Comic Art Friday: To Ell’en back

The blonde on the bomb is Ellen Dolan. She’s the daughter of the police commissioner of Central City. One day, she’ll be the mayor of that dark and dangerous metropolis. And she’s sweet on a masked vigilante known only as The Spirit.

The Spirit's Bombshells: Ellen Dolan, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

And therein lies a tale.

Ask any group of knowledgeable comics historians, “Who was the single most influential artist in mainstream comics?” and you’ll get one unanimous answer: Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the original X-Men, and sole auteur of the Fourth World cycle, among hundreds of others.

Ask the same historians, “Who was Number Two?” and the answer will be nearly as unanimous: Will Eisner.

Whereas Kirby’s creative genius ranged broadly over six decades in comics, Eisner is best known for a single creation: the long-running Sunday newspaper feature The Spirit. That’s not to say that Eisner didn’t create numerous other worthwhile projects — he certainly did; Eisner’s 1978 graphic novel A Contract with God rewrote critical thinking about comics as both literature and high art. But there’s no question that, from a pop culture perspective, The Spirit remains his most familiar brainchild.

Briefly, The Spirit revolves around the adventures of a young police detective named Denny Colt, who, after surviving a near-death encounter with some underworld types, permanently buries his former identity (literally; he takes up residence in a subterranean sanctuary hidden beneath his own tombstone) and assumes a new one — that of the masked crimefighter known only as The Spirit.

The business-suit-clad Spirit isn’t a superhero in the traditional sense. His only disguise is a domino mask; he possesses no superhuman ability (except perhaps for a remarkable knack for withstanding physical abuse); and he functions more like a consulting detective a la Sherlock Holmes than like, say, Batman. Sometimes, The Spirit serves merely as a background character in the stories in his own strip — stories which range far beyond swashbuckling derring-do to intimate, twisty, eccentric tales about the odd folks whose actions (sometimes nefarious, sometimes innocent) bring them into contact with The Spirit.

Over the course of The Spirit’s 13-year career, he encountered numerous beautiful, exotic women. In fact, most of the memorable characters in the strip — aside from The Spirit, and his police contact, irascible Commissioner Eustace P. Dolan — were female. Some appeared only for one story, and vanished as quickly as they had arrived. Four, however, recurred often enough to make a permanent mark on the series, and on The Spirit himself.

Soon after I conceived my Bombshells! theme — pinups in the style of World War II-era bomber nose art, featuring comic book heroines who debuted in the 1940s and ’50s — I hit on the idea of a special subset of Bombshells! dedicated to these four legendary women. I knew immediately the perfect artist for the project: Darryl Banks. Darryl’s most prominent contributions to comics history are his co-creation (with writer Ron Marz) of the Kyle Rayner version of Green Lantern, and his recasting (also with Marz) of the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern as the cosmic supervillain Parallax, during an eight-year run as illustrator of the Green Lantern series.

My favorite of Darryl’s artistic efforts, though, was Millennium Comics’ 1990 miniseries Doc Savage: The Monarch of Armageddon, considered by many Doc Savage enthusiasts (including yours truly) as the most faithful comic book adaptation of the Man of Bronze. Even more specifically, I thought about a commissioned artwork Darryl drew for me a few years ago, depicting Doc and his intrepid cousin Patricia. Darryl’s take on Pat Savage had exactly the feel I wanted for my Spirit Bombshells! portraits. I was thrilled when Darryl agreed to tackle the project.

Doc Savage and Patricia Savage, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Ellen Dolan stars in the first of Darryl’s Spirit Bombshells! pinups. Ellen is the most consistent female presence in The Spirit’s life, and the closest to a genuine love interest in the strip. She’s a compelling character who evolves over the years, from her beginnings as an impetuous college student (and something of a stock damsel-in-distress) to a sharp-witted, capable, modern woman. As noted in our introduction, toward the end of the original series Ellen becomes mayor of Central City — not only her father’s daughter, but also his boss. And every inch The Spirit’s equal. Comics historians frequently cite Ellen as one of the earliest feminist characters in the medium.

Next Friday, we’ll look at the second of Eisner’s fetching females, and we’ll talk more about what makes The Spirit such a pivotal creation in the history of comics. Be here in seven.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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