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The Christmas Spirit. By Will Eisner. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1994. 70p. $15.00. ISBN 0-87816-309-3.

<0878163093/rationalmagic">Not exactly the cover--it's on the back cover

General fiction; crime & mystery fiction

Adults, teens, kids; a few guns go off, but nothing much happens beyond that

NOTE: This book won the 1995 Eisner Award (appropriate, eh?) for Best Archive.

This book collects what were presumably the best of the Christmas-related stories about Eisner's great creation, the Spirit. Spanning 1940 to 1951 (but skipping 1942-1944), the nine stories within only use the Spirit peripherally, as he doesn't fight crime on Christmas, preferring to let the "Christmas spirit" take care of things.

  • "Black Henry and Simple Simon" is the story of two crooks who rob the "Paupers National Bank." Invited into a church by a priest who bears a strong resemblance to Santa Claus, the two baddies are overwhelmed by the poverty of a poor child who eagerly anticipates his first taste of chicken and his first-ever presents (the money at the bank was intended for that purpose). The crooks return the money to the bank.
  • "A Trilogy" concerns "three wise tramps" who discover that the king of the hobo jungle is a bitter young boy with one leg. To soften King Hobo, the three tramps tell tales of Christmas and the minor miracles that happened to them on that day. After the young boy falls asleep, the tramps collect money to buy him a gift. King Hobo is so touched that he goes to the Spirit to return money that he stole. The Spirit invites him to share Christmas with him and his friends.
  • "Horton J. Winklenod" is a wealthy man who still believes in Santa Claus until other men tell him differently. The millionaire, despondent, promptly vanishes. Two minor criminals find him almost frozen to death in the snow. Gleefully, they plan to ranson him for $5,000 and dump him in the basement near a fireplace. Lo and behold, Santa comes down the chimney. The millionaire is so happy to see Santa that he gives the criminals the money they wanted.
  • "A Fable" is the fable-like story of three ambassadors who cannot agree on peace terms to end the war. One ambassador is knocked out by a snowball and found by two criminals, who take the man to the Octopus, "the greatest criminal in the world." The Octopus wants the ambassador to continue to block the Allied consolidation and promises to supply millions of men to rekindle the war. Torn, the ambassador slips out. Meanwhile, another ambassador is knocked out by a snowball; he wakes and speaks with a despondent department-store Santa, who hates giving out war toys as presents and has gone on strike. As a result of these experiences, all three ambassadors promote peace at the peace conference, and the world gives up war forever.
  • "Joy" is a misnamed orphan boy in a war-torn country. Scrounging for food, he encounters a starving old man, and Joy gives the man his last bit of bread. The man calls himself Santa Claus and promises to grant Joy's wish. Joy wishes to be "in a land where the cities are not smashed and the buildings stand tall and clean... where there are big stores filled to the seams with toys and food and warm clothing...." But nothing happens, so Joy falls asleep. The old man carries the boy to an airfield and transfers his visa to the boy. Joy wakes up in the United States.
  • "Basher Bains" is a prisoner who hates Christmas. Santa arrives and gives Basher his freedom, as well as his Santa suit to wear. Though Santa expects Basher to return, the convict has no intention of doing that. He digs up the loot he stashed away before he went to prison. But as he's about to go off and kill the Spirit for locking him up, three children come up to him and ask for their present. Basher yanks off his beard to show them he's not Santa, but one of the kids can't see--he's blind, and the present they were hoping for is an operation to restore his sight. Humbled, Basher takes the kids to a doctor, hands over the money, and goes back to his cell.
  • "S. Kringle Klaus" has come to the city to make lists of what people want for Christmas. A snowball to the head removes his memory; he wanders the streets trying to recall his purpose. Two crooks blunder into him (hitting him on the head) and, fearful of being caught, carry his unconscious body with them. Santa wakes recalling everything, and after convincing the thugs of his identity, he enlists their help in handing out gifts.
  • "Darling's First Christmas" tells of a very wealthy, very unpleasant little girl, Darling O'Shea, who has never received a gift. Curious as to why poor children seem to be much happier than her, the sycophantic adults around her explain about the concept of gifts and Santa. Though she views gifts as "charity," she nevertheless writes Santa a long legal letter demanding one (1) gift this year. Receiving no answer, she hires men to guard every home in the city and prevent Santa from giving anyone a gift. "Shoot to kill!" she insists. However, Santa arrives that night--he'd been unable to approach her before because of all the guards surrounding her in previous years--and gives her several years' worth of gifts. As he leaves, shots ring out! But no one is hurt, and Darling is happy.
  • "Joe Fix" is approached by a mysterious man who demands that Santa not give out presents this year. Joe promptly embarks on a smear campaign that turns the jolly old elf into an evil villain, and Santa decides not to appear. But when Joe gleefully looks at the million-dollar check given him by the mysterious man, he sees the name "Lucifer Mephistopheles." Realizing he's been tricked into doing the Devil's work, he gives his check to Santa, who embarks on his annual mission after all.

The book begins with a short introduction by Eisner (who is Jewish, of course) about his rationale for writing these stories.

It's disappointing when I read something like this by one of the seminal figures in comics (hey, he invented the term "graphic novel," which makes him a demi-god in my eyes, at least). As might be evident by the synopses, these are secular, slight, wistful, occasionally creative, mostly saccharine stories that are only peripherally indicative of Eisner's storytelling talent. Of course, Christmas stories in general are like that, and these pieces are taken out of context--they were, of course, framed by standard Spirit stories, so the saccharine didn't go into overdose when they were first published. Still, the blurb on the back of the book promises more than the stories deliver, claiming that they're "filled with insights into the human spirit." To employ a Yiddishism: balt. (It's a polite way of saying "bullshit.") These stories are about as insightful as greeting cards. But I shouldn't hold marketing twaddle against Eisner, whose introduction expresses a sincere admiration for that mythical thing called "Christmas spirit" and whose stories attempt to capture it, however simplistically.

Actually, this book is more interesting to me for its incidental depiction of the evolution of Eisner's artistic and narrative style. The first story (1940) is crude; the characters barely resemble the figures we've come to know and love, and the visuals are conventional. A year later, Eisner had begun to experiment with alternative forms, going outside the traditional panels a little, though still feeling his way around the regular characters. The jump to 1945 takes us into an era where Eisner obviously had become much more confident with both his art and his storytelling. The stories peak from 1946 to 1950. 1951, however, is pretty bad, because the style simply isn't Eisner's, despite his name on the story. I'm no Eisner historian, so I'm wondering if it was "ghost-drawn" by someone else. Two other artistic problems: these stories were taken directly from the old newspaper versions, so they're often very grainy; and in several of the stories, the word balloons sometimes point at the wrong characters.

According to the book, much of this material has never been collected before (I've seen "Basher Bains" elsewhere), so for that reason alone it deserves a place on the shelves of Eisner aficionados. As a Christmas book, it's as good as any other, storywise, and vastly superior (for the most part), artwise. However, for people wanting to be introduced to the master, this book isn't the place to start. Also, a word of warning: most of the stories use the (to put it kindly) broadly drawn character of Ebony, whose personality and the Spirit's treatment of him may have transcended stereotypes, but his appearance and dialect (especially in brief) sure don't. In historical context it's tolerable, but I can see it offending people who just glance at the book. Anyway, the book is out of print, but if I could get one, you can too. (Hooray for the Internet!)


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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