Frankly, there wasn’t so much in the early years of superhero comics that holds up well now. Jack Kirby’s early work, including Captain America, is worth a look, but he got much better later on. There’s some good art on some of DC’s ’40s heroes – notably some early Alex Toth (Black Canary is his best of that era, I think), Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino here and there, and some nice work from Sheldon Moldoff on Hawkman and Jack Burnley on Starman, for instance. Elsewhere, C.C. Beck’s childlike Captain Marvel comics, and Mac Raboy’s art on Captain Marvel Jr, hold up pretty well. These are all hard to find, as is Lou Fine’s lovely art on Doll Man or The Ray for Quality.

Lou Fine is the artist Will Eisner always talked about most – Fine had worked on Eisner’s The Spirit, which is perhaps the best comic work of that era. It ran in a newspaper supplement, 7-page strips from 1940-1952. Eisner was an immensely accomplished and expressive cartoonist, who also had a talent for memorable characters, including some femmes fatale to match Caniff, and tightly wound short stories, but I think his biggest contribution to the comics of the time was his sense of design, which was like nothing else seen in comics then, and rarely matched since. His splash pages in particular are often highly original and memorable. One warning: there is a comedy black kid in it, and Ebony obviously looks rather distasteful all these decades later.

It’s worth noting that after a quarter of a century away from comic books, Eisner returned in the late ’70s and became a prime mover in the creation of graphic novels, with a series of volumes based around Jewish characters in New York – these are rather sentimental, but superbly crafted.

Lots of greats worked on The Spirit: Eisner, Fine, Wally Wood, Jules Feiffer, Joe Kubert, Jerry Grandenetti and others, but the one who rivalled Eisner’s work at the time was Jack Cole, creator of Plastic Man. He was the first successful stretchy superhero, and that power gave Cole enormous opportunities to play with the design of the panels. He was one of the great cartoonists, energetic and endlessly fun, and while the stories are far less intense than Eisner’s best, they are very entertaining.

The Spirit has been extensively reprinted. Since the rights are with DC these days, I hope that we will eventually get cheap Showcase reprints, but I’ve no idea if that will happen. Plastic Man and the other Quality titles are owned by DC now, and there are expensive reprints, but no indication of Showcase reprints so far – again, I live in hope. (Actually, the same is true of Fawcett, who published the Captain Marvel titles, but DC have shown no sign of reprinting any pre-Silver Age comics yet in their bargain editions.)