When confronting escaped criminal Dr. Cobra, criminologist and private investigator Denny Colt is caught in the evil scientist's experimental liquid and put into a death-like coma. Believed dead by his friend Commissioner Dolan, head of the Central City Police Department, Colt is buried the next day, only to rise from his grave the next night very much alive. After catching Dr. Cobra, Denny Colt decides to remain dead and take up the job of being The Spirit, so he can go after criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police.
The Spirit, which premiered in June 1940 and ran continuously until October 1952, was the brainchild of Will Eisner, arguably one of the most important men in the history of comic books. Originally, it was created and distributed as a weekly insert for more conventional newspapers of the Register and Tribune Syndicate, rather than as a traditional comic. These stories have been reprinted by many publishers in numerous comic book and graphic novel series.
Eisner's intent was to have a series that focused on characters and storytelling, rather than to create a "super-hero comic book". In fact, the mask and gloves that are The Spirit's trademarks were a concession to his publishing partner, who didn't think the series would sell without having a bona fide "masked hero". One of the effects of this is that often The Spirit is a guest in his own series, sometimes only appearing at the very beginning and very ending of the story.
In addition to comics, the character appeared from 1941 through 1944 in a conventional Newspaper Comic strip, in a 1987 TV Pilot (which did not produce a series) and, as of December 25, 2008, a theatrical release movie written and directed by Frank Miller.
The Spirit does not have any super-powers nor does he have any special training. He is an excellent fighter, and survives mostly on force of will and luck. In fact, the strip is fairly realistic in that there are very few instances of extra-normal powers. People get hit and they bleed. People get shot and they die. (There are, however, over the course of over 500 stories, a few appearances of witches, a couple of aliens, one man who can fly and, when appropriate, Santa Claus.)
First licensed to DC Comics, the series was written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, who distilled elements of the previous series, and set it in the modern day. DC Comics later rebooted the series to fit into their First Wave universe, and is now written by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés, having taken over for Darwyn Cooke, and is set around the 1940s or 1950s.
We currently have a Character Sheet under construction.
- Adaptation Distillation: The Darwyn Cooke reboot.
- Aliens Among Us: One story involves two Martian secret agents posing as humans, with one having turned traitor due to preferring human society over martian society, but she is neutralized by her partner, who is revealed to be a metreologist.
- Badass Normal: The Spirit himself, a totally normal guy with nothing but a nice suit, a mask and a strong right hook. He doesn't even have any gadgets, save for a flying car in the early issues that was quickly phased out.
- Belly Dancer: Plaster of Paris.
- Beware the Silly Ones: One of the most shocking examples of this in the Golden Age of Comics comes when the villainous political fixer Autumn Mews tricks comic relief foil Sammy into revealing the (unused!) secret identity of the Spirit in the classic story The Death of Autumn Mews.
- Brick Joke: A very clever method of marking the passage of time in "Ten Minutes"; on the first page there is a little girl bouncing a ball in front of an apartment building, chanting, "A, My name is Anna and my sister's name is Alice..." Later in the story, we return to the same building, and the little girl is still bouncing the ball, chanting, "R, my name is Renee and my sister's name is Rachel..."
- Celibate Hero: In spite of being a total Chick Magnet, the Spirit gulps, aw-shucks-ma'am, and hem-haws his way through whenever a Femme Fatale, or even Ellen, latches onto him. The idea of being embarrassed to the point of rigidity (not that kind) by female attention was a common trope seen among male characters in the 1930s and 1940s.
- It is notably averted in the Darwyn Cooke reboot where Denny is portrayed as a shameless flirt, but is also in a (mostly) committed relationship with Ellen and tries hard to be faithful to her.
- Chick Magnet: It's the closest thing The Spirit has to an actual superpower
- Christmas Episode: Issue closest to Christmas nearly every year in the original run.
- Clark Kenting: A Domino Mask is about as much a disguise as Clark Kent's glasses, but in reverse. As long as he's wearing his mask it doesn't matter what he wears, he'll instantly be recognized. If he really wants to be in disguise he takes his mask off. Denny Colt became the Spirit after being declared legally dead and the Spirit doesn't have a secret identity, he's the Spirit full time.
- Clear My Name: For a few early stories, The Spirit was framed for the murder of a tight-fisted millionaire who'd taken several Levels In Jerkass. However, it soon proven to be a suicide by pointlessly elaborate contraption.
- Clothing Damage: The Spirit suffers a torn shirt and shredded suit on a regular basis.
- Coat, Hat, Mask: The Spirit's costume consists solely of this.
- The Commissioner Gordon: Commissioner Dolan.
- Cool Mask: Notable for actually emphasizing his eyes, instead of hiding them like most masks.
- Crossover: With everyone from Batman and Doc Savage to Cerebus and Omaha the Cat Dancer.
- Death by Origin Story: Alvarro Mortez AKA 'El Morte' in the DC reboot. He was unfortunate enough to die TWICE before confronting the Spirit personally.
- Deadpan Snarker: Denny can get as snarky as another superhero from a rival company in battle, but in the reboot it's Ebony White who plays this to the hilt, delivering caustic comments while almost never, ever changing his dour expression.
- The Driver: Ebony White.
- Expressive Mask: The reboot tries to avert this as much as possible, instead using shadows, angles, and the Spirit's signature hat to give the mask an illusion of movement, but sometimes they play it straight just for sheer comedy. Once Darwyn Cooke stopped drawing the book it got more noticeable.
- Eye Cam: Used in one issue to show the action through another character's eyes — literally. In addition to an eyelid-shaped view, you can see his eyelashes on top.
- The Faceless: The Octopus, and actually The Spirit himself as well.
- Averted with the Spirit in the reboot. Denny's unmasked face is shown in the flashback to the night of his "death" and several times in the Cooke-helmed issues in intimate moments with Ellen after.
- Faux Death: Denny Colt was put into a death-like coma for 24 hours. After reviving, he decided to use being declared dead as an advantage.
- Fedora of Asskicking: The Spirit sports one as part of his ahem, "Superhero costume."
- Femme Fatale: Sand Saref the best example of this. (There's no chance of P'Gell ever reforming, but we hope for Sand.)
- Fille Fatale: Saree is P'Gell's stepdaughter who shows every sign of following in her stepmother's footsteps as The Vamp (and probably the Black Widow).
- Film Noir: The series as a whole is generally more upbeat than typical for the genre, but individual episodes and story arcs can sometimes be quite bleak indeed. The Spirit himself and Central City also fulfill a number of the genre's visual cues.
- The Greatest Story Never Told: Eisner liked to use this trope on occasion, but one that really stands out is "Gerhard Shnobble," which can be a somber Tear Jerker for some.
- Another noteable one involves a convict put in jail by The Spirit who is freed by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve as a christmas present, and given Santa's clothes and a false beard to be able to wander around undetected. His original intent is to get to his stash of stolen money, then track down and kill The Spirit, but he ends up being sidetracked by three boys, one of whom is blind and who all three had asked Santa to give the boy his sight back for Christmas. The criminal ends up giving his money to a back-alley doctor he knows, to perform the needed surgery on the boy, then returns to prison and gives Santa his outfit back and resumes his sentence, with only him and Santa himself knowing what actually happened that night.
- Irisless Eye Mask Of Mystery: Averted and occasionally lampshaded in the comics in that he has big blue expressive irises to show.
- James Bondage: The Spirit seems to spend far more time tied up (and stripped down) than any man or woman really should...
- Lady in Red: P'Gell, again. Often, but not always, seen in a slinky red dress. (Starting with her first appearance.)
- Meaningful Name: As seen above, Eisner loved these. For instance, one story had a gangster named "Blacky" Marquett.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: "The Dictator's Reform" actually begins with the disclaimer: "Any similarity to persons living or dead is entirely intentional."
- Non-Powered Costumed Hero: Enforced (see main description).
- Pinned to the Wall: September 13, 1942 issue. A female villainess wants to play Hunting the Most Dangerous Game with the title character, but he refuses. She uses a bow and arrows to pin him to a door by his clothes so he can't get away. See it here◊.
- Pirate Girl: Long Jane Silver and her all-female crew.
- Punny Name: Most everyone's names, such as Plaster, who's from Paris. Even the Octopus's real name is a reference to a medical bath.
- Real Time: Eisner timed "Ten Minutes," which covers the last ten minutes of the life of a punk who killed the candy store owner he was robbing, to take ten minutes to read. It even begins with the sentence, "It will take you ten minutes to read this story."
- She Is Not My Girlfriend:
- For quite a while, Ellen Dolan clearly thought of The Spirit as her boyfriend, while The Spirit himself spent much of the time avoiding her and denying it.
- Averted in the reboot where Denny and Ellen are clearly in a committed-ish relationship. The Spirit still flirts with every skirt that crosses his path like a bastard though.
- Shirtless Scene: Like you wouldn't believe.
- Side Kick: Ebony White, Blubber (for a VERY short stint), and later, Sammy. In some stories where Ebony is featured, he has his own sidekicks.
- Theme Naming: Good old fashioned Mook gangster names like Knuckles and Tumblers.
- Walking the Earth: One series of storylines revolves around Spirit having left the city after a falling out with Ellen and is now jumping from place to place by ship.
- Uncle Tom Foolery: Ebony White, verging on outright Ethnic Scrappy. Averted in Darwyn Cooke's run.
- The Vamp: P'gell, who seems to go through a rich husband nearly every story that involves her.
- War Is Hell: Several stories dealt with this trope in the post WWII era. In particular, "The Killer" is about a man named Henry who was pushed around by society before being drafted, becoming a war hero in Europe... and then subsequently being discharged back into "normal" society where once again he's pushed around, ignored and abused. Henry becomes the titular character when, by chance, he's accidentally given a gun and he kills his criminal wife and brother-in-law, and is taken in by the Spirit. Dolan and the Spirit have mixed feelings with Henry, but civilian onlookers judged the scene, aghast that a killer was a veteran, wherein another veteran nearby comments that they just don't know.