Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Death in the Newspaper

When I've written about comic strips (as opposed to comic books), I've generally done so for my Thursday catch-all posts. I've kept Wednesdays the exclusive hang-out for comic books. 

But I've been reconsidering this. I'd like to write a little bit more often about newspaper strips and I think that--every once in awhile--I'll use a Wednesday to talk about a specific story arc from one of the classic adventure strips. 

Today, though, we'll sort-of go halfway there. In 1940, the Register and Tribune Syndicate of Des Moines began to distribute a 16-page comic book that newspapers would include in their Sunday edition (along with the regular comics section). Though their subscriber base was never large and their page count eventually 
dropped to 8 pages, this newspaper/comic book hybrid ran for 12 years.

The main feature for the comic was The Spirit, created by Will Eisner. Except for a few years spent in the army during the war, Eisner drew the strip and did most of the writing. He often re-wrote scripts when he didn't originate them, so The Spirit was pretty much his baby from start to finish.

Superheroes were all the rage in 1940, but Eisner resisted the pressure to turn his hero--criminologist Denny Colt--into a costumed hero. Instead, he slapped a mask and a pair of gloves on the character, which made everyone happy and left him free to tell the sort of stories he wanted to tell. Any one Spirit story might be a comedy, a hard-boiled crime story, a fantasy or a combination of genres. Often the Spirit was only a peripheral character in a particular story, because that story was centered on an inevitably fascinating one-shot character. 

I got to meet Mr. Eisner once when he spoke at the art college at which I work. It was just before my first book came out and the teacher giving him the campus tour mentioned this. Mr. Eisner was kind enough to ask me about the book. When I mentioned that it was in part about pulp magazines such as Black Mask, he said he learned to write short stories from reading Black Mask

And he was indeed a master of the short story format. The post-war Spirit stories, which usually ran only 7 pages, were models of concise storytelling and often packed an extraordinary emotional punch. 

For instance, the November 10, 1949 issue is about Freddie, a young man who is apparently well-liked in his neighborhood, but who sick of his life and wants to move on. Moving on costs money and the most
convenient way to get money is to rob the local candy store.

Well, we've been told right up front that this story is about the last ten minutes of Freddie's life, so it's not surprising when things go wrong. Freddie ends up killing the candy store owner and, after spending several tense moments serving malteds to customers while a corpse is hidden behind the counter, he's forced to make a run for it. The Spirit nearly catches him in a subway station--Freddie makes a break for it, but his hands get stuck in a subway car, pulling him to his death against a steel support. 

Several things make the story work. First, Eisner quickly but effectively sketches out Freddie's character for us. He looks young and his character design wouldn't be out-of-place in an Archie comic, but we soon see that he's a bitter man
who's about to make several horribly bad decisions. We are made to sympathize with Freddie to a degree, but without in anyway being told to excuse his actions.

Also, Eisner casually inserts a number of elements that remind us the entire story takes place in only ten minutes. For instance, on the first page there's a little girl bouncing a ball while reciting an alphabet rhyme. She's on "A my Name is Alice" when Freddie walks by on his way to the candy shop. She's still at the game, up to R when Freddie is fleeing for his life a few minutes later. It's such a simple thing, but it works
perfectly, reminding us just how quickly events are unfolding.

I can really believe that Eisner learned to write short stories from Black Mask. Were this a prose story, it's exactly the sort of tale you'd have expected to find in that magazine. 

We'll be back to regular comic books next week with a look at a Gold Key Star Trek story. But we will return to newspapers from time to time. Captain Kirk, Superman and Turok will just have to learn to share the spotlight with Dick Tracy, Captain Easy and Flash Gordon. 



  1. Replies
    1. A reprint of the first Alley Oop time travel stories was just published within the last couple of weeks. I plan to eventually cover that.


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