By Francesco Francavilla
Last week DC commenced their celebration of Jack Kirby’s Centennial by launching a new Kamandi series featuring a star-studded rooster of talent. This week Dynamite shifts the focus to Will Eisner, who like The King of Comics, would have turned 100 this year. Both Kirby and Eisner were profoundly talented writer/artists who left an indelible mark on the medium. In Eisner’s case, his signature creation was a masked crime fighter, The Spirit. Dynamite debuted the latest Spirit tale today, The Corpse-Makers. Based on its initial installment, the series promises to be a fitting tribute to Eisner.
Corpse-Makers is written and illustrated by acclaimed creator Francesco Francavilla. Francavilla is a natural fit for the subject having in the past drawn pulp influenced characters, such as Zorro and Batman, as well as chronicling his own pulp derived creation, The Black Beetle. Eisner’s Spirit stories often reflected the gritty hard-knocks world of the detective fiction popular at the time. In The Corpse-Makers Francavilla channels this energy with a striking double page spread early in the book. The police are investigating the death of a local derelict. Mostly, though, the men are restlessly standing around, as if acknowledging how anonymity will follow this man from life into death. The ground is littered with refuge while nondescript buildings dominate one corner of the horizon. The main source of light is provided by the cop cars’ headlights. Rain pours down on everything and everyone. Francavilla’s mastery of shadows and concentrated bursts of light would be at home in the most baroque of film noirs. However, mixed in with this grim naturalism is a touch of the fantastic: the name of The Spirit dominating the background in huge, rain soaked letters. It is a decidedly Eisner-esque touch which announces that that the character is in good hands.
Having inspected the potential crime scene himself, Police Commissioner Dolan feels that the most likely explanation is a natural death brought on by booze and the elements. The Spirit appears unconvinced yet defers to Dolan. Besides this allows him and his sidekick Ebony White (“EW”) to take off the remainder of the night. Thus, while the police slog through routine bagging and tagging, Ebony meets up with a cousin he has not seen for years. By the end of the issue, Francavilla will have knotted together these various story threads.
The narrative unfolds at a steady pace, easily transitioning from lighter moments to high stakes drama. The characters are both familiar to longtime fans and accessible for new readers. In addition, Francavilla introduces into his story themes of social relevance. In one scene, The Spirit watches a news segment which debates issues of energy resources and the environment. Meanwhile, Ebony’s cousin Vince is a former convict trying to keep to the straight and narrow. These motifs offer their own form of homage to Eisner’s work. Eisner often mixed social commentary into the pages of The Spirit, unafraid to contrast his hero’s gleeful perseverance with life’s everyday tragedies. That same somber ambiance is present in The Corpse-Makers as well.
Eisner was one of the most inventive illustrators in the history of comics; any artist who follows in his footsteps is going to have rather oversized shoes to fill. Francavilla ably meets the challenge. The story of Corpse-Makers is good, but the art is the true star of the book. Much of its mood is conveyed through Francavilla’s exquisite coloring. At first glance his palette may seem limited but only in the way that a black and white movie might be. Like the noir films of old, Francavilla evokes atmosphere through subtle visual shifts, such as the reddish orange police lights bathing one side of Dolan. The entire issue is suffused in the dark blues and purple of night. At the same time, Francavilla has a fine, soft line which lends his figures an expressive quality. There is a fluid movement throughout, especially coming into play for a climatic car chase.
These various skills unite for the narrative’s opening splash page. The background is obscured, along with the person filling it. In fact, initially the reader does not even notice the head, so buried in shadows are its features. Instead the reader’s attention is immediately drawn to a hand lit in a sinister purple. Fingers clasp a test tube dripping a slight steady stream of yellowish liquid which trickles into the ominous warning “No Matter What, The Past Will Always Catch Up With You . . .” It is a visceral, chilling image which immediately pulls the reader into the story. Through such stunning pages, Francavilla acknowledges how both horror and noir were influenced by the same Expressionist flourishes.
While this page is the first of the story, it is not the first of the comic. The latter is another splash page depicting The Spirit in a graveyard. Here too the rain is pouring against a deep blue night’s sky. It is not unusual for The Spirit to be found among the tombstones, as that is where he keeps his home. However, here he sits with hands hanging limp, his expression downcast. It is a mournful image made more poignant by a simple caption: “To Will and Darwyn.” (In the 00s, Darwyn Cooke, who sadly died last year, commenced an acclaimed revival of The Spirit for its then home of DC Comics). The page is a beautiful tribute from one creator to the work of his predecessors, while also demonstrating Francavilla’s freedom to speak in his own voice. This combination of homage and originality is a fitting testament to the legacy of Will Eisner. It is also This Week’s Finest.