No pants necessary

Fleischer & Aparo

The Spectre wears a green Speedo over bare, pasty white skin. And he is scary as shit, man.

During the course of the readings and discussions of the vigilante series I did with Steve Long, I (or we) came to realize the phenomenon was bigger than the Batman-Daredevil-Moon Knight trajectory. In my recent post The smoking guns, I suggested that the lethal, extreme to the point of psycho aspect of the comics vigilante was part of that bigger picture, focusing on the Shadow and the Spider. But these characters overlap with comics, being associated much more with pulp fiction and radio, and there yet remains one corner to the triangle of fundamental vigilantes, this one born-in-comics, comics-centric to this day.

Briefly, for those who don’t know: the Spectre is a murdered guy who is driven to avenge victims of murder and similarly extreme crimes. Whether he’s the guy, or the guy possessed by a spirit of some kind, or half-and-half, varies by the writer and era, but the key is that he’s hella powerful – cosmically, insanely so – and visits sadistic, custom-made dooms upon his targets which are squeezed right at the top of outright horror in the history of the medium.

Siegel and Baily

The Spectre’s long comics history is available all over the internet, so I won’t try to summarize it; I’ll only point to these incarnations of interest which should indicate the character’s significant DC pedigree:

  • The original comes from all the way back in 1940, by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily
    • Yet another example of how grim and horrific the so-called Golden Age could be, at least for a couple of years of superheroes
    • The separation or confusion between the human/secret identity and the spectral entity was established fairly soon
    • The character underwent cycles of lightening and softening that I know very little about
  • He appeared during the 1950s written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson, then again in the mid-late 1960s with many creators including a young Neal Adams
  • Michael Fleischer and Jim Aparo did only ten Spectre stories in 1974-1975 but they were significant in recovering the original/initial savagery of Siegel’s version
    • This is part of the DC Batman bad-ass reboot, in parallel with the Shadow’s arrival in comics and the appearance of the Punisher at Marvel)
    • Several of the unpublished stories for this run were eventually completed, to form a final text called The Wrath of the Spectre
  • Doug Moench and several artists including Gene Colan (!) and Gray Morrow (!!) did 31 issues of a new title, no small feat, in the late 1980s, which also slots nicely into the vigilante hero creator chronology that Steve and I discussed (see The not so secret cabal)
    • It also ties into that subset in the character being significantly de-powered, and driving a real wedge between the entity vs. the man
  • John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake did their own title for five solid years in the 1990s
  • [various re-imaginings and whatnot since then – I dunno a thing about’em]

Ostrander and Mandrake

I only know the Ostrander-Mandrake run, but I know it extremely well. I had an insider’s view of its beginning stages as I spent most of the summer of 1992 in company with John and Kim (taking a quick break between my M.S. and Ph.D. programs). This was also a summer of considerable personal and philosophical conversations with both of them. I’m sad to say that we did fall out of touch some years later (see Kim Yale), but those conversations continued by telephone for several years. The Spectre wasn’t the only topic among us, obviously, falling well behind Suicide Squad and Grimjack in my direct interests of the time. But clearly it’s where John’s heart lay, by 1995 or so.

I bought the full run month by month, but at the moment, digging in my disorganized storage/moving boxes, I’m only coming up with #25-50. So some of this is based on perhaps-muzzy memory. (A lot of my posting is like that!) A few points …

  • As my post title indicates, you can’t get more 1940s than that outfit. It blends the cloaked occult with circus athlete, making little sense of either, and those slipper-booties left the culture back with “smoking jacket.” Yet … and in direct defiance of many “update to bad-ass” redesigns at DC during this time … it still worked. It’s a damn good outfit. It’s sensual, spooky, and striking in pure optic terms.
    • More than one letter writer plaintively requested a costume update. John’s reply: “The Spectre doesn’t need pants to be scary.”
    • It completely defies the accepted notion of the vigilante hero as a paramilitary survivalist-lookin’ guy, and the stark naturalism of everything but the hero creates a “realism” more convincing than all those parachute pants and boots and ammo belts.
  • Moral certainty is not only questioned, it’s kicked to the curb. Jim Corrigan is fundamentally confused, pun intended as you’ll see below, and therefore the morality of the story becomes very subtle. After all, most of the Spectre’s judgments are reader-sympathetic, me included, many of the more horrific punishments, ditto. So what does that say about me, or thee?
    • Instead of the reader judging the hero’s ambiguity, the reader gets to look at his or her own.
    • Ultimately, Corrigan’s big-picture story turns out to be one of acceptance, giving up his role as the human side of the Spectre. The vigilante role is not sustainable: one becomes a menace or bluntly an evil, one dies or is otherwise annihilated by the effort, or one sets the role aside to move on.

Mandrake in B&W

I’ll toss in a couple moments of love for Tom Mandrake, whom I first encountered on his long run with John in Grimjack (see Go to hell and burn), and whose run here is an almost-exact parallel with Gene Colan’s on Tomb of Dracula (see Mustache match). You like Colan-esque art? You like Kubies? You like inky-inked ink? Check, check and check!

Now for three all too brief thoughts about the Spectre as a vigilante hero. The first concerns powers. He illustrates that this is a dial, not a defining feature at any particular level or extent. It also clinches to me that Nexus is a full-on 80s vigilante hero (cosmic galactic ka-zap powers) just as much as the Badger (deranged local martial artist). I now think that lacking powers or rather, lacking glowy ones, is very much part of the O’Neil et al. subset of vigilantes. And not to belabor the point, but the gun-toting or martial-arts “normal” is pretty much unstoppable and invulnerable anyway through the Power of Plot, no less than any force-field or power-armor might supply.

In the Spectre’s case, we’re talking straightforwardly monstrous divine power – roll back time? Obliterate a modern city? Ramp up to cosmic size to hurl a planet? He can do it; there is no “can/can’t do” as a story constraint. Most of his actions are personal, e.g., melting a person, or growing a multitude of spikes outward from the center of their body, because it is personal, not because his scope of action is limited. Therefore he’s squarely at the farthest end of a spectrum ranging from (his end) “What will I do about evil people?” to (the other end) “What can I do about evil people?” Obviously, the whole spectrum is based on the larger question of “What should I do about evil people,” and these heroes are scattered along it – and I stress that any point along it, including the Spectre’s admittedly very extreme position, is suitable to address that question.

To me, the second topic of crime is the most interesting. Unusually for a vigilante hero, the Spectre’s human side is a cop, and John understood this very precisely: that it’s quite simple for such a character to confound evil with crime, and vice versa. It’s cognitive dissonance as drama, such that observing the contradiction the character is currently hiding from himself is actually the point of reading the story. In this case, it’s very pointed that the Spec is willing both to hide behind human/written law when it justifies his prejudices, and to defy it outright when it doesn’t.

Explicitly, upon Corrigan’s death, he received the mandate to “confront evil and to understand it.” In this telling, the point is that Corrigan misunderstands it quite badly as “strike out at whatever you feel as evil with all the righteousness you want.” The entire story is about him slowly coming to recognize that he cannot merely “recognize” evil, that you don’t know it when you see it – that evil is circumstantial, even for entities and people who are as evil as anyone can possibly imagine. In this context, the first thing to go is the belief that referencing legalities will carry any weight at all concerning evil.

You probably don’t need me to explain how both of the above bolded topics tie into the title’s heavy attention to religion. I don’t know how much previous versions of the character went into the theology or metaphysics of his doings (exception: the brief but significance appearance in Moore’s Swamp Thing), but this whole five-year run is steeped in them.

As with most comics treatments, there’s a lot more Milton and Apocrypha than Bible and Church in the stories, but as it turns out, the specific theology isn’t all that important. Instead, it’s about personal faith and morality, featuring Father Craemer as the story’s heart. Corrigan turns out to be pretty messed-up: abused by his fire-breathing fundamentalist preacher dad, emotionally retreating into cop-hood to acquire a social and emotional crutch, traumatized by his own death, and channeling his hated dad when he visits awful punishments upon evil-doers. Criminals? Sinners? It’s all mixed up in his mind. (Let’s overlook the unlikelihood that a big-city cop named Corrigan in 1939 would be anything but Catholic and move on.)

Craemer becomes the key – can he help this terribly wounded person come to any sort of perspective about fellow humans, at all? That’s why I think the religion – so visually and textually central – isn’t actually the point on its own, but is instead a relevant, useful lens through which to examine the prior two points. The most evident story to support this claim is also the series’ most ambitious, “The Haunting of America.” I suppose that one deserves a post of its own, or perhaps in combination with similar stories through the decades, like Moore’s “American Gothic” and Chaykin’s American Flagg. I mention it here to emphasize that ultimately, the questions of morality in this title do not turn upon theology and metaphysics, but upon policy. Father Craemer may have shifted to the Episcopalians, but he’s a Unitarian through and through – evil and God and Jesus and whatnot, whatever, but the real concern is strictly what we, people, will do toward and with others, who are also people.

I confess I find Craemer’s own conclusions or example about that issue to be overly … mellow. My harshest reading is that the “meat” morality, the one that Corrigan finally grabs a clue about, the one that Father Craemer always articulates and is never (textually) wrong about, the one that’s held up by the text as the viable alternative to prejudice, textual frenzy, and child abuse … is, as I see it, borderline saccharine. “It’s complicated.” “There’s always a way.” “Be nicer.” However, I also confess that’s unfair. The story does take a stand very much in the rhetoric of its times, when Craemer explicitly adopts the term “fuzzy liberal” in defiance of its use as an attack. As a story component, it works, because that’s pretty obviously what Corrigan/Spectre – and the whole notion of vengeance-driven morality – needs a dose of.

Furthermore, carp as one might about the religious nuances or specific moral positions, the book indisputably has nuances and positions. In this it’s in a wholly different realm from the concurrent Vertigo titles, which bluntly, I don’t regard very highly when it comes to intellectual content, religious or otherwise. I know this makes me a bad, bad comics reader. [For the record, I don’t think all the Vertigo work was garbage or anything so simplistic. I did like Lucifer especially, but I regard it as simply very good fantasy with an operatic backdrop, and not much to do with religion at all.]

In conclusion: the holy trinity of comics vigilantism, we’ve got the Shadow, the Spider, and the Spectre. Dissertationists, get on it! I am but a blogger, I’ve read only fragments (if good ones) for each of them, and it’s time to figure out more.

Links: Tom Mandrake’s personal website, Doug Moench’s Spectre, John Ostrander: The Spectre – what was I thinking?

Next: The little game that could (July 2)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on June 25, 2017, in The 90s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Just for fun…

    I’ve been rereading the 60s/70s Spectre stories via the Showcase Presents volume from a few years ago. Unfortunately Real Life(tm) has prevented me from getting to the Fleisher/Aparo stories yet, but I noticed something fun about some of the 60s stories.

    Basically, for a while, the Spectre was a professional wrestler.

    These were the Gardner Fox/Murphy Anderson stories before he got his own series. In these stories, he was involved in cases where mundane criminals were being used as proxies by EVIL forces in much the same way he used Jim Corrigan. This would end up in fights where Corrigan would be fighting the mundane criminals, while the Spectre would be fighting the cosmic bad guys. Naturally, while the separate combats were connected, the focus was on the Spectre.

    The Spectre’s fights would occur on the Astral plane or wherever, allowing lots of Cosmic Zap artwork, but would basically be wrestling matches. There’d be props – they would hit each other with planets, throw each other into the Sun and so on – but basically it was two guys wrestling. Given the fantasy trappings, perhaps Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre). One guy – supposedly a serious demon – even wore tights and a wrestler’s championship belt. (That was what gave it away to me, of course.)

    There was a bit more to it, but that was the crux of it. Massively silly, but it was the Spectre.

    There were also other appearances in the 60s and 70s. Naturally he appeared in some of the JLA/JSA team-ups, usually as a randomly appearing cosmic force. A more serious take, but without much personality. I think he also turned up in some of the Roy Thomas All-Star Squadron issues as well.

    I have to say that I have a curious attraction to the Lucha Libre version. My mind isn’t entirely serious, and sometimes responds to silliness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An immense proportion of American comics fandom is based on … whatever one calls the 1950s to mid-1960s DC. It’s weird from my perspective because I (now) really like the original, rough, edgy versions of the characters that lasted barely a year, so it’s hard to get over my notion that this much-beloved period is anything but dumb-ass bowdlerization. And I (now) really like the Infantino period which by contrast seems to be troubling to fandom, full of good-buts and bad-excepts.

      Anyway, one phase in the middle of it all is the mid-60s fun-and-dumb part, associated with the “Go Go” cover banner and the Batman TV show. I had no appreciation for it at all, coming into comics as I did sometime around 1973 and deeply committed to the grit of the early Luke Cage, the blow-your-mind Doctor Strange, and the rather grim edge to Spider-Man at that point. I still think of it as its own pocket dimension, and given my new understanding of the times, it’s sorta loveable. The luchador Spectre seems pretty wonderful, off in that pocket. Fox got up to some poetic nonsense when he wanted to.


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