Posted in: Film Noir, Film Reviews

Will Eisner, Frank Miller and “The Spirit”

“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …

“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”

– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4

Will Eisner's "The Spirit"
Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.

Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the Sin City graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.

The Spirit was in many ways Eisner’s take on the urban crime milieu that was bubbling up in the movies and would later be called film noir, full of shadows and urban badlands and criminal miscreants as, yes, even death and murder. But it was also drawn from the fiction of O. Henry and James Thurber. It was filled with offbeat characters and vivid personalities caught up in unusual situations, some of them only tangentially connected to the Spirit. And it was colorful, as the recent definitive reprints so boldly remind us. Eisner created a vibrantly colored world within the shadows and the milieu, and his art was full of character and personality. It’s telling that Frank Miller shifts the color of The Spirit’s defining trenchcoat from the vibrant blue of Eisner’s comic to silhouette black in his almost monochrome world of hard shadows and dark screens. He tips his hat in tributes to other comic greats – a street named after Jerry Iger (Eisner’s early collaborator) and a Ditko Moving Company (after great silver age artist Steve Ditko) – but fans of the original comic will note plenty of liberties taken with The Spirit’s world in a tribute that is far more Miller than Eisner. Such comparisons will matter more to the fans of Eisner’s classic comics, which simply don’t have the cultural recognition of a Batman or a Spider-Man, than to the average fan of action movies and superhero cinema. The awkward balance of sensibilities, however, will undoubtedly be apparent to just about everybody.

Frank Miller's "The Spirit"
Frank Miller's "The Spirit"

Eisner’s Spirit was a boy scout of two-fisted crimefighter, sort of like The Batman with a sense of humor and a self-effacing quality. And while he was resilient, he was definitely mortal. In Miller’s hands, the self-deprecating, decidedly human hero has become superhuman and the story an odyssey to discover his origins, which are somehow tied in with supervillain The Octopus (an off-the-hook Samuel L. Jackson, more Grade A ham than Octopus). The visual milieu is strictly forties, from cars to fashions to city street architecture, with splashes of the modern world (The Spirit has a cell phone). The graphic style recalls the monochrome palette of Sin City, with a color scheme dialed down to only hints of fleshtones and key visual indicators – like his red tie – painted bright to jump out from the screen. His court shoes are glow-in-the-dark white, as is the blood most of the time. It’s striking, but distracting.

Miller has a better understanding of the moving cinematic image here than he showed in Sin City, which was practically a series of panels edited together, but he’s still more a static visualist than a director of fluid images. He still tends to think of the screen as a panel in which things happen, rather than a fluid portal where every element of the shot – not simply the framing and the angle and action within but scale, movement, speed, stillness, duration – contributes to the meaning. His camera serves the composition, not the movement or the human drama. It’s a film more designed than directed. That extends to his actors. Gabriel Macht comes on with a throaty hoarseness, like a cheesy attempt at tough-guy gruffness, only periodically pulling a lopsided smile when talking to one of many babes in the film. Samuel L. Jackson has much more fun playing his villainy to the rafters than the audience is having sitting through it. Miller’s femmes look more like comic book fatales than real people – Eva Mendes (who looks like fantasy pin-up drawn right into the film) and Scarlett Johanson come to mind – and Paz Vega plays Plaster of Paris with a French accent dripping with her own Spanish inflections, not that most men will notice in her harem girl bikini. Louis Lombardi plays the cloned army of henchmen, an almost inexhaustible supply of grinning idiots with the combined brainpower of a rock garden and the enthusiasm of a four-year-old on a chocolate overdose. His scenes are less comic (book) relief than a sudden cut to a self-contained, single-panel gag from the newspaper comics page.

Translating a story from one medium to another inevitably entails a substantial reworking on some level, and the director is the artist who will impose his vision on this new version. Miller plays to his own strengths – the punch of hard, bold, stripped-down graphic images and the self-conscious tribute-turned-parody of pulp fiction conventions – at the expense of Eisner’s warmth and humor. His dialogue sounds less like Eisner word balloons than pulp paperback tough guy jabber and Miller directs it in all caps and headline type. In place of Eisner’s wit is a campy overkill. But comparisons to Eisner aside, Miller’s script lacks the mythic echoes and the human vulnerability of the best of the recent superhero films, and his direction lacks the humanizing touches that can pull an audience into an unreal world. This world remains flat and distant, a tipsy balance of Miller’s brand of two-fisted pulp exaggeration with slapstick action and camp flourishes that can’t decide if it wants to be taken seriously or not. It might have looked good on paper, but then this isn’t a paper medium. It’s cinema, and for a man schooled in the differences by Eisner himself, you’d think he’s have taken the lesson to heart.