By Colin Smith
First published in twenty or so newspapers on Sunday March 24th 1946, The Last Trolley was the fourteenth weekly instalment of The Spirit to appear after Will Eisner’s post-war return to the series at Christmas 1945. It was also an episode that stood apart from the great majority of those which had appeared since then. For with The Last Trolley – aka The Man Who Killed The Spirit – Eisner and his colleagues underscored that there were visual storytellers other than film-makers who could also change and develop with the times and create Noirs of the highest quality. Movies from the same year, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Killers, The Big Sleep and The Blue Dahlia are widely hailed as Noir classics. For all its singular qualities, The Last Trolley surely deserves to be more commonly mentioned in such rightly exalted company.
Despite the impression unintentionally given later by the work of some high-profile Eisner acolytes, Noir was never the sole and unadulterated storytelling style put to use on The Spirit, and it most certainly wasn’t so during this period. (If nothing else, it would be tough to consistently produce unadulterated Noir with such a genial and beneficent mask-wearing adventurer as a title character.) Admittedly, aspects of the strip could often feel remarkably Noirish, and this had been true since The Spirit’s debut. To take but one example, the strip had frequently featured a host of femme fatales, a tradition begun in the third-ever Spirit tale, in June 1940, with The Black Queen, an alluring and yet malignant lawyer and mob boss. The likes of Silk Satin and Nylon Rose, both new to the strip in early 1946, could have easily filled the role of the deadliest of the species in the most shadowy of Noirs. But Eisner chose to use them in tales that were far closer, for all their daubs of Noir, to mainstream melodrama and screwball comedy.
Yet when Noir decisively arrived in The Spirit with The Last Trolley, it did so in the absence of any female characters at all. Were there such a thing as Noir ultras, and thank heavens there don’t appear to be any such a species, that absence might disqualify the story from the genre’s ranks. But Noir, being a concept applied after the fact rather than a circumscribing manifesto, is a matter of calculation and degree. And if the presence of certain female stereotypes are seen as important to the genre’s essence, then the complete and utter absence of the same is surely noteworthy and telling too.
Noir having long been regarded as an expression of war-weariness and political disillusionment, The Last Trolley’s womenless frames suggest a forgotten and marginalised America cut adrift from autonomy, cheer and comfort. Through that lens, it’s a snapshot, albeit affable enough on its surface, of a Republic populated by three exhausted classes; the oblivious everyday worker, the predatory criminal and the dogged, gleeless servants of law and order. Patriarchy being what patriarchy is, the absence of women unwittingly implies a world bereft for men of the longed-for post-war rewards epitomised by a bride embedded in a pre-fighting family ideal. That another word for ’embedded’ could often be ‘entombed’ where America’s women were concerned only makes the situation for us, reading back from 2018, seem all the more hopeless, twisted, cruel and desperate. Just beyond the panel borders of The Last Trolley lies an America composed of any number of wounded citizens, most entirely unrepresented in Eisner’s story itself, all making do as best they can, with some breaking and some not in the process. For all that The Last Trolley is undeniably a comedy-drama, to scratch its surface is to reveal a tone that appears far more cynical and far less sanguine than many a Spirit tale.
The Last Trolley was a collaboration between Will Eisner, The Spirit’s creator, and his two assistants, Bob Palmer and John Spranger. (The lettering was provided after the pages were otherwise completed by Quality Comic’s Martin DuMuth.) According to Catherine Yronwode in 1984’s The Spirit #4, Eisner wrote the perversely accomplished script and inked the story’s figurework. Palmer, for the one and only time, stepped up from his supporting role as the Eisner Studio’s most junior assistant and both drew and inked the majority of the tale. The result is a Spirit story quite unlike any other from the period. Palmer’s work was less cartoony than Spranger’s, who was then the strip’s regular penciller under Eisner’s direction. (Spranger’s genial stylings, Yronwode tells us, helped make The Spirit more palatable to its broad, all-ages audience.) By contrast, Palmer’s approach in The Last Trolley is, for all its caricatures and whimsical moments, considerably more hard-edged. It is a question of degree rather than of absolutes, and yet, it’s enough to mark the tale out as more disconcerting and even, on its penultimate page, macabre than a typical Spirit tale of the period.
To praise Palmer isn’t to diminish Spranger or indeed Eisner. But from the point of view of a story saturated in Noir, Palmer’s approach was by far the more appropriate. Even his choices of camera angles, as it were, prove more suitable to the task of maintaining an unsettling air in the closed-off world of the trolley. Where Spranger, under Eisner’s direction or not, had a tendency to offer sequences of panels in a theatrical fashion, presented somewhat tamely as if framed from the front of a stage at eye-level, Palmer adopted a far more cinematic approach. Perhaps that was exactly what Eisner and his strip insisted upon, or perhaps Palmer himself sought to constantly suggest the uncomfortable rocking of the trolley while ensuring the events in its’ close and constrained interior remained varied and interesting.
Whatever, the result is an absolute triumph, striking as it does a judicious balance between legibility and novelty, sensation and insight. A whole range of Noirish effects are put to excellent effect; the shifting, threatening shadows of the trolley’s interior, its windows reflecting the scenes opposite to them more than they do the world beyond them, the grotesqueness revealed in the expressions of everyday citizens. If the perceived preferences of The Last Trolley’s audience mitigated against Eisner and Palmer pushing those Noirish flourishes to an expressionist extreme, and we have to assume that’s so, the story still stands as a recognisably accomplished participant in the form.
Palmer’s greatest single achievement in The Last Trolley is his breath-taking splash page showing the Lilliputian trolley trekking through a waterside neighbourhood of towering and imposing factories, deserted warehouses, empty scabby lots and rickety wooden piers. (It was to be the only time that he and he alone produced an entire side of a Spirit tale without his colleagues’ involvement.) With the exception of a small shot of the Spirit’s face on a ticket being blown through the air at the forefront of the frame, there’s not a sign to be seen of a single human being. The lights of Central City are there in the background, but they, and the people who inhabit the terrain lit by them, are a very long way away indeed. It is as if Palmer had taken the first few seconds of the 1944 Film Noir Lady On A Train, with its brief depiction of a similar scene, and decided to show how comics could approach the same brief with a far greater measure of ambition and audacity.
Palmer’s dazzling high-angle depiction spells out with merciless clarity a landscape that’s almost as bereft of light as it is of activity. Hemmed in by two immense industrial buildings and clanking forwards on tramlines that lead without chance of digression into even-more desolate territory, the trolley’s journey is immediately marked out as one characterised by vulnerability and drudgery. But despite the static nature of the drawing, the sense of a considerable incline created by the point-of-view adopted by Palmer also insists that the trolley will trundle onwards until it leaves the scene behind. Similarly, the text-bearing sheets of paper that are caught in the wind high above the shot also carry our eye to the page’s exit point. For all its stillness, it is, in its own subtle way, a page design characterised by forward momentum, purposefully if surreptitiously leading us towards the story proper on page 2.
In The Last Trolley, we can see Eisner’s script consistently and successfully engaging with the problems of telling a recognisably Noir tale in a mere 8 pages to a family audience. How could The Spirit best flourish when a fuller measure of Noir was added to it? And so, he audaciously cut straight to the story’s third act, while ensuring that the delivery of back-story never bogs down the tale’s forward motion. In producing such a compact, driving and yet reader-friendly tale, Eisner brilliantly replicates the typical implausibilities of Noir movies every bit as much as their strengths. In doing so, he produced a story that seems, from this distance at least, every bit as much fond satire as celebration.
Accordingly, The Last Trolley is composed of a series of hilariously far-fetched and flimsy reveals, misdirecting flashbacks and multiple narrative voices that leave the reader breathlessly puzzled and engaged. At times we’re spoken to by an apparently omniscient and cod-poetic narrator, by the frazzled thief, by the indefatigable Spirit and even by what turns out to be a counterfeit newspaper insisting that Denny Colt is dead. Time loops backwards and forwards again, as if cause and effect is being hurriedly established by some higher court. It’s a process than ensures the broadest outlines of the plot feel welcomingly transparent without its end-point seeming unenticingly predictable.
Only on reflection afterwards is the story revealed to be absolutely absurd. How was it that the fleeing thief didn’t recognise The Spirit, his tiny face-mask perpetually in place, as the trolley’s driver, and how did he fail similarly to twig that it was the bodies of his betrayed fellow criminals that were sitting beside him? On and on stretch the unlikely plot twists, and there are a great many of them, coincidence piling up upon convenience, and yet, such is the tale’s pace and invention, that it never fails to compel and amuse.
As such, Eisner and Palmer’s story is very much Noir in its sequencing of brutally sensational moments embedded in an irreversibly tragic narrative. What is left in the memory after experiencing it is a delight at the storytellers’ skill and guile along with the unshakeable sense that something of the real nature of things, for all that it’s as one-sided a vision as any caricature, has been skillfully and playfully revealed. Paradoxically, the ultimate absence of plausibility in a story can sometimes be a mark of how carefully and successfully it’s been made.
As 1946 continued, Eisner would pursue an empathetically Noirist tone in a series of infrequently appearing stand-alones. Its aspects can be particularly seen, for example, in May’s Welcome Back, Ebony!, along with that story’s sadly typical indulgence in casual racism, and June’s The Rubber Band. But none of those tales can match The Last Trolley for the depth and consistency of its’ Noirishness. How surprising and dazzling the story must have seemed to many of the strip’s original readership, coming as it did after a month’s worth of fundamentally comedic and optimistic tales. Even though The Last Trolley was itself undeniably knowing and amusing, it was a rather different kind of humour in a recognisably distinct setting.
Even almost 30 years later, when The Last Trolley was reprinted in 1984’s The Spirit #4, its storytelling remained astonishingly rich and effective. Those like myself, who’d read far more about Eisner’s Spirit than we’d ever had the chance to read, were suddenly able to twig that the brave new comics of the mid-80s weren’t perhaps always as brave or new as we’d imagined. For all the time that had passed since 1946, and for all that elements of Eisner’s more Noirish tales that had been appropriated and adapted by superstar artists such as Frank Miller, The Last Trolley still appeared radical, ingenious and utterly, utterly beguiling.
So, I’d argue, it remains today.
The Spirit: “The Last Trolley”
Written by Will Eisner
Drawn by John Spranger and Bob Palmer
Inked by Will Eisner and Bob Palmer
Lettered by Martin deMuth
Colin Smith is a writer and critic best known for his work for his own blog, Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, which has happily returned to life recently. Colin is currently working on a long-form piece of work exploring the work of Mark Millar, planned to be published by Sequart, and to find out more you can find him on Twitter here!
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