Superheroes rule pop culture right now and as usual Balladeer’s Blog readers have been letting me know it’s been awhile since I ran a blog post on the subject. Will Eisner’s iconic superhero the Spirit – who debuted in June of 1940 – rose from the grave of his secret identity, Private Investigator Denny Colt, after his apparent death when he got saturated in some chemicals of the supervillain Doctor Cobra.
Fan arguments still rage over whether or not the Spirit had any superpowers beyond his initial chemically-induced state of suspended animation which let him survive and rise from his grave days later. I’m of the school of thought that says the Spirit DID have superpowers, largely because I grow bored with alleged “super” heroes who are just regular shlubs who slap on a costume and fight crime. To me that’s more of a Pulp hero.
I don’t think it’s outrageous to attribute paranormal abilities to the Spirit. Just going by Will Eisner’s original stories let’s approach it this way:
GREATER THAN HUMAN STRENGTH – Taking this hero’s origin story at face value with no ret-conning necessary, when Denny Colt came to in his coffin he dug his way to the surface. It would require much more than the strength of a normal human to burst through the coffin lid AND force his way upward through six feet of soil. For all I know The Big Bang Theory guys may have once done a calculation on how much actual strength it would take to accomplish this feat.
EXTRAORDINARY RESILIENCY/ HEALING ABILITY – Early Spirit stories often show his body taking the kind of punishment that no non-powered human being could survive. The villains occasionally point out how impossible it is that the hero just keeps coming after all the damage they inflict on him. And again, taking his 1940 origin at face value his body would have had to have “healed” from the invasive procedures of embalming or similar treatments, before he woke up in his coffin.
Many fans feel that Frank Miller’s 2008 movie The Spirit took that too far by making his durability front and center and more like Wolverine’s notorious Healing Factor. Personally, I’m okay with it.
The Spirit’s secret HQ lay underneath Wildwood Cemetery and his Rogues Gallery of foes included gangsters and supervillains as well as supernatural and sci-fi menaces.
The art and narrative innovations that Eisner introduced in his Spirit stories cannot be overstated.
After the original 1940-1952 run of the character the Spirit has been kept alive over the decades in various reprint series and new adaptations. Here are some of his most memorable foes including how I would update them if necessary. I’ll do his archenemy the Octopus, of course.
THE BLACK QUEEN
The second supervillain that the Spirit ever faced, right after Doctor Cobra. In the Black Queen’s first appearance she was a beautiful and cunning lawyer for organized crime boss “Slot” Gorgan. She also secretly ran Central City’s underworld using Gorgan as her fall-guy in the event of trouble.
In her second appearance this villainess went for broke, organizing a 1,000-strong army of gangsters to invade Central City and rob around fifty million dollars – in 1940, so that would be worth much more today. Her men parachuted in like an invading army, blocking off the bridge into the city and raiding at will until the Spirit defeated her plan. The Black Queen was forced to flee the country.
The Black Queen’s third battle with our hero saw her at last settled into the traditional supervillain mold. Now sporting a colorful costume complete with a cape that had a giant playing-card black spade on the back (as in Queen of Spades), she used whips in battle and killed men by kissing them with her poisoned lipstick. Her plan that time saw her steal a method of making artificial diamonds.
With his top hat, cane and trained buzzard mascot Julia, Mr Carrion is easily one of the most recognizable foes of the Spirit and has fought him innumerable times over the decades.
In his initial appearance in the 1940s this villain’s nom de guerre came from his m.o. of exploiting dead GI’s and their families in his racketeering schemes. Think of a vulture picking at the carcasses it comes across.
Obviously that sort of crime is not relatable to many modern readers.
Therefore, I would instead make Mr Carrion be a mad scientist who experiments on corpses, turning them into Frankenstein’s Army/ Wolfenstein style reanimated soldiers in his criminal endeavors.
With the Spirit’s Wildwood Cemetery hideout he could first encounter Mr Carrion when he’s robbing graves for some bodies to experiment on.
This villainess is the most exotic and seductive of the Spirit’s many femmes fatale opponents. All across the globe these two have had a steamy adversarial relationship that always made Batman and Catwoman look like puppy love by comparison.
In the 1970s P’Gell was made officially bisexual, which was often kind of suspected anyway. Mr Carrion’s relationship with his buzzard was rendered in an … unconventional way in the 70s, too. (The 70s also saw the Spirit encounter a female impersonator who smuggled heroin in their fake breasts. Quite a subversion of our hero’s sultry female foes.)
P’Gell has no superpowers per se, just a genius for crime and enough seductive appeal to “cloud men’s minds” in ways that not even the Shadow could pull off. After the war she turned in her Nazi war criminal husband for the reward and used the money to launch her criminal empire.
If it helps, think of P’Gell as a James Bond villainess long before James Bond came along, let alone women like Pussy Galore or Tiffany Case.
And whatever you do, try not to think of McKinlay Robinson’s hopelessly dull and lifeless depiction of this character in the 1987 Spirit made for tv movie.
His face has never been seen and his real name is unknown – or at least retconned whenever a Spirit story has tried to address such things. The Octopus debuted in July of 1946, though personally his name and aspects of his career have always made me and others suspect (or “fanonize’) the possibility that he was the Spirit’s World War Two villain the Squid/ Kalmar.
Consider this: The Squid was a supervillain fighting for the Axis powers during World War Two. The Octopus led an organization of Nazi war criminals and former Nazi soldiers. And this was long before Marvel Comics introduced Hydra with its early links to the fallen Third Reich. The early logo for the Octopus’ minions has often struck me as a spiritual forerunner of Hydra’s logo, too.
At any rate this villain is known for his distinctive purple gloves with three lines like a Roman Numeral III on them. Usually his gloved hands are about the only parts of him that are shown in the panels. In the grand tradition of archenemies, the Octopus’ clashes with the Spirit are some of the best of the hero’s stories. The villain even left the Spirit temporarily blinded after one encounter.
It may be blasphemy to hardcore Spirit fans, but I think it’s long past time to stop with the “just his gloves show” treatment of the Octopus. I would use the iconic depictions of those gloved hands as a springboard to having it be revealed that the villain lost both of his real arms long ago and had a scientist/ MD attach six bionic arms to his body. (With his legs that would give him eight limbs like an octopus.)
On each of his hands the Octopus would still wear his distinctive gloves, and it could be assumed that he always had the bionic limbs, but since only one or two of his hands were ever depicted in the panels in the past, that would give old timers the option to pretend otherwise.
Not only would the bionic limbs make the Octopus able to go head-to-head with the stronger than human Spirit but you could drag in Silken Floss’ role as a physician/ scientist like she was in her March of 1947 debut. She could be the figure behind the Octopus’ upgrades.
The Octopus has been presumed dead many times but like the best supervillains he always turns up alive and with new evil plans.
Sand Saref was Denny Colt’s childhood sweetheart but circumstances drove them apart and Sand left Central City behind her to seek a life of crime.
Unlike P’Gell, Sand Saref wasn’t above getting her hands dirty and would wield weapons plus her fists and kicks against the law and rival criminals. Sand often crossed paths with the Spirit for some tormented, and always doomed love stories.
Sand was all about action and often sold her services to governments around the world, trying not to be concerned with issues of conscience. NOTE: Eva Mendes’ portrayal of Sand Saref came before Scar-Jo’s portrayal of the Black Widow on the screen. But Scarlet DID play Silken Floss in The Spirit (2008).
THE BLACK BOW
First appearing in January of 1941, the Black Bow is a very underused Spirit villain.
The Black Bow’s original m.o. was extorting money from European war refugees in America. If they didn’t pay him for protection he would kill them with his arrows. He felt he was due that “tribute” as the descendant of an old, blue-blooded family in a fictional European country.
This villain would need an updated schtick along with giving him trick arrows in addition to his regular arrows. He could be a supervillain version of heroes like the Arrow, Hawkeye, Green Arrow, Diana the Archer, etc.
Silk Satin was an international spy from England who was often on opposite sides from the Spirit or at least in competition with him to accomplish the same ends. More of the same in terms of flirtatious bickering between her and the Spirit, but Silk is terrific at unarmed combat and great with weapons. Plus she’s a master of disguise.
I know Silk Satin came before Sand Saref but to me Sand’s ties to the Spirit’s past trump other considerations. However, most fans would never consider slighting Silk Satin or ever leaving her out of Spirit stories.
Silk and the Spirit frequently tangled, with Silk often trying to steal our hero from his on-again/ off-again girlfriend Ellen Dolan, the Mayor of Central City.
This villain practiced a labored m.o. that sounds like the kind practiced by Batman’s foes. Mister Midnight timed his evildoing to always take place at Midnight, often in front of witnesses to supposedly “prove” he couldn’t have had anything to do with the crime. That despite bragging about it in advance.
John Caliban, a very John Barrymoore-esque stage ham, wound up with his skin permanently dyed blue from tainted makeup after having an affair with the wife of a Hollywood mover and shaker. This motivated him to launch his criminal career.
Mister Midnight always talked in stage villain cliches. His longish, sharp fingernails were soaked in poison, making even a scratch from him fatal to most people.
LORELEI – Lorelei Rox, to give her full name, debuted in September of 1948. Lorelei was a probable mutant born with her superpowers. At least no other explanation was given for her abilities.
In addition to her devastating good looks, Lorelei, like her namesake, was gifted with a powerful and paranormal singing voice. Lorelei’s singing could draw men to her and mesmerize them into helplessness, then she would murder them.
In her first appearance the villainess thus targeted truckers, hijacking their cargoes after dispensing with them. In battle with the Spirit she unleashed powerful sonic blasts from her mouth, blasts strong enough to bring down an entire building.
Lorelei even formed an alliance with the Octopus at one point in a few of the newer Spirit stories.
ORANG THE APE MAN
Long before Gorilla Grodd or Angel & The Ape came Orang and Elsa.
The mad scientist Doctor Egel raised Orang from infancy and performed brain surgery on him to make him an eloquent, erudite figure. He simultaneously altered the brain of Elsa Hoyd, the beautiful daughter of one of his colleagues, to make her act like a bloodthirsty savage.
Knowing no better, Orang did Dr Egel’s evil bidding in his first appearance, setting his life on the tragic path it’s been on ever since. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, Orang’s brutish appearance makes him shunned and feared, fueling his villainy.
PLASTER OF PARIS
This villainess was introduced in 1947. Plaster, often called the Toast of Montmartre, is a wealthy assassin who walks the fine line between genius and insanity. She often blends her dazzling dancing talents with her knack for murder.
Plaster of Paris is highly skilled in battle with swords, tri-pronged knives and other bladed weapons. In addition she has greater agility than an acrobat and more flexibility than a contortionist. She is a world-class escape artist and a master of unarmed combat.
Though she hints at a prior relationship with the Spirit it is sometimes unclear if this really happened or if it is part of Plaster’s unhinged mental state. It is also possible that her jumbled mind is conflating the Spirit with another man from her past.
YAGOR – A Japanese mad scientist who created killer androids which he called his Dolls of Death. They ranged from toy size to ventriloquist’s dummy size to over ten feet tall.
THE ROYAL FLUSH GANG – Years before DC’s villains of this name the Spirit took on this five-member gang – four men and one woman – who based their costumes and weapons on the playing cards in a Royal Flush.
WITCH HAZEL – An actual witch with genuine powers of Black Magick. Unlike the Spirit’s other female foes she is incredibly ugly rather than dangerously seductive.
ASSASSINS INC – An organization of international assassins, this outfit was run by Cyrus Plunder.
DIANA THE HUNTRESS – Long before Kraven the Hunter came this villain. She was an accomplished big game hunter who became obsessed with capturing the most dangerous game of all … the Spirit.
THE MORGER BOYS – Four bald, heavy-set identical brothers who were out to avenge their criminal father’s death in the electric chair. These characters seem to have appeared after a fashion in the 2008 Spirit movie as the cloned, simple-minded minions of the Octopus whose names all ended in “os.” (Pathos, Logos, etc.)
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