Other Trench(ant) Coats: Dr. Drew and the Wraith as Spirit Pastiches

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By Diana Green, MaLS

When discussions between comic theorists are heard, the name "Eisner" is bandied about with such abandon that the name seems almost synonymous with comics theory. Indeed, there is a specific aesthetic associated with the name. Stories are often casually called "Esineresque". It's become akin to "liberal" or "lifestyle", in that it's a concept used so frequently as to have its meaning obscured by its ubiquity in popular parlance.

While in clear agreement with Eisner's significance as a creator and theorist, I think it prudent to scrutinize such claims more specifically. There are numerous works on which one can easily draw. B.C. Boyer's The Masked Man is clearly intended as a Spirit pastiche, though this comes through more in the writing than in the art (Boyer). Conversely, Mike Ploog's work shows clear stylistic influences from Eisner, notably in character design, due in no small part to his apprenticeship under Eisner (Normanton). However, this stylistic influence is, for the most part, restricted to the art and tends not to carry over into story structure and plot.

There are creators whose work reflects the visual, narrative and thematic elements that often define Eisner's vision. Two noteworthy examples are Jerry Grandinetti's Case Files of Dr. Drew and Michael T. Gilbert's The Wraith.

The former, Dr. Drew, originally appeared in Fiction House's Ranger Comics from 1949 to 1951, spanning twelve stories. These stories were created shortly after Grandenetti's time inking Eisner in 1946-1948.

A ghost hunter and occasional debunker by trade, the title character served as narrator as well. All Dr. Drew stories are past tense and first person. Thematically, the Dr. Drew stories echoed the more noir styled and Gothic elements of some Spirit stories, though usually lacking the urban motif that dominated the Spirit stories. In keeping with the Gothic trope, Dr. Drew's adventures centered largely on his base, a "castle atop Bone Hill" (Normanton). A notable exception, the first Dr. Drew story melds the two concepts, offering an urban horror story of a haunted building (Karswell).

DG 01.png

With an atypical splash page, the first Dr. Drew story begins with direct narration by the central character. This borderless page with its stark lighting (note that the on-panel light source, the match used to light the pipe, is the brightest point on the page) is subdivided into four distinct areas: the doctor himself, the castle overlapped by the series title, the hill leading down to the ominous skyscraper in the foreground, the only clearly defined building on the cityscape. It should be noted that this style of cityscape rendering, defined by soft outline and vertical hatch, appears more frequently in later, more experimental Eisner work than with the Spirit. In this sense, Grandenetti may have foreshadowed Eisner's subsequent work. The title in a file folder culminates the page. Similar visual devices were used in other Dr. Drew stories, such as the use of clipboard pages as title and framing devices in Stalker of the Unknown (Rangers Comics).

Page two has a framing sequence set apart, paradoxically, by being out of frame. The first panel is open, a device used to slow narrative flow. Panel two uses trompe l'oleil to force the viewer to enter the depth of the space alongside the characters.The claustrophobic feeling is reinforced by the cast shadows of the window frame on the coat of the nameless young man. As on page one, the light from the pipe draws the viewer back to Dr. Drew, this time in the foreground.

DG 02.png

The remainder of the page uses an Eisner device sometimes called a metapanel, in which several images are contained within a larger image as a framing device (Eisner). Frequently used by Eisner, this device serves to unify separate moments within a larger continuity. The five irregular panels within the framing device of the file folder (a recurring visual motif, another device of Eisner's, though hardly one to which he has sole claim) tell the back-story within the back-story, a device used by Eisner in numerous Spirit stories, including Lorelei Rox, September 19, 1948 (Eisner 2).

Page three continues the visual device of the file folder, leading out of the flashback and returning to Dr. Drew's narrative. The remainder of this page is comparatively straightforward, using conventions such as stark lighting and the canted angle of the newspaper article to lead the viewer through the page. The most dramatic visual element is the high shot of the elevator shaft, an extension of the angle in the preceding panel. However, a typographic device typical of Eisner appears in panels five and six. The use of typed text for caption narration once again reinforces the notion of the story coming from an actual case file.

DG 03.png

The next remarkable layout device appears on page 7 of the story. A different visual device slows the pacing, the slice panels at the top of the page. This is followed by a deceptively simple two shot, offset by a canted shadow framing both the elevator door and the characters. This disorienting canted shadow theme recurs throughout the rest of the page and is offset by an inversion, with a canted area of white in the bottom left panel.

DG 04.png

More significantly, the trio of panels in the center tier shifts the reader's focus to the supporting character by using the inset of the middle panel as a transitional device.

The final page of the story uses the slice panels overlaid on the full-page shot of the building collapsing to reinforce the story's primary theme, the haunted building. This page is also noteworthy for the lack of visual sound effects in relation to the building's explosion. Dave Gibbons used this device in Alan Moore's Watchmen (Moore, Gibbons), with remarkable effect.

DG 05.png

This story holds remarkable stylistic parallel to an Eisner Spirit story. While Grandenetti was an assistant to Eisner early in his career and revered his mentor (Normanton), Grandenetti was trying to expand the visual vocabulary he learned from Eisner and make it his own. During a phone interview on January 17, 2009, Grandenetti stated that his goal was to advance his own storytelling capabilities, rather than to replicate those of Eisner (Grandenetti). He succeeded in this goal, and continued his comic career into the early 1970s, working primarily for DC, Tower and Warren (Fears).


In the late 1970s, Mike Frederich of Star Reach approached Michael T. Gilbert about contributing to the fledgling funny animal anthology Quack! Following on the heels of Marvel's success with 1976's Howard the Duck (Fox) and predating Reed Waller's Omaha by two years (http://www.omahathecatdancer.com), Quack! was an attempt to stretch the boundaries of the funny animal genre. Fascinated by The Spirit, Gilbert seized on the idea of a funny animal version of the character, known only as The Wraith. Utilizing visual devices and a witty tone that echoed Eisner, Gilbert created a total of seven Wraith stories. Six ran in Quack! The seventh appeared in an anthology of Gilbert's work titled Strange Brew, published in 1983 by Aardvark-Vanaheim (Wildwood Cemetery: The Spirit Database).

DGW01.png

The Wraith differs from Dr. Drew in several ways. First, there is a more deliberate attempt to use Eisner's visual devices as homage. This is not to say that Gilbert did not innovate. His splash page for the first Wraith story used the Eisner trope of the series name/character's name as visual device. 

However, the use of the clothesline as vehicle for said title shows another aspect of The Spirit that Gilbert captures: the light, more approachable aspect of the character. Much is made of The Spirit as a dark, gritty, almost noir character. In truth, The Spirit was often human and lighthearted, occasionally serving as a narrator or vehicle for commentary. The gentle, almost meditative tone taken by Gilbert in The Wraith stories is as much of a piece with Eisner's Spirit as are Gilbert's layouts.



DGW02.png

This panel from the first Wraith story shows many Eisner touches. The gruff inspector, the bemused detective, the character's gesture echoing the line of the rooftop and leading the viewer through the panel- all Einser-esque flourishes. The foreshadowing of the silhouetted character in the window is also an Eisner device, though again not unique to Eisner.

Inclined to direct homage, Gilbert named The Wraith's sidekick Ivory Snow, in response to the Spirit's sidekick Ebony White (Gilbert).

Possibly the most challenging Wraith story, The Reality Ray from Quack! #5 deals with notion of reflexivity directly.

This plot device gives Gilbert immense flexibility to explore the medium. Starting with a unique cover image, the drawn central characters superimposed on a photo collage of wild animal images, the story proceeds to a chiaroscuro splash page.  The words The Wraith are repeated in a staggered pattern, reversed out of a field of black. A silhouette of the villain at a typewriter, also reversed out, is set in a truncated circle in the lower left corner.

As the story proceeds, the mood darkens further. The Wraith is in mourning for a lost (deceased) love. Ivory delivers a letter. Her attempts to jostle him out of his malaise fail. This reaches its peak on page five, a nine-panel page bordered in black. The page contains a tense dialogue between the two, culminating in a silent panel.

Ivory reads him the letter. He refuses to act on its threat, a confused message regarding ominous "creatures" seen in Cyanide City, The Wraith's home, recently. Irate, she decides to proceed without him. He sits hiding behind a magazine as she leaves. The panel in question is an inset circle, repeating the device used on the splash page.

The following page is set up like a classic funny animal page from the Forties, a uniform 3 x 4 panel grid. For the first ten panels, the Wraith is shot full frame, unmoving till panel ten. He then throws aside his magazine. His actions in panels eleven and twelve are amplified by a change of focus, going from full figure to tight shots of his hands as he grabs the letter (panel 11) and his coat and gloves (panel 12).

He meditative lethargy of the preceding pages is broken by a revitalization of the layout on page 7. Using a page height 1/3 page shot of The Wraith running through the snow on the left side, Gilbert's layout advances the action rapidly. This occurs despite the dialogue-heavy page. As The Wraith and the inspector make their way to the address, figures of the Egyptian god Anubis, eagles, and grinning tribal icons silently appear around them. This is an example of another Eisner technique: show something, tell something related, and let the reader piece it together.

As The Wraith approaches the address, frogs, insects and dogs appear in realistic renderings and collaged photos. Ordering the inspector to give him 15 minutes before following, The Wraith enters the house. He finds that Ivory has been transformed from an anthropomorphic cat lady into a kitten, recognizable only by her headband.

The mad scientist rants about his ray that redefines reality. During this rant, the fourth wall is violated twice on one page. As in the Dr. Drew story, a trompe l'oeil effect is utilized to make the villain seem to reach off the page.

The scientist uses his reality ray on our hero.

The Wraith has been turned into a dog, as foreshadowed.

Being called Wrath instead of Wraith enrages him. He leaps at the scientist, knocking the ray from his hand. The ray's polarity is reversed as it falls. This returns Ivory and all his other victims to normal. Absorbing the brunt of the ray, however, reduces the scientist to a drawing.

At sixteen pages, this runs double the standard length of a Spirit story. Using collage, variable page layout, and an unorthodox plot device, Gilbert has extended the ideas in the original Spirit stories into a meditation on the comic medium. The logical extension of an enforced reality is the awareness that a character is not animal, human, or hybrid, but simply ink on paper. Eisner's formulaic manipulations in The Spirit allude to this, by incorporating the stories into other forms, such as children's books in Rat Tat, the Toy Machine Gun (Tipton).

Gilbert sent copies of The Wraith stories to Eisner, who enjoyed them a great deal. The two struck up a friendship. At Eisner's behest, Gilbert lectured at School for Visual Arts in New York (Gilbert).

Gilbert has worked directly on the Spirit as part of the Spirit Jam issue of Kitchen Sink's Spirit magazine, contributing four pages (Gilbert). Among his subsequent stories that echo the populist tone of The Spirit, there is a surprising story that stands out. A one-shot graphic novel from 2000, Gilbert's Mann and Superman explores the everyman concept central to so many Spirit stories. By using Superman, arguably the most powerful superhero in popular consciousness, Gilbert strongly makes the case for the heroic in the everyman, one of Eisner's central themes.

It's reasonable to assume that most contemporary comic artists try to tread the stylistic and thematic ground first traveled by Will Eisner in The Spirit. The paths of Jerry Grandenetti and Michael T. Gilbert are logical and satisfying realizations of this journey.


Works Cited

  1. Boyer, B.C., The Masked Man, Eclipse Magazine #7 (November 1982) to #8 (January 1983), Eclipse Monthly #1 (August 1983) to #10 (July 1984), The Masked Man #1 (December 1984) to #12 (April 1988).
  2. Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art, p. 63, Poorhouse Press, NY, 1985.
  3. Fears, Steven. The Jerry Grandenetti Interview. http://www.jergrand.com/interview.php
  4. Fox, Margalit. Steve Gerber, Creator of Howard the Duck, Dies at 60. New York Times, Feb. 14, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/14/arts/14gerber.html.
  5. Gilbert, Michael J. Phone conversation, January 17, 2009.
  6. Grandenetti, Jerry. Phone conversation, January 17, 2009.
  7. http://www.omahathecatdancer.com
  8. Karswell. Pre-code Horror Blog. http://thehorrorsofitall.blogspot.com/2008/02/strange-case-of-absent-floor.html
  9. Moore, Alan, and the Mammoth Gibbons, Dave. Watchmen. 1987. DC Comics. New York, NY.
  10. Normanton, Peter. The Mammoth Book of Horror Comics, pp. 44- 52. Running Press Book Publishers, 2008. Philadelphia, PA.
  11. Ranger Comics No. 46. April 1949. Fiction House. New York, NY.
  12. Tipton, Scott, Comics 101, http://www.quickstopentertainment.com/comics101/13.html.
  13. Wildwood Cemetery: The Spirit Database: The Wraith (http://www.angelfire.com/art/wildwood/wraith.html).

Diana Green (BFA, Comic Book Illustration MCAD; MaLS, Hamline University), has presented academic papers at Comic Scholars Conference, written biographical articles for Kay Worley and Vaugh Bode' and is a contributing editor for the forcoming Greenwood Press Encyclopedia of Comic Books. As an educator she has taught Comic Art History and Humanities classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.


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This page contains a single entry by GaryC published on February 17, 2009 11:30 PM.

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