Interview: Matt Wagner on Dynamite’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit

Will Eisner's The Spirit #1 Matt Wagner Cover

Will Eisner’s The Spirit #1 Matt Wagner Cover

Matt Wagner is the creator of Grendel and Mage and has worked on such characters as Batman, Zorro, Madame Xanadu, and more. Now, he writes the adventures of another classic character in Will Eisner’s The Spirit from Dynamite. Westfield’s Roger Ash got in touch with Wagner to find out more about this upcoming series.

Will Eisner's The Spirit #1 preview page 1

Will Eisner’s The Spirit #1 preview page 1

Westfield: How did you become involved with Will Eisner’s The Spirit?

Matt Wagner: I first discovered The Spirit via the over-sized, black & white reprints from Warren Publications in the mid 70s. I was bowled over by Eisner’s artistry and sophisticated use of sequential narrative but also by the enormous emotional punch these stories seemed to pack into a brief seven pages. Whether it was humor, romance, pathos or irony, I found a depth of character and resonance that seemed to be missing from the mainstream comics of the day. I can honestly say The Spirit changed my perceptions of a comics creator and made me consciously aware of the artistry involved in rendering these tales. I’m a comics artist and writer today because of Will Eisner and The Spirit. As a result of my reverence for the property, I at first said “No” when Dynamite offered me the chance to write an all-new relaunch in honor of the character’s 75th anniversary. But both Dynamite publisher Nick Barrucci and their Editor-in-Chief Joe Rybandt were both persistent in getting me on board; “We think you’re perfect for this gig!” Eventually, they broke through my resistance and now I’m happy they did.

Will Eisner's The Spirit #1 preview page 2

Will Eisner’s The Spirit #1 preview page 2

Westfield: When many classic characters get a new series, they are updated to the current day. Why did you decide to have the series set in the 1940s?

Wagner: I’ve done a host of other period characters for Dynamite over that past several years (Zorro, Green Hornet, The Shadow) and in each and every case, I’ve chosen to set the narrative in the original time period. Not that I don’t understand the impulse to try and update these classic storylines. But part of what appeals to me is the historical zeitgeist that led to the creation of that particular hero. What elements combined to produce that sort of depiction? In recent years, DC Comics published a series that ret-conned The Spirit into a modern time-frame. I thought that was a valiant effort and can see why they attempted it, but I’m pretty firm about grounding classic pop culture characters in the eras in which they were created. So, my story arc takes place in the late 40s, after The Spirit has been operating in Central City for some time.

Will Eisner's The Spirit #1 Eric Powell Cover

Will Eisner’s The Spirit #1 Eric Powell Cover

Westfield: What can readers look forward to in the story and who are some of the characters they’ll meet?

Wagner: This storyline goes against the grain of what had always been the province of Eisner’s work on The Spirit—the short story format. I figured that Will pretty much covered the entire gambit of narrative possibilities in seven page increments so I decided to go with a year-long, continuous storyline to try and strike some new ground in the character’s lengthy history. Additionally, the longer story format gives me the opportunity to both introduce new readers to the characters as well as present all the familiar elements to long time fans. The Spirit always displayed a incredibly wide range of emotional tone, everything from humor and romance to pathos and irony…so I’m trying to strike a balance of something that’s not completely humorous and not completely dramatic. Additionally, the longer story arc provides me the chance to introduce new readers to The Spirit so of course we’re going to see his supporting cast of characters as well. Commissioner Dolan, Ellen, Ebony and Sammy are all on hand…as well as a selection our hero’s rogues gallery and his roster of deadly femme fatales.

Sammy character design

Sammy character design

Ebony character design by Dan Schkade

Ebony character design by Dan Schkade

Westfield: Is there a character in the series you’ve found you’re really enjoying writing?

Wagner: Well, I’ve taken on the task of trying to redefine the controversial character of Ebony who, of course, was originally portrayed in the standard racial motifs of the day that are now rightly seen as insulting and charicaturish. That’s been a bit of a challenge to not veer too far from the original version so that he’s still recognizable to longtime readers. The other characters are all fun as well, though. I just finished a script wherein I got to utilize one of The Spirit’s classic villains and that was a blast!

The Spirit character design

The Spirit character design

Westfield: What about The Spirit makes him still strike a chord with today’s readers?

Wagner: I’d have to say it’s the resonating echo of Will Eisner’s amazing artistry and bold innovation. As a strip, The Spirit was ground-breaking in every regard and the language of how to tell a comic-book story that Eisner developed and honed is still being used by each of every one of we creators who followed in his footsteps. But, in addition, The Spirit himself is a character full of such charm and perseverance, combined with a strong sense of moral clarity (that didn’t always adhere to what “The Law” demanded)…that’s a combination that speaks to any generation!

Commissioner Dolan character design

Commissioner Dolan character design

Ellen character design

Ellen character design

Westfield: You’re working with artist Dan Schkade on the book. What can you say about your collaboration with him?

Wagner: We went through a lot of possible artists looking for the right match on this one. Eisner’s unique blend of narrative style proved to be hard to replicate by modern comics’ standards. And, to be frank, we simply can’t “do” Eisner in this case. You can’t recreate a master’s touch…but you can seek to honor his legacy through a style and tone of which we hope he would approve. We had samples done by many, many artists who were incredibly talented…but just too grounded in the high-realism, action style that’s so popular these days. The Spirit demands a lighter touch than that; not all-out cartoony, but with a sense of simplicity and style…an almost animated quality. Dan’s a young, up-and-coming artist and was brought to my attention by my son Brennan. Dan’s simple style and bold graphics really combined to bring the right mix that we’d found missing in so many other contributors. Brennan is also coloring the series and I love the enhanced richness that his hues bring to Dan’s stark renderings. They make a perfect team and really compliment each other’s talents in every way. Now, all that said, Dan’s a young talent and, as Art Director on the book, I’m often offering suggestions on how to better achieve a look that complements the material and yet stays true to his own unique vision. Dan lives here in Portland, so we’re able to actually get together in person to review and discuss the art. We’ve been doing so on a once-a-week basis since our production on the series began. In fact, we had lunch with Brennan just yesterday and then rendezvoused at Brennan’s studio to lay-out his art for the first issue on a large conference table. It’s all turning out terrific and I’m anxious for people to see it!

Will Eisner's The Spirit #1 Alex Ross Subscription Cover

Will Eisner’s The Spirit #1 Alex Ross Subscription Cover

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Wagner: Just that this won’t be a simple retread of all the Spirit stories we’ve seen before. My goal was to honor Eisner’s legacy…while still adding several significant and original elements to this iconic character’s amazing history. Hopefully, new and old readers alike will appreciate our efforts!


Will Eisner’s The Spirit #1


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