Who is John Law?

John Law by Will Eisner.
John Law by Will Eisner.

The publishing history of JOHN LAW is as twisted as any crime-filled back alley in Crossroads. From formative appearances in 1939 as a ‘scientective’ to his short-lived and ‘spirited’ career a decade later...

In the late 40s, while The Spirit Section was at it’s peak, Will Eisner was planning to expand his business by producing several new syndicated strips and comic books. One of these featured the adventures of a ‘male Orphan Annie’ named Nubbin, a small shoeshine boy. The strip also featured Nubbin’s detective friend, John Law. Eisner completed three stories featuring Law and Nubbin: ‘Meet John Law’ (11 pages), ‘The Half Dead Mr. Lox’ (8 pages) and ‘Ratt Gutt’ (8 pages). Eisner tried several different names for the package: Tab, Nubbin, Will Eisner’s Sunday Comics and finally John Law, Detective.

John Law © Will Eisner
Original cover artwork and design for the planned Sunday Comics, circa 1948. Artwork by Will Eisner.

As the Spirit Database writes, John Law was “... intended to be the fourth title in Eisner’s line of self-published comics — it never made it to the news stands after the failure of Eisner’s first two titles: Baseball Comics and Kewpies. Along with Pirate Comics, John Law was shelved away.”

Besides false starts on several Nubbin stories, Eisner had already completed the artwork and script for three stories featuring John Law and Nubbin — 'Sand Saref' (aka 'Meet John Law', originally titled 'Sand Blue', 11 pages), 'Half Dead Mr. Lox' (6 pages) and 'Ratt Gutt' (8 pages) — but the work would not be put to waste.

John Law and Denny Colt

Eisner’s weekly deadline battle for The Spirit Section soon had him using the three Law stories as Spirit stories. The eleven-page ‘Meet John Law’ was split to form the classic two-parter ‘Sand Saref’ (originally published in the January 8, 1950 Spirit Section) and ‘Bring in San Saref’ (published in the January 15, 1950 Spirit Section). Ironically, the unpublished ‘Meet John Law’ served as the basis for arguably Eisner’s best Spirit adventure.

Eisner said of the story:

“I knew it was a strong story when I wrote it, because it had all my favorite elements that made a good story — the characters were strong, well-defined, and the relationships between the characters gave it a special quality. I enjoyed creating it very much, and I’m pleased that it’s held up so well through the years.”
Stage Settings, The Spirit #52,
Kitchen Sink Press, Feb. 1989

The two remaining John Law tales soon became Spirit stories as well, with ‘The Half Dead Mr. Lox’ (February 19, 1950) keeping it’s title while ‘Ratt Gutt’ became ‘Ratt Trap’ (January 29, 1950).

Art from the incomplete Nubbin material also found its way into Spirit stories, with characters altered and scripts rewritten.

John Law the Scientective?

Followers of The Spirit would be most familiar with the Law stories that were appropriated for The Spirit Section in 1950, but the character’s origin can perhaps be traced back to 1939 and the original Quality Comics publications produced by Everett “Busy”Arnold in the ’30s and ’40s. Eisner had a business relationship with Arnold, packaging comic books and creating a myriad of characters like Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic, two strips that featured as back-ups in The Spirit Section as well as feature strips in Arnold’s Quality Comics line. One of these titles — Smash Comics —featured a character called John Law, Scientective. Debuting in the third issue of Smash (October, 1939), the series was short-lived, lasting only until the tenth issue. Eisner obviously thought the name had potential.

John Law © Will Eisner
Cover to the Eclipse Comics one-shot from 1983, "Will Eisner's John Law, Detective". Artwork by Will Eisner.

John Law eclipsed

John Law and Nubbin would see the light of day again, more than thirty years after The Spirit Section ended, in a single, full color issue — John Law, Detective #1 (Eclipse Comics, April, 1983).

This time, the classic Spirit stories would be stripped back to reveal the original John Law story structure, dialogue and art (based on stats found by Cat Yronwode, a friend of Eisner and Eclipse editor at the time). The book also featured a moody new cover by Eisner, unused art and a very comprehensive history of the character’s checkered past. The stories though, were gaudily colored and several Spirit/Law corrections missed, making it a flawed gem for Eisner completists.

These flaws were finally rectified in the 2004 print edition of Will Eisner's JOHN LAW: Dead Man Walking (IDW, 2004), an 80 page volume of new Law material by writer/artist Gary Chaloner that also included, for the first time since 1948, the original Eisner classics, fully restored and “colored” in glorious black and white.

Which brings us to the last twist in the tale, one last ironic note in the tangled publishing career of the pipe-smoking detective...

In the development of Dead Man Walking, one of the new Law stories by Chaloner, “The Opal Skull” was originally a Spirit story (!) produced for the unpublished ninth issue of Kitchen Sink’s The Spirit: The New Adventures.

So it would seem, after many years of being in the shadow of The Spirit, that justice has been served, and John Law (together with Nubbin, Lady Luck and Mr Mystic) can walk tall in new adventures both online and in print.