Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Spirit Of Seventy Five

(This was an article I wrote for the Chicago Comics Convention tribute to Will Eisner in 1996.)

The first Spirit Comic I bought was the Harvey Spirit #2. I bought it from Alan Austin's shop, which was not a shop but a basement with occasional opening hours, in those antediluvian days of 1975 when there were no comic shops, somewhere in South London.

It was the last day of school. And instead of doing all the things we were meant to do on the last day of school, I snuck out of school and got on a bus with my friend Dave Dickson, and went off to South London. Dave was a lot smaller than me, and had hurt his foot recently. (I have not told anyone this story for fifteen years. But back when I did tell it, if Dave was around he would leap in early and tell people he had hurt his foot, at the beginning of the story.)

On the way to the shop I was mugged, very badly. Badly is probably not quite the word I want to use. Ineptly might be closer to the truth. The mugger was only a little older than we were, skinny and extremely nervous. He was trailing along behind us.

"Eh," he shouted. We carried on walking.

"Eh," he said again. We were getting further away from him.

He ran alongside us and shouted, "Hey! I've got a knife in my pocket. Give me your money."

I looked him up and I looked him down and, with the arrogance and refusal to be impressed of a fourteen-year-old boy, I told him, " You have not got a knife in your pocket."

"Yes, I do."

"You don't."


"You have not got a knife in your pocket." I mean, he didn't have a knife. I was almost certain that he didn't have a knife.

"I do."

"No, you don't. Show it to me. If you've got a knife, let's see it."

I started to suspect that I was going to win this particular argument. At any rate, he said, "Look, whether or not I've got a knife in my pocket, give me your money."


"Why not?"

"Because," I said flatly, "it's my money. Not yours. Now go away."

And he seemed ready to leave, when Dave Dickson, who was quite terrified (and who had hurt his foot), stammered out the first thing he had said during the whole mugging. He said, "How much do you want?"

And our mugger turned back to me and said, "How much have you got?"

I thought about this. I had forty English pounds on me: money I had saved up over the whole term, saved for this end-of-term comics-buying blowout. More money than I had ever had on me at one time in my whole fourteen-year-old life. (It would probably have been equivalent to about a hundred 1975 dollars.)

"I've got 20 pence on me," I told him, grudgingly. "But I need ten pence for the bus home."

"Give me ten pence then," said the mugger.

So I did, and he went away.

"You weren't a lot of help," I told Dave.

"I hurt my leg," he said. "So I couldn't run away. It was all right for you. You could have run away."

When we got to the basement comic shop, it was closed. We knocked on the door until it was opened.

"Go away," said Alan Austin. "We're closed."

"But," I said, "I came all the way here from Croydon, and we got mugged and I've got all my money for the whole term with me!"

I think it was the mugging that impressed them, more than the money. Anyway, they let us in. I bought lots of old comics, but all I remember now Creepy #1, and The Spirit #2.

We read them on the bus, on the way home. I thought the Spirit was the coolest thing in the whole world.

"I'm Plaster of Paris, the toast of Monmartre, I stick to my man until death us do part!" That was one of the stories in there. I had no idea that the stories I was reading were over-thirty-year-old reprints: they were as up-to-date and immediate as anything I had ever read.

I had always wanted to be a writer of comics: now I decided I was also going to be a comic artist when I grew up, and to celebrate this decision, I drew a picture of the Spirit with his shirt ripped and everything. I sent it to Comics Unlimited, a British Fanzine. The drawing came back with a letter from Alan Austin, telling me that they had recently improved the standard of their fan art, and now they had people like Jean-Daniel Breque drawing for them, and they were sorry they couldn't print it. I decided that I wouldn't be a comics artist when I grew up after all.

By the time I was seventeen I had stopped buying comics. There was nothing I wanted to read that I could find in comics any more; I became quite grumpy about the medium. Except for the Spirit. I kept reading and buying Spirit reprints - the older Warren ones and the current Kitchen Sink ones. The stories never palled and the joy of reading them never faded.

(A couple of years later, as a young journalist, I was very jealous of my schoolfriend Geoff Notkin who was studying at the school of Visual Arts in New York, under Will Eisner himself. This seemed almost unfair somehow, like getting God in to run your Bible Studies Group.)

And then time went on, and all of a sudden, I was writing comics.

Since being a comics-writing person, I have met Will on many occasions, all over the world: In Germany and San Diego and Dallas and Spain.

I remember watching Will receive an award for life-achievement in Germany, the thrill of seeing a thousand people on their feet and clapping until their hands hurt and then we still clapped, and Will looked modestly embarrassed, and Ann Eisner beamed like a lighthouse.

The last time we met was on the north coast of Spain, where the world fades out into a kind of warm autumnal haze. We spent almost a week together, Will and Ann, and Jaime and Koko Hernandez, and me, a tight-knit fraternity of people who spoke no Spanish. One day Ann and Will and I walked down along the edge of the sea. We walked for a couple of miles, talking about comics, and the medium, and the history of the medium, and the future of comics, and the Spirit, and the people Will had known. It was like a guided tour of the medium we loved. I found myself hoping that when I got to be Will's age I could be that sharp, that wise, that funny.

I told Will, when we were walking, that even when I stopped reading comics I read The Spirit, and I told him that it was his Spirit stories that had left me wanting to write comics, and that the Sandman, like the Spirit, was conceived as a machine for telling stories..

But I didn't tell him that a drawing of the Spirit began and ended my career as a fan artist. Nor did I ever tell him just how badly I was mugged, on my way to buy my first Spirit.