So I was reading The Spirit the other day.
The Spirit, of course, is the strange little comic by (comics master and inventor of the graphic novel) Will Eisner, which was around in the 1940s. It started in 1940, the same year I'm on with Batman now... And it's given me an interesting perspective on Batman as a comic and a product of its time.
What interests me about this Golden Age Batman are, as you may have noticed, the deviations from the norm. I sift each issue, looking for gold dust or even the occasional nugget, and sometimes there's a lot, and sometimes I come up almost entirely empty. Either way, most of each issue is the "dirt"--I have nothing against it, it's often necessary, those just aren't the bits that usually interest me. They're the workmanlike parts, the shoring up that allows moments of brilliance, humor, or just strangeness to shine through.
The Spirit is almost entirely strangeness, and now I regret my gold/dirt metaphor, because it's more like cake. The Spirit is almost too much cake. Cake is great. But I can't eat cake day in and day out.
Metaphors aside, The Spirit is a really weird comic, with its own internal logic, bizarre compositions (the weirdest being the sudden pull out to a bird's eye view for no apparent reason), actions that flow across panel lines, very fast stories (Batman issues are around 12 pages these days, the Spirit is only 7) that rely on chunks of exposition thrown out very rapidly like tangled balls of noir-colored yarn, a bizarre hero who lives in the tomb where he was once accidentally buried...
Basically the Spirit is a proto-Sin City: noir fever dreams all blended up with artistic experimentation and breakneck plotlines. Frank Miller was a natural choice for the film adaptation (which is very, very bad, but also very, very pretty--watch it with the sound off). Anything in The Spirit which is normal or in any way conventional is basically a forced concession to Eisner's editors, who wanted a straight superhero comic to compete with Batman and Superman and the like, and probably drank themselves to sleep each night over this pile of craziness.
The Spirit is good, if you can roll with it--sometimes cake is good, too. But I need to read it in small doses.
Anyways, this is a rambling, roundabout way to say I probably gave Batman too much credit for its oddness--and at the same time, short shrift for its racism, which I remarked upon back in my post on issue 39. In all honesty the slant-eyed, hatchet-tossing exoticism of the Chinese villains in that issue was much less of a problem for me than the "sidekick" in the Spirit:
While I think it's laudable to actually use a black character as a good guy in a superhero comic, the "Negro" cariacture here, both in appearance and vernacular, is just disgusting. That character's name is Ebony Ivory; he's a cab driver that the Spirit essentially ordered into service. He's portrayed as cowardly, bumbling, and foolish. It bothers me a lot when I'm reading this comic. There are a lot of things about The Spirit that maybe improve on Batman--certainly it's generally a visual marvel, especially in its use of color, and the narrative and characters have a wonderfully goofy illogic to them at times. But Batman isn't nearly as bad when it comes to this issue.
Does that excuse the racism in Batman? Of course not. But this shows Batman certainly wasn't the worst of its time period, not by a long shot.