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The Spirit (Denny Colt) is a fictional character appearing in the comic books published by DC Comics. Created by writer-artist Will Eisner, he first appeared in Spirit Section #1 (June 1940).
A crime-fighter, the Spirit debuted on June 2, 1940, in a seven-page insert into American Sunday-newspaper comics sections.
The Spirit chronicles the adventures of a masked vigilante who fights crime with the blessing of the city's police commissioner Dolan, an old friend. Despite the Spirit's origin as a detective named Denny Colt, his real identity was virtually unmentioned again and for all intents and purposes he was simply "the Spirit". The stories range through a wide variety of styles, from straightforward crime drama and noir to lighthearted adventure, from mystery and horror to comedy and love stories, often with hybrid elements that twisted genre and expectations.
The feature was the lead item of a 16-page, tabloid-sized, newsprint comic book sold as part of eventually 20 Sunday newspapers with a combined circulation of as many as five million copies. "The Spirit Section", as it was colloquially called, premiered June 2, 1940, and continued until October 5, 1952. It generally included two other, four-page strips (initially Mr. Mystic and Lady Luck), plus filler material. Eisner worked as editor, but also wrote and drew most entries — generally, after the first few months, with such uncredited "ghost" collaborators as writer Jules Feiffer and artists Jack Cole and Wally Wood, though with Eisner's singular vision for the character as a unifying factor.
In late 1939, Everett M. "Busy" Arnold, publisher of the Quality Comics comic-book line, began exploring an expansion into newspaper Sunday supplements, aware that many newspapers felt they had to compete with the suddenly burgeoning new medium of American comic books. Arnold compiled a presentation piece with existing Quality Comics material. An editor of The Washington Star liked George Brenner's The Clock, but not Brenner's art, and was favorably disposed toward a Lou Fine strip. Arnold, concerned over the meticulous Fine's slowness and his ability to meet deadlines, claimed it was the work of Eisner, Fine's boss at the Eisner & Iger studio, from which Arnold bought his outsourced comics work.
In "late '39, just before Christmas time," Eisner recalled in 1979, Arnold "came to me and said that the Sunday newspapers were looking for a way of getting into this comic book boom". In a 2004 interview, he elaborated on that meeting: “ 'Busy' invited me up for lunch one day and introduced me to [sales manager of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate] Henry Martin, who said, 'The newspapers in this country, particularly the Sunday papers, are looking to compete with comics books, and they would like to get a comic-book insert into the newspapers'. ... Martin asked if I could do it. ... It meant that I'd have to leave Eisner & Iger [which] was making money; we were very profitable at that time and things were going very well. A hard decision. Anyway, I agreed to do the Sunday comic book and we started discussing the deal [which] was that we'd be partners in the 'Comic Book Section', as they called it at that time. ”
The new series "gave me an adult audience," Eisner said in 1997, "and I wanted to write better things than super-heroes. Comic books were a ghetto. I sold my part of the enterprise to my associate and then began the Spirit. They wanted an heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he'd have a costume. And I put a mask on him and said, 'Yes, he has a costume!'"
During World War II, Eisner served in the U.S. Army. In his absence, the newspaper syndicate used ghost writers and artists to continue the strip, including Manly Wade Wellman, William Woolfolk, and Lou Fine.
Fictional character biography
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. 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 newfound 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, 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 beautiful but deadly femme fatales (most notably P'Gell), 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).
Ebony White in perspective
Eisner is sometimes criticized for his depiction of Ebony White, the Spirit's African American sidekick. The character's name is a racial pun, and his facial features, including large white eyes and thick pinkish lips, are typical of racial blackface caricatures popular throughout the "Jim Crow" era. Eisner later admitted to consciously stereotyping the character, but said he tried to do so with "responsibility", and argued that "at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity". The character, who was consistently treated with respect by the strip's fellow cast-members, developed beyond the stereotype as the series progressed, and Eisner also introduced black characters (such as the plain-speaking Detective Grey) who defied popular stereotypes.
In a 1966, New York Herald Tribune feature by his former office manager-turned-journalist, Marilyn Mercer wrote, "Ebony never drew criticism from Negro groups (in fact, Eisner was commended by some for using him), perhaps because, although his speech pattern was early Minstrel Show, he himself derived from another literary tradition: he was a combination of Tom Sawyer and Penrod, with a touch of Horatio Alger hero, and color didn't really come into it".
The DC Comics' Spirit comic-book series of the late 2000s portrays White as a street kid, driving a stolen taxi. He is portrayed as putting his street experience and his daring attitude to work at the Spirit's service.
- The Octopus is the Arch-enemy of the Spirit. He is a criminal mastermind and master of disguise who never shows his real face, though he is identified by his distinctive gloves. His real name is Zitzbath Zark, a young man who is seemingly killed while trying to blow up the city's power plant.
- P'Gell is a femme fatale, who perennially tries to seduce the Spirit to a life of crime at her side. She seduces and marries wealthy men, has them killed, and uses their money to fund her crime empire in Istanbul and expand her influence and control over the underworld. After moving to Central City to find the Spirit, she continues her modus operandi of selected marriages with the creme of society, even gaining an ally in the form of Saree, the young daughter of one of her deceased husbands.
- Sand Saref is a childhood friend of Denny Colt, who knows that he is the Spirit. Working in espionage, she usually ends up on the opposite side of the law from the Spirit. She returns to Central City involved in a conspiracy to smuggle germ warfare weapons, with the aim of selling out her partners and retiring from the game, but the plan goes awry and she flees town after an emotional reunion with the Spirit. She appeared several times afterward, always involved in some criminal scheme.
- Silken Floss is a nuclear physicist and a brilliant surgeon, who acts as the accomplice to The Octopus.
- Dr. Cobra is a mad scientist whose chemicals and machinations inadvertently help Denny Colt become the Spirit.
- Mr. Carrion is a morbid con man with a pet vulture, Julia.
- Darling O' Shea is the richest and most spoiled child in the world.
- Hazel P. Macbeth is a witch with Shakespearean motif and apparent magical powers.