The Spirit of the Stone Type

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Before the appearance of the movie poster “Ben Hur” (1959) most three-dimensionally drawn movie titles on posters had simple colors and a bit of shading, influenced by art-deco posters.

Even the mastheads of comics like “Superman” (1939) followed that tradition. (Seventy-two years later, the current “Superman” masthead is almost identical to the original one.)

But everything changed with the appearance of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” (1940). “The Spirit” was published as a seven-page supplement to the comics section of American Sunday newspapers. As a supplement tucked inside newspapers, “The Spirit” did not depend on being visible on the newsstands. It was not limited by the need for recognizable branding like “Superman”.

Mr. Eisner used that extremely cleverly by going in exactly the opposite direction. Not only did he change the masthead of “The Spirit” for every issue, but very soon, the masthead became an integral part of the scene/set.

Eisner continued to play with the masthead even when “The Spirit” started to be sold on newsstands as an independent booklet.

The amazing possibility of using type inside the cover art didn’t go unnoticed. Other comic artists started to play with that idea. Among the most effective users of covers with type was one of the greatest American comic artists, Joe Kubert.

Even the French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, probably one of the most prolific artists and a cult figure, followed the tradition. He paid homage to Eisner in his comics “Le Garage Hermetique” and “The Airtight Garage” (1979).

Originally published in installments in the French magazine “Metal Hurlant,” each installment had a different masthead.

Overall, “The Spirit” had its biggest influence on American underground comics and took comics and typography inside of comics to a whole new dimension. But then again some of those “stoned types” of artists had inside information. A good example of them are Rick Griffin and of course, Robert Crumb. For example in his comics, “Frosty the Snowman and his Friends” (1975) Robert Crumb created a new typographic masthead each time, almost like Bach’s Goldberg variations.

Eisner’s influences can still be seen today on the front pages of comics. Stone type is not only used for special occasions celebrating 100th, 200th, and 300th issues, but also on regular issues.

Good examples are “The Hulk” and “She-Hulk” series, with a very intelligent usage of the masthead which is not only a set but also, very often, becomes a prop.

In 2008 the movie “The Spirit” was released. The designer of the movie poster tried to recreate Eisner’s imaginative usage of typography. Unfortunately, they did not directly recreate Eisner’s work, but ended up imitating the work of David Mazzucchelli, the cover artist of “Daredevil” (1985), probably one of Eisner’s admirers.

But then again, who am I to accuse anyone?

As someone once said, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone type.”

P.S.I just found this cover of Daredevil, published in October 2010. It seems like the cover artist had fun making a spoof of the 2008 movie poster for “The Spirit.” Daredevil strikes back.

The full slideshow is below and on Flickr:All images on this page are courtesy of Mirko Ilic, a New York-based graphic designer and illustrato
r. He co-authored The Design of Dissent, with Milton Glaser, and The Anatomy of Design and Icons of Graphic Design, with Steven Heller. He teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts.