Book Review: The Spirit Movie Visual Companion by Mark Cotta Vaz

There’s no denying the hard work. talent and sheer enthusiasm author Mark Cotta Vaz pours into his movie companion books. The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion is definitely some of his best work, to date. It could be said that Mark’s biggest passion lies with animation. One of his earlier books chronicled the first fifty years of the Batman empire. He clearly understands the creative arc as a story goes from a poorly received graphic novel to a media blockbuster and what it takes to translate that from page to screen to book. His appreciation is obvious but his desire to sensationalize the efforts of director Frank Miller and producers Deborah Del Prete and Michael Uslan tends to lean toward fawning regard.

The book opens with an introduction from Frank Miller. It’s a damn good thing that Frank didn’t try to write the entire book himself. Frank obviously considered Will Eisner to be a mentor because he repeats it six times in three pages. Repeated almost as much is Miller’s admission that he’s convinced that if the movie isn’t the most respectful treatise of Eisner’s vision ever created Will Eisner will rise from the grave and condemn Miller to an eternity of gruesome torment. Luckily, for us, Frank is a better animator and director than he is an author.

With no disrespect to Mark Cotta Vaz, and the considerable effort put into the rest of the book, the first chapter could have been packaged with the artwork as the entire book. He perfectly describes how, in the late 1930s, America was incredibly hungry for hope. Born from the anguish of the great depression were hundreds of fantastic characters with super human abilities who defended the values that kept everyone in America believing that the misery would end and right would prevail. Which, incidentally, might explain why so many movie companies are making super hero motion pictures, right now. Vaz weaves in Will Eisner’s pioneering spirit and vision which gave rise to a studio that birthed dozens of graphic novels, including The Spirit, before Eisner was drafted into World War II. Eisner worked in Washington D.C. using his artistic talents to create graphic novel training documents, which turned out to be an intriguing concept for him.

The second chapter goes into excruciating detail about how the director and producers love comic books and have been waiting their entire lives to do a movie like The Spirit so now they can die happy having completed what they were born for. Okay, not quite, but close. It gives some slightly interesting backgrounds on all three executives, regarding their careers, but could have skipped the commentary on how, where and when each bought their first comic books and how much they cost (hint: the cover price was a dime).

Vaz shows his style and expertise well in the following chapters, chronicling the complicated craft of making the actual movie. He manages to fit in comments from the principal actors about their respect for the film, amusing stories about how many were cast and even an intriguing nugget, or two, about their own perceptions of what their characters represent in the overall message Eisner might have been trying to tell. Filling in nicely are descriptions and pictures about the concepts for costuming, staging and cinematography matched with final stills from the film that show how successful, or not, the cast and crew were.

For any star-struck fan, there’s more than enough information, and pictures, about their favorite celebrity from the movie to keep you happy. For true devotees of the film there are plenty of “comparison” photos and commentary about each individual element in both the script and the visual construction of the movie and how similar or different they might be. From the pre-production hurdles of finding props to fit the “virtual” environment Frank Miller had to keep in mind throughout to the post-production editing risks involved in stitching together the entire film before the computer graphics could be added to complete the visual style, the book adequately gives the reader a well drawn picture.

True fans of the movie will find this book an absolute must, period. Mark Cotta Vaz may try a little too hard to make his visual companion books sensational and more interesting. There is just no denying the fact that he’s become the best at this very specific style of writing. For others who may not have seen the movie or didn’t enjoy as much as others the book is still a glimpse into the business of turning a truly interesting, classic hero, one without super-human abilities or powers, into a figure worthy of filling the silver screen. It’s also a pretty stunning example of some of the greatest animation artwork ever done in a quality tome.

The Spirit Movie Visual Companion by Mark Cotta Vaz
192 pages
Titan Books (November 25, 2008)

Buy The Spirit Movie Visual Companion