI hair looks, or how to render skin with the proper translucence, or how to creep up to the very edge of Uncanny Valley without tumbling in. We can still dream, though.

More reading:

‘The Spirit’ movie that could have been

Long-Lost Pencil Test Trailer for Brad Bird’s ‘The Spirit’ Revealed

UrbPoutPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. 

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