Will Eisner's The Spirit stands out as one of the truly great comics of the forties. There is a lot of talk about comics' "Golden Age" this and "Silver Age" that, but, but the harsh reality is that most of the comics put out during those eras weren't very good (though in fairness, in the "Silver Age" plenty enough were). You had a lot of sales in the "Golden Age", so it certainly were a "golden" age in that sense of the word, but the art usually wasn't particularly great, and nor was the writing. However, they did establish a lot of exciting concepts that were to be put to better use in later, more sophisticated times, so let's give them credit for that. Also, artists like Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert and Gil Kane debuted during the "Golden Age", and they would go on to become major pillars of the comic book industry.
And, of course, Will Eisner. The giant who not only created The Spirit, but who also pioneered the "graphic novel" format in the US. Kitchen Sink published a lot of his work in the eighties and nineties, and it's well worth seeking out, if you can find it. It was later republished in the DC Archives format, which, if you haven't encountered it, is mainly characterized by being in color, hardcover, and horribly expensive.
Well, now that DC had their hands on the Spirit, they thought it would be a good idea to publish new stories about him. A previous series, by creators like Darwyn Cooke and Sergio Aragonés & Mark Evanier, lasted 32 issues, and made the impression on me of trying to stick rather close to what Eisner had created. This new series, well, not so much.
The first story arc is written by Mark Schultz of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs fame, and sets up the new Spirit universe. The Spirit narrates a short intro to the book, informing the reader that "Central City destroys all that lives within its rotten borders. It was once a booming frontier town, then a hub of lake and rail transport. But prosperity never filtered down from the wealthy few to the workers, the average Joes and Janes".
Now, I don't mind a bit of economic populism, but Schultz lays it on so thick that it becomes rather cartoony in character – and hence, annoying. If this were the only problem with his tale, Angel Smerti, this wouldn't matter much. But it isn't.
First, this bit of economic populism stands alone. It is not mirrored in the tale itself, which says practically nothing about average Joes and Janes but is an attempt to tell an essentially Eisneresque story about the Spirit being targeted for a hit by the crime lords of the city, hiring an expert assassin from Europe. It also tells us that Commissioner Dolan is so undermined by corruption in the police department and pressure from above to be practically useless at his post, and that he has a somewhat naïve, activist daughter. There's also a young black street urchin, Imani, helping the Spirit with intel on what goes on in the city. Finally, this story introduces thr new villain, Angel Smerti, who lived through the wars on the Balkans and came out with a talent and propensity for murder, and was further trained in military special forces to become something of a super-sniper. Naturally, Angel Smerti turns out to be an extremely hot young woman.
Well, I can live with that; it's not like Eisner himself wouldn't have been capable of creating the same sort of character. Unfortunately, Schultz also turns her into something of a female super-soldier who easily beats up The Spirit and hefts his unconscious body about, and that goes beyond the boundaries of credibility, as does a psychological/moral conversion that Angel Smerti undergoes towards the end of the book. In his stories, maybe Eisner could have pulled something like it off, because he had only seven pages to work with and had to deliver stories with breakneck pacing – that way, Smerti beating up the Spirit would probably have been dealt with in two panels, and a swift kick to the shin followed by cracking the Spirit's skull with the butt of an assault rifle would have been something I could live with. But here, the story is three chapters, each of standard comic book length, and Smerti beating up the Spirit for several pages practically necessitates that she's a female Captain America (physically if not morally), and undermines the believability of the rest of the narrative.
So no, this collection's titular story doesn't really work. The second offering is the Frost Bite four-issue story arc about a killer new drug making the rounds in Central City. It is also a bit on the naïve side – Ebony is now a tough, pretty young black woman with more guts and compassion than common sense, and like Ellen and Imani, she's not much more than a stereotype – not the same stereotype that the original Ebony stereotype was (and Eisner, whose sensitivities evolved along with the society he lived in, was well aware of that when he looked back on the character), but more of "spunky young gal does stupid things but we're supposed to admire her for her guts even if she chooses to disconnect her brain" one; not "insensitive for a modern reader", just "boring".
Anyway, Hine tells a solid story, keeping it well-paced and exciting, but with a tad too many standard plot elements to be a great story. Also, I'm a bit annoyed at the relationship between the Spirit and commissioner Dolan – Dolan' a bit to on the scared side, and the Spirit's a bit too antagonistic towards him. That is of course colored by me having read the original stories with a warmer relationship between the two, and a Dolan who wouldn't be as prepared to compromise with his duty as this one, so I don't know how somebody new to the characters would feel about it.
Finally, the art by Moritat is good, and suits the stories well. He's also good at drawing female characters, which is sort of obligatory for a Spirit artist. (Another plus is that the creators use an Eisner-inspired style of splash pages.) Moritat's drawing style isn't entirely consistent, though. Sometimes it looks like it's inked by Denys Cowan, on other occasions it might look Joe Kubert-inspired. And while I wouldn't say that the first of these two pictures an outright swipe, it does look Dark Knight-inspired – so let's call it a homage. The second one, I have somewhere in the back of my head that I've seen it somewhere in an old House of Mystery (or somesuch) story drawn by… Jack Abel? Dan Spiegle?
The Spirit: Angel Smerty is worth reading – at least the Hines half of it – but it still has some ways to go if it wants to be a worthy successor to the great, great original, the post-WWII stories of which are still highly recommended.
Here's another review of the book.