And I have to be honest with you, for the first day, it really looked like maybe I shouldn’t do it. I was really worried about the notion that everybody would want an homage or a replication in regard to specific things that had already happened. I thought, that’s ridiculous. That’s like refilming Psycho. And I am not going to be the guy who does that. It’s not needed.
– Darwyn Cooke, on his new Spirit series
I like Darwyn Cooke a lot, so it was reassuring to read the above. I too was conflicted about him, or anyone, doing this book. As he points out in the excellent above-linked Spirited Life interview, an ongoing monthly “creates a different set of rules” than the Spirit specials and jams of years past. It reminds me of the fidelity-to-Kirby questions raised whenever DC would try to revive New Gods, but The Spirit is different still. It is so closely identified with Will Eisner, and so not thought of as a corporate property, that as a singular work by a singular talent, it shouldn’t be augmented or expanded upon except under special circumstances. Like announcing a new Peanuts series, a new Spirit can only be a tribute, not a continuation, because the original work was so personal.
Crossovers with Batman and (maybe) Superman aside — and a Barry Allen Flash crossover seems natural, given that both live in “Central City” — DC is, thankfully, content to exclude the Spirit from its mainstream. (It should have done that with the Marvel Family, but that’s another rant.) Still, even within the context of the larger DC Universe, certain titles and concepts have been introduced and bidden goodbye on their creators’ own terms. Outside of a cameo in Batman #600, no one has handled Silver St. Cloud without involving Steve Englehart and/or Marshall Rogers. Walt Simonson and the late Archie Goodwin were the guardians of their version of Manhunter. Jack “Starman” Knight’s adventures have ended until James Robinson decides to bring him back; and for the most part, only Neil Gaiman has written Morpheus. Any revisitation of these characters by others would necessarily happen in the shadows of their original creators. Silver might be a particularly attractive piece of the Jenga puzzle that is Batman history, but her story can stand alone; and so can the others’.
Does “standing alone” equal uniqueness, in a way at least approaching what made Eisner’s Spirit unique? Thinking about Cooke’s Spirit has capped my recent period of “homage awareness,” filled with tributes and retcons like Superman Returns and the Untold Tales of Spider-Man collection, and even the nods to old newscasts on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown.” (Olbermann uses the same piece of Dvorak’s New World Symphony as the “NBC Nightly News” did, back in the day; and he signs off with Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night, and good luck.”)
I shouldn’t be so revelatory. Just about all of today’s corporate superhero comics contain some form of homage to creators long gone — that’s the nature of the work-for-hire model. However, paying tribute to a certain style of storytelling by recreating that style (or the trappings thereof) naturally risks unfavorable comparisons with the original. After all, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was predicated upon duplicating the original’s success through duplicating its mechanics. Every homage/remake/sequel/etc. must therefore find its own equilibrium between old and new, but that’s hardly a revelation either.
Part of my fascination with The Spirit‘s uniqueness undoubtedly comes from the fact that it did end, after being guided largely by Eisner all those years. Lee and Kirby didn’t write a conclusion to Fantastic Four when they realized their collaboration was ending (in fact, that was the conceit of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine! tribute jam), but if they had, and if the FF had retired — really retired, not just withdrawn to the background — early in 1970, then some acclaimed cartoonist reviving the title today might face the same kinds of issues with which Cooke struggles. (And that’s another post topic, too….)
We’ll never know, because Kirby gave way to Buscema and Buckler and on down to McKone; and Lee stepped aside for Roy Thomas, etc. Corporate superhero comics, and those who love them, are probably no less fond of “peaceful transitions of power” than news heads getting ready for the Inauguration Day parade. After so many administrations, what becomes important is not so much the expression of creator through character as it is the effect of creator on character. The basics of Batman won’t change, but the way (for example) Grant Morrison uses those basics should be worth reading, even absent any radical insights.
I tend to think Cooke and The Spirit are in the “expression of creator through character” category. Cooke’s style lends itself to aping Eisner, and therefore covering the expected Spirit storytelling mechanics; but Cooke’s sensibilities also seem in line with Eisner’s, even if, on the most superficial level, Eisner’s writing now sounds “retro” and Cooke is identified with “retro.” It’s hard to quantify. Basically it will come across as me saying “Cooke did a good Slam Bradley, so he’ll do a good Spirit,” and that’s true, but it goes deeper. Cooke did a good Slam Bradley because of the Spirit’s influence on him, so now it comes full circle. Maybe it’s the same reaction I had to Galaxy Quest; namely, “Get these guys on a Star Trek show, stat!”
A good homage gets the details right, but it also goes beyond them to capture the essence of the original. When Johnny Carson died last year, David Letterman did a tribute show with “Tonight Show” musicians Doc Severinsen, Tommy Newsom, and Ed Shaughnessy in the band. He interviewed Johnny’s producer Peter Lassaly, showed a clip of Johnny stealing Dave’s pickup truck, and used only Carson-written jokes in his monologue. It showed not only Dave’s love for his mentor, and the extent to which Dave’s shows had been influenced by Johnny, but also the ways in which Dave had put his own stamp on a format Johnny codified. If Darwyn Cooke pulls off that level of tribute and homage while bringing his own particular talents to the new Spirit, it will be a sight to behold.