The Spirit for 6/30/1946, page 3 panel 2. Will Eisner.
Oh boy, this picture. I'll talk craft first just so it can sink in a little. Will Eisner's fairly unique among comics' great writer-artists in that he didn't do the penciling on his most impressive run of comics (namely the Spirit strips of 1946 to 1949 or thereabouts). Instead, he laid the stories out in roughs, handed them off to a shop of assistants that remains one of comics' most impressive rosters of hired hands ever to pass through one place in such a short time, and then inked them when they came out the other end. It wasn't necessarily an uncommon way to make work in the comics industry of the 1930s and '40s, but not a great deal of what came out of it has the lasting value of The Spirit. And even that comic -- this panel included -- carries the tone of the shop-produced comics of the Golden Age. There isn't much particular elan to the drawing in very many Spirit panels; it's fairly anonymous "good cartooning" by a small army of good cartoonists, nailing the important things like gesture and motion and expression while never really pushing into the realm of intense individual stylism.
The things that stand out are the big ideas about page design and composition, the glorious sense of rhythm, the economy of sequencing. Eisner's work in those elements of comics on The Spirit is a massive foundation stone for American action comics (the broadest definition of that term possible, comics about people doing vigorous things or doing things vigorously). You can see that innovative formal spirit here, with the printed image framed like a movie still, calling up film and then playing with the eye a little by presenting the most comics-native of straightforward compositions and flat, two-dimensional staging. In the panels themselves though, the actual pictures, Eisner was fenced in, the victim of what must have been a rather grueling weekly schedule. All he could do was work with the drawings his all-star shop forwarded on to him, seeing how much he could accomplish with a brush. This panel swims with different lineweights, perfectly spotted blacks, and the one thing I never really hear mentioned about Eisner, which is just how much texture he would bring to his panels, how big an impression he put forth of the actual physical surfaces involved in them. The stipple of the glass on those jars, the irregular, crusty linework on the fork, the blips of ink thrown over the picked herring -- it's all there to create a sense impression, an idea of what these things feel like as well as look like.
Combined with the bright colors of midcentury newsprinting and the simple, open spaces of the composition, it's a pretty bizarre mix: the straightahead flash of clean, "comic booky" cartooning with a surprising amount of gum and grit sanded in. The Spirit's visual style is equal parts glossy, nostalgia-inducing Americana and carnivalesque, leering bizzarerie. It's a picture of a romanticized past that's focused clearly enough to make the actual romanticizing problematic. And that's where we come in. I'm of the opinion that The Spirit, especially the late-'40s run this panel's pulled from, is one of the very best comics of all time, period. As an example of sustained artistic brilliance, of formal innovation, of serial narrative, it's close to peerless. It's also one of the most fun comics to read, an addictive blur of intrigue and romance and comedy and suspense and human interest. It's the closest thing American comics have to Tintin, a massive library of comics broad enough to engross a six year old and nuanced enough to keep the critics busy indefinitely. That being said, its relative absence from the bookshelves is conspicuous, as is the relatively paltry amount of solid critical literature on it. Why aren't cheap editions of these comics pressed into the hands of every eager young reader, why aren't the best shorts up there with Peanuts and Lee/Kirby as cultural artifacts? Why? Because they've got stuff like this panel in damn near every episode.
When I try to think of a comparison for the comics field's benign neglect of Eisner's Spirit work, the first thing that jumps to mind is the recent, much-maligned "New South" edition of Huckleberry Finn, which replaces all Mark Twain's original-text uses of the word "nigger" with "slave". New books for a new world. But it's not a perfect comparison because Ebony White, the ridiculously offensive racial caricature above, was the Spirit's sidekick for the better part of a decade -- and this being comics, there's no easy way to replace Eisner's cringe-inducing pickaninny with a more palatable depiction of the black kid who helped Denny Colt's alter ego out of many a jam when he wasn't commenting wryly on the hero's tangled love life. Instead, The Spirit remains shielded by comics, never really put forward as a sterling exemplar of the form by its critical community or marketed with the aggression the material deserves by DC, who own the trademark. There's a very real fear that comes into play when the medium's spokesmen, whether aesthetic or commercial, deal with Eisner's masterpiece -- a nervousness that the wider world simply won't be able to take the skeletons in comics' closet.
And make no mistake, this kind of thoughtless racism needs to be laid at comics' doorstep at least as much as it does at Eisner's. Comics is a language, a system of abstract visual signs with an agreed-upon meaning, and like how in Twain's day "nigger" was a relatively commonplace part of English, in Eisner's this kind of racial caricature was a part of the comics lexicon. There are still problems with the language of comics -- a notable one being the way hourglass figures and balloon breasts are the medium's most common code for "woman" -- but time was that dinner-plate eyes and inner-tube lips were just as common a code for "black person". Eisner certainly deserves as much blame as anyone else for propagating such a grotesque aspect of his field, but Ebony White's appearance was sprung from the generalities of the era's action comics, a character design as nondescript in its milieu as the Spirit in his suit and domino mask was. Racism was a part of the world once upon a time, and as such it was a part of comics. And it's hardly left the world, let alone America, let alone American comics -- but at least there are certain things you can't do in public anymore, and this is most definitely one of them. Ebony White will always ensure that The Spirit isn't presented in the grand fashion the work's aesthetic value merits. In a way that's poetic justice, a casual racism that no doubt endeared Eisner's work to a populist audience in its day now preventing it from getting over to the world at large in ours. And there the story would end, if Ebony White wasn't such a good character.
I'm pretty sure I immediately think of the New South Twain book when I think about Ebony because he just might be the closest thing to Huck Finn that 20th century pop culture produced, a gutsy, vulnerable, melodramatic, flawed, truly good kid trying to find his way in a world that's thrown him into an array of increasingly outre characters. He's the most fun part of pretty much every Spirit story he appears in, the "kid sidekick" archetype done better than anywhere else; driving the action forward with youthful impulsiveness here, saving the day with a child's wisdom there, and providing a steady stream of arch, borderline satirical meta-commentary whenever else. It's also interesting to see the way that Eisner's playing to reprehensible stereotypes works as effective character construction in a world that no longer traffics nearly as heavily in overt racism. Ebony's grossly patois-laced dialogue, his minstrel-show pratfalls and caricatured appearance and body language serve to give him more sheer personality than any of the numerous ciphers that filled up the rest of Eisner's stories. Ebony was a springboard for some of Eisner's funniest humor material -- humor material, let me add, that never succumbed to racial jokes, which supports the view that Eisner was simply blinkered by his times and harbored no particularly intense prejudicial malice -- and the subject of his most affecting and least cloying paeans to the freedom of boyhood. He's always the thing on the page that's most alive, most unpredictable (by comparison the Spirit is little more than a one dimensional wind-up fighting machine) -- and it's a testament to Eisner's strength as a storyteller that you can almost forget all that energy is generated by pure racism during the best sequences. Eisner has an alright case as comics' Twain, to be honest, a massively influential yarn-spinner whose tendency toward painting in broad strokes may get in the way of his status as a true master of his medium, but whose ability to entertain keeps him deeply relevant while veiling a massive amount of nuance. And Ebony is Eisner's Huck, his best character, the eternal, effusive American boy that readers can't help but care about despite the problems with the language that he's built out of. As before, it's not a perfect analogy, but I think it works.
Of course, it's impossible to really leave the rest of it behind, to take Ebony as the fantastic character before taking him as the shameful caricature. That's why he's such a problem, that's why DC's mass-market Best of The Spirit collection doesn't feature any stories with him in them, that's why Eisner's best work exists as a series of ridiculously expensive archival hardcover reprints that are bound only to end up in the hands of diehard comics-history buffs who understand the times that motivated his creation all too well -- some of whom are even old enough to have experienced them firsthand. But as an expurgated Huck Finn is, so is a whitewashed comics history that shies away from confronting the sins of the past, especially when it happens at the expense of great work. Strangely, perversely, Ebony White is one of the most interesting parts of Eisner's Spirit, a look into that textured, carnivalesque America of yesteryear that reminds us it wasn't all unambiguous heroics. It's best that we look these caricatures in their distended faces, remember where we came from, and look to the future while savoring the fact that we've at least gotten this far ahead of the past.