John-Michael Gariepy

Two Books: Destiny of the Republic and The Best of the Spirit

Destiny of the Republic:  A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

by Candice Millard

When visiting my local library, I almost tossed this book away.  This homage to U.S. President James A. Garfield did such a fine job of pretending to be yet another book about Lincoln, that I pushed it aside to get to the other weird tales that hid behind it.  Thankfully, I took the time to flip it over, did a double-take at the photo, and realized that the book in my hands wasn’t yet another company cashing in on Killing Lincoln.  Great!  I always have time for the cracks of history.  There’s nothing better than learning something new.

I remember the brief introduction and parting I was given to President Garfield when we walked past him in my old high school U.S. History class.  My teacher took enough time to mention that he was shot by an anarchist, and it was a shame some people couldn’t recognize that anarchy wasn’t a valid governing choice.  What my high school teacher never discussed was that Chales Guiteau was a madman lost in a fantasy and believed himself the servant of God and thought himself a hero beloved by the people.  I’d heard that Garfield’s doctors did more harm than good, not that Doctor Doctor Bliss’s adherence to pre-Civil War medical practice, and his bull-headed desire for celebrity status, lead him to act as a rapacious pariah.  With the help of his doctors, Garfield descended from a healthy patient in shock into a national tragedy.

All this, and a strange fascination with Alexander Graham Bell, who keeps wheedling into the plot with his early lead bullet detector.  If you want to put a historical biography on your list, you could do worse than to read about what was probably the most popular president during his administration in American History after Washington.

The Best of the Spirit

by Will Eisner

I don’t need to tell you to pick up Will Eisner’s ‘The Spirit’.  If you know comic books at all, it’s likely that you’ve read some comic book writer’s glowing appraisal of Eisner’s pulp noir detective thrillers jumbled into the Sunday circular of newspapers in the 1950s.  But, you know, how good could it be?  Comic books from the 50s read terrible to a modern audience.  They’re full of word balloons and strange expositions.  I mean, can Eisner’s work really be better than a genius plot by Alan Moore, or tale of stunning sympathy from Neil Gaiman, or perhaps an out of the box, then back in the box Avengers tale by Brian Michael Bendis?

No.  It can’t.  I’ll be straight with you.  The Spirit is a phenomenal strip.  Eisner tackles  a variety of genres, barely fitting them under the umbrella of detective fiction.  He can mix pain in his fun, and splashes panel after panel with well-crafted gems.  When you look at some of the schlock that defined the ‘Golden Age’ of comic books, most books barely contained the bare necessities required to hold together a plot.  Eisner, however, defined and defied plot.  His strip holds up to a beating, like Denny Colt dumped in the middle of a crime ring, but the words can still melt in the arms of Silk Satin.

But holding The Spirit up to today’s standard isn’t a fair contest.  When comic books first hit news stands, they were a phenomenon.  A vast, money making phenomenon.  Writers were superfluous to a company.  They kept their jobs as long as the company profited from them.  During World War II, that meant ‘Everyone keeps their job as long as they put out content’.  In the 50s, with the decline of comics, that meant ‘Only the most sensational of writers kept their job, assuming they kept delivering’.  The fact that Eisner was able to write such compelling stories in the thick of this environment is astounding.  His writing is nuance.  How the heck did he sell nuance?

So, before you read The Spirit, you’ve got better things to read by people who’ve been inspired by The Spirit.  Read Moore’s Watchmen, and read  Gaiman’s Sandman.  Read some New Avengers, some Scott Pilgrim, Jimmy Corrigan, Blankets and Maus.  When you’re done reading all that, though, go back and read The Spirit.  It’s an honest fun read, and it will give you perspective and appreciation for the books that came after it.

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