JSA Legacies: No. 6 – The Spectre


 

SpectreAs I said in the introduction to this series, The Spectre was the last of the original Justice Society of America to have his role taken up by another, in 1999, in Day of Judgement. As we shall see, neither of the subsequent Spectres ripped up any trees, so that any review of his career will be, almost exclusively, of Jim Corrigan, the first, the classic Spectre.
Back in my fanzine days, I wrote an article on this subject, for Arkensword, in which I satirised the disparate phases of the Spectre’s career as being impossible to turn into a consistent, logical continuity, only to have a flash of insight a few years later that would have tied everything up into a continuing story. Sadly, not only had fanzines more or less disappeared by then, but Crisis on Infinite Earths had taken place, wiping out the very events that I was suddenly able to link.
The old stories still exist, and in that respect, The Spectre’s story is still one of conflicting decisions as to directions, status and power, with only the single common factor of Jim Corrigan to connect them.
The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Bernard Bailey for More Fun Comics 52, though some sources credit Siegel only. Yes, that Jerry Siegel, writer and co-creator of Superman. It’s hard to believe that someone who could conceive of Superman should not have had other, lasting creations, but only the notorious, and short-lived Funnyman would come after the Spectre, who would be even more powerful than the seminal Man of Steel.
Jim Corrigan was a hard-boiled New York Police Detective who’d just brought down half of ‘Gats’ Benson’s mob, and who had heiress Clarice Winston agreeing to marry him, though Corrigan made it clear that he would be boss. But the couple were kidnapped on Benson’s orders. Corrigan was dumped in a barrel of wet cement and thrown into the river, where he died. Clarice was shot.
Corrigan’s ghost left his body, ascended towards Heaven, but was sent back by a Voice that told him his work on Earth was not done, and that he must return and combat Evil. The Spectre returned to Earth and quickly defeated the mob. Benson died by looking into the Spectre’s eyes. The Spectre then restored Clarice’s soul to her body before, as Corrigan, breaking off their engagement brutally, without telling her he was now a ghost.
Corrigan returned to the Police, changing into the Spectre when he was needed. At first sight, his costume appeared to be in colours of dark green and white: dark green cape and hood, pulled up and shadowing his eyes, gloves, trunks and moccasins. But the white wasn’t costume, it was his bone-white ‘body’.

The Golden Age

The Spectre was initially very popular, appearing in the first two issues of All-Star as well as becoming a Justice Society founder-member in issue 3. He appeared in issues 3-23, although only in cameo roles in issues 11 and 21. In the former, the JSA disbanded to join the Armed Services, a course denied to the Spectre because, as a ghost, he’d never pass the physical! In the latter, he simply sat out the action whilst Doctor Fate and Sandman were shoe-horned back in for final appearances.
At first, the Spectre was a figure of great horror and menace, feeding into little boy’s imaginations by sending crooks to grisly and imaginative deaths. Just as Doctor Fate had been softened, this aspect was soon eradicated, and the Spectre fought all sorts of supernatural menaces, where he could cut loose in a fair fight.
Unlike with other members, changes in the Spectre’s series were not taken up in All-Star. The first of these came when the Voice authorised The Spectre to restore Jim Corrigan’s body to life. Corrigan now acted as a host from whom the Spectre would emerge to fight evil. This new status was quickly superseded when Corrigan joined the Army and went to fight overseas, leaving the Spectre behind, but as a ghost that was invisible and intangible.
This was where the series hit the skids, as the Spectre now played straight man to Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, a bumbler who improbably solved cases, thanks to the Spectre doing all the work for him.
Yet in All-Star The Spectre remained as he had been all along, a ghost playing on level terms with the other super-heroes, none of whose powers – among those who had them – were a thousandth as strong as his.
It was an awkward mix all along, achieved by conspicuously ignoring the total discrepancy, and pretending desperately that it all worked. The classic example of stretching disbelief beyond all plausibility came in All-Star 13, when a gang of Nazis incapacitate the entire JSA by sucking the air out of their meeting rooms. Even the Spectre – a dead man who doesn’t breathe – was knocked out because he hadn’t been given time to prepare his lungs for no air.
(It’s been argued that this story was planned to feature Doctor Fate – who dropped out to allow Wonder Woman a crack at the action – who was vulnerable to an attack on his lungs but that editor Mayer insisted on the Spectre because he preferred him. Or maybe because the Spectre had already stood down for Wonder Woman two issues earlier, and it was someone else’s turn).
The Spectre’s JSA membership ended after issue 23, when he and Starman were dropped as legally unavailable, a consequence of the All-American/Detective rift, but his final More Fun appearance in issue 101 came almost immediately. He was not seen again for twenty years.
The Golden Age revival was in full swing at National by 1966, with the Justice Society already settled into annual team-ups with the Justice League, and Julius Schwartz having already tried pairing JSA members – seemingly at random – in issues of Showcase and Brave & Bold. That randomness applied to the notion of featuring The Spectre with Doctor Mid-Nite: indeed, if the eventual portrayal of the Spectre was planned at that stage, the notion he needed to work with a man who could see in the dark becomes positively bizarre. Instead, the Spectre featured alone, in issues 60 and 61 of Showcase, once again by Fox and Anderson.

After twenty years…

The Avenging Ghost’s return after two decades was grand and grandiose. It was also National’s first-ever retcon, explaining what had taken the Spectre off the scene and kept him confined for so long. Jim Corrigan is now a Captain of Detectives in Gateway City, unchanged but for a streak of white in his otherwise red hair. He is guarding a young heiress whose fortune is missing, and reminiscing that the Spectre could have found it easily enough when, during a séance, he feels the Spectre emerge from his body, as he used to so long ago.
The ghost’s freedom is short-lived and he is soon forced back into Corrigan, but not before sending him to find a man named Paul Nevers, a bank-robber who has suddenly developed superpowers. Corrigan found himself fighting the urge to shoot Nevers, which he thankfully resisted. This enabled the Spectre to confront the evil Asmodus, his counterpart, who had ascended to Earth to roam and spread evil. But the powers of Asmodus and the Spectre were too balanced, and ended up cancelling each other out, imprisoning them in their respective hosts until Asmodus’s host died, thus releasing the Spectre. If Corrigan had shot Nevers, it would have sealed the Spectre in himself and leave Asmodus free.
Naturally, the Spectre defeated Asmodus and, next issue, his master Shathan (no prizes for guessing…). But, contrary to Schwartz’s expectations, the Spectre did not sell. Indeed, reaction to him was decidedly mixed. Schwartz tried again, dropping the Spectre into the 1966 JLA/JSA team-up,  and throwing him into Showcase 64 as well.
The team-up, the first to see the two teams mixed, was a weird story. People – heroes, villains, ordinary people – were being switched at random between Earths 1 and 2, and two ad hoc teams battled powerful, brutish behemoths that had traded places. Meanwhile, in space, the Spectre encountered a traveller from the Anti-Matter Universe, before observing Earths 1 and 2 on a collision course in warp-space. He places himself between them, hands on one Earth, feet on the other, outdoing Atlas and holding them apart… for a time.
In part 2, the mystery of the switching people is resolved by Ray (The Atom) Palmer turning off a machine on page 2. The heroes gather for a crazy battle against the Anti-Matter Man (if I tell you that this is appearing in the year when the Batman TV series was at its peak, can I get away with not explaining any more?) and the Atom 2 resolves everything by shrinking the Spectre down to an inch and restoring him to full size, which naturally causes a cosmic explosion that blows both Earths back into their rightful places (without so much as mussing anyone’s hair) and scattering the Spectre all over said cosmos. However, he draws all his molecules back and reforms himself. Mark that point.
It was the same old problem, but exacerbated by Schwartz and Fox’s decision to increase the Spectre’s powers to near-Messianic levels. The character could not be a superhero: by default he became an embodiment of good, to be pitted against embodiments of evil. Some fans identified the unsustainability of this concept immediately. At least one perceptive fan decried the absence of the underlying horror that would justify this approach. Indeed, Fox sought to place the Spectre’s magic on some kind of pseudo-scientific basis: the worst of both worlds.
Nevertheless, after a year’s delay, the Spectre was launched in his own series, with an opening issue by Fox and Anderson, but only one. This suggests to me that the story was an inventory issue, done for another Showcase try-out if needed.
The rest of the series was produced by diverse hands, including issues drawn and written by the newly popular Neal Adams. There were few good stories. New writer Steve Skeates did address the Spectre’s massive levels of power, unwittingly foreshadowing the next version in issue 9, when the Spectre casually killed two crooks and Corrigan blew up at him that it was completely unnecessary, given the extent of the Spectre’s power.
The Voice agreed, setting the Spectre to learn by reading cases from the Book of Judgement. In short, the Spectre was reduced to being host in his own series. Not that it lasted long: the book was cancelled after issue 10.
This was where things started to get complicated.
The Spectre received a farewell run-out in the 1970 team up, Justice League of America 82 and 83, during which the two teams never met, but tackled the same problem from opposite ends. There was a glaring error in the first part, when the Spectre sat in on a JSA meeting: presumably artist Dick Dillin had been given a list of this year’s featured JSAers, but no hints as to the second part.
Because the climax of the story involved Doctor Fate holding a séance to summon the Spectre from the crypt in which he is magically imprisoned. Once free, the Spectre interposes himself between Earths 1 and 2, again on a collision course, and saves the day by bouncing them both off his body (hello? Gravity? Momentum? The population?). This time, the competing gravitational stresses tear the Spectre apart, killing him. Notwithstanding that he was already dead, that being the whole point of him.
This time, the Spectre was gone for four years. He would return in very different form in a series running in Adventure 431-440.
After being the long-term home of Supergirl, Adventure was floundering around looking for a new vehicle. Then editor Joe Orlando was mugged at knife-point, in front of his wife, by two street thugs. Orlando seethed with impotent fury and decided to let it out with a hero that went further into violent retribution than usual. Novice writer Michael Fleisher was peddling a revival of the Spectre that took the character back to its earliest roots, and Orlando signed him up, with Jim Aparo on art.
Jim Corrigan was once again a ghost. An avenging ghost, drawn to crimes committed by irredeemably nasty criminals and avenging them by, in turn, slaughtering the slaughterers, in bizarre, horrific and terrifying fashion. A man turned into a candle and melted. Another turned to sand. A woman turned into crystal, tipped over and shattered. An evil hairdressers cut in two by his own scissors, grown to monstrous size. A man turned into wood, fed through a band-saw, and stacked.
It was an immediate success. It was gruesome and I admit that I was fascinated by it, but within a few issues it was stale. The stories were formulaic: bad guys kill, in nasty fashion, Spectre investigates and kills in even nastier fashion. The only ‘imagination’ on show was the latest graphic retribution.
The series was controversial from the off. Fans raged against it at Conventions and in fanzines. Fleisher, disingenuously, defended himself by pointing out that all these methods were drawn from the Spectre’s original stories, as if that somehow legitimized them, or as if Bernard Bailey was ever remotely as graphically detailed and gruesomely realistic as Aparo.
The run was cancelled after issue 440, swiftly enough that three bought and paid for scripts were left undrawn. Orlando sought to claim that it was nothing more than the usual commercial decision, but many years later, in a libel trial brought by Fleisher, it would be demonstrated that, though the book had suffered its first dip in circulation, it was still selling well above the level for cancellation. It’s generally accepted that the dip was just the first available excuse to end a series that was causing National a lot of grief.
I’ve listed several killings performed by the Spectre, but to me, this is the most significant example. Fleisher, in his first issue, had introduced another heiress, Gwen Sterling, who was attracted to Corrigan but, this time round, was allowed to learn that he was a ghost. That did not dampen her enthusiasm for him. Then, in Adventure 434, the villain captures her and sends a mannequin-Gwen to kill Detective Corrigan. When she tries to bury a hatchet in his head, Corrigan turns into the Spectre, animates the hatchet and chops the mannequin into seven separate body-parts in a single panel.
Only after doing so does he discover that this is not the real Gwen.

How NOT to treat your girlfriend

The cancellation did allow the run to end on a kind of ‘high’. In issue 339, Corrigan pleaded with the Voice to be allowed to relinquish this life, and the Voice reluctantly agreed to restore him to life. He just didn’t tell Corrigan, who only discovered he was human again when he got shot leading a raid. In this series, even God was a miserable bastard. It didn’t keep Corrigan from turning up at Gwen’s with his arm in a sling and greeting her with a passionate kiss (we are left to assume that he spent the night shagging her brains out, though to be fair it was thirty-five years since he last had any).
The next issue, Corrigan was murdered by gangsters, and the Voice resurrected him as the Spectre again. Like I said, miserable bastard.
Not only was the Adventure run so completely inconsistent with the Spectre’s previous run, but it displayed a total disdain for everything that had gone on before. Why was Corrigan a ghost again? How had the Spectre survived the two Earths? What about that crypt?
Orlando was dismissive: Denny O’Neill got him into that crypt, Denny O’Neill can get him out again: these are the adventures of the hitherto unsuspected Earth-1 Spectre. So was this The Spectre 2, twenty-five years early? We only had Joe Orlando to tell us that, and he also approved Fleisher writing an exchange in which a reporter is sarcastically called Clark Kent, and a naïve cop asks if he’s really Superman. On Earth-1?
No, if this Spectre was the Earth-1 Spectre, then it was a designation of temporary convenience, a substitute for thinking. What followed was erratic. On Earth-2, an invisible, intangible, Messianic Spectre interceded with the Voice to restore to life six JSAers killed in the 1975 team-up. The raging ghost Spectre clashed with Doctor Thirteen, the Ghost Breaker, an Earth-1 character. Jim Corrigan appeared in a single panel of All-Star 70. Then the Messianic version encountered Superman, the Earth-1 version in DC Comics Presents and Roy Thomas would explicitly state, but not convince anyone, that there was only one Spectre, and he’d moved to Earth-1.
It was not until Alan Moore brought the Spectre into his ongoing Saga of the Swamp Thing that the ghost finally was assigned a role that befitted his stature, though, sensibly, Moore didn’t try to explain past history beyond a cheerfully cynical John Constantine comment that the Spectre had been “up and down the occult league table more often than a whore’s knickers.”
This occurred in Saga of the Swamp Thing Annual 2, in part a codification of DC’s dead and their hierarchy. The Spectre was found guarding the road to Hell, charged with not letting the dead return. Since Swampy’s mission is to rescue Abigail Arcane’s soul, this threatened a confrontation: even the unjustly condemned must remain where they are put, insists the Spectre. But what of Jim Corrigan asks Swampy’s companion, the Phantom Stranger? The Spectre laughs, applauds the Stranger’s impudence, and allows them onwards.

“He’s opening his eyes”

Moore would use the Spectre again in the conclusion of his ‘American Gothic’ storyline in Swamp Thing, which would overlap with Crisis on Infinite Earths.
It’s very difficult to distinguish which comes first. The Spectre’s intervention in Crisis 10 is the actual end of the Multiverse: he confronts the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time and their struggle shatters the Multiverse from its outset. It not merely ceases to exist, it has never existed. A timeless moment later, reality restarts, this time as a Universe, and the Spectre winds up in a psychic coma until it’s all over, so that he doesn’t overshadow everybody else.
It’s different in Swamp Thing. Swampy has failed to prevent the Brujeria from sending the bird to the chaoplasm beyond Hell, where it will summon the Ultimate Darkness, excluded from Heaven’s light since the very beginning. Instead of stopping the bird, the Spectre lets it pass, hubristicly relishing the opportunity to further the glory of God by confronting and defeating what is summoned.
But no-one understands the immensity of what is coming: the Spectre is flicked away like an annoyance: beaten, unhooded, crying for forgiveness, broken.
This leads directly into the truly awful Last Days of the Justice Society Special, the JSA’s intended last ride, that leaves them magically rejuvenated and eternally fighting Götterdämmerung in limbo, but the story is set up by the Spectre. Eager to redeem himself, he follows a source of magic that threatens to undo the entire Universe: it is Hitler in 1944, wielding the Spear of Destiny (a mystic talisman, supposedly the spear used to pierce the flank of Christ on the Cross).
Unfortunately, when Hitler hits him with the Spear, the Spectre starts to shrivel backwards out of existence. In desperation, he brings a message to the JSA (in 1985, when they are somewhat older and weaker) and sends them into battle to preserve the effects of the Crisis whilst he blinks out of existence.
So ended the Spectre, and with him all the confused, irrational choices of the preceding thirty-five years.
You’d think that we’d now get The Spectre 2, wouldn’t you? It’s the perfect moment. But instead it’s a new series, written by Doug Moench, and it was the same old story: Jim Corrigan – check: murdered by gangsters – check: returns as ghost – check. It’s The Spectre 1, this time from the ‘beginning’. His powers have been diminished, so much so that even transforming from Corrigan to Spectre was painful. And Corrigan was now a private eye, running a kind of occult detective agency in collusion with DC’s premiere fortune-teller, Madame Xanadu.
The series lasted 31 issues, plus a final appearance for this manifestation in Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic, a four issue Prestige format series that was, in part, a codification of DC’s magical characters and hierarchy. The series introduced Timothy Hunter, a fourteen year old who has the potential to become the greatest wizard in the world: many people believe him to be the source for Harry Potter, though Gaiman pooh-poohs the idea.
At long last though, in 1992, a new and more faithful series of The Spectre began, written by former theology student John Ostrander and drawn, bar a few fill-ins, by Tom Mandrake. It was the most thoughtful, complex, intelligent and interesting treatment the Spectre had ever received. It stayed true to the basic shibboleths of the character and his history, but broadened and deepened them immensely.
Corrigan was redefined in himself as a harsh, brutal, Thirties cop, son of a Hellfire preacher. He is sent back because he doesn’t trust God’s judgement, only his own. He is charged with not merely combating evil but with understanding it, though his own wilfulness blinds him to this latter command. The Spectre is also re-defined as an entity in itself, an Angel who rebelled alongside Lucifer but repented, and was set to be the manifestation of God’s wrath.
Alone, the Spectre lacks compassion: he must be bound to a human to gain understanding. And Corrigan, faced with nuanced moral issues, must slowly learn to forgive himself, and to come to trust God and desire peace.
The series went into heavy territory. The Spectre still drew Clarice Winston back from the dead but this time we see the dreadful damage done to a soul passing towards peace and then forced back against the strongest tide into its body. Azmodus returned as a prior host to the Spectre, who became corrupted by the power.
Most daringly, the Spectre, who is the Spirit of Vengeance, responding to blood that has been spilt unwarrantedly, pronounced on a fictional evil nation, Vlatava, killing everybody in it, bar two.
The Spectre (volume 3) ran for 62 issues and, though selling healthily, was cancelled for the sole reason that, as with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the creators had completed their story. Corrigan came to terms with himself at long last and sought lasting peace. He was allowed to lay down his burden, his old bones were buried, and he went to his reward in Heaven.
Clearly DC had not intended to dispense with the Spectre, but in a period when individual creative forces were being allowed their head, Ostrander and Mandrake had ended their story both logically and satisfyingly. And the company was now free to exploit the gap with the long-delayed The Spectre 2.
This was the subject of 1999’s crossover series, Day of Judgement, in which Etrigan the Demon has the hostless Spectre bound to the demon Asmodel (not Asmodus, this time), who uses his powers to unleash the demons and the dead on Earth. The only way to fight this is for a host to take the Spectre. Corrigan refuses, having found peace, but another volunteer, in Purgatory, was found to assume the Spectre’s mantle and wrest his powers from Asmodel.
The identity of The Spectre 2? Improbably, in fact, unbelievably, it was Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan, the former Green Lantern 2, Jordan who had turned renegade as Parallax and who had sacrificed his life to save Earth, and who now wanted to redeem himself of his sins. Psychologically and spiritually an ideal candidate, except that, well, this is Hal Jordan, Green Lantern. A science fiction character of forty years standing, a hero who uses technology, a servant of an alien race of judges, a spacefarer, a man with exclusively science-based foes. In short, as completely removed from the supernatural, the mystic, the ethereal as it is possible to be. He’s the new Spectre?
But he is. And he’s going to wear his Green Lantern costume under the Spectre’s hood and cape. A demonstration of commitment to his new role, yes indeedy.

The Spectre 2 – never forget your roots

The Spectre (volume 4) was written by J M De Matteis, and was concerned with spirituality. Jordan’s intent was to change the nature of the Spectre, to remake him from an agent of Revenge into an agent of Redemption. It did not work. It might have worked once, in an earlier time, but comics were still sliding towards ever more acceptable death, destruction, violence and graphic depiction, and this Spectre was swimming against a powerful tide.
The series was cancelled after 27 issues, but its true end was in JSA 60-62.  Jordan’s insistence on being the Spirit of Redemption weakens the hold the Spectre has on all the evil souls banished to Hell. Led by the Spirit King (for more details of whom, see the forthcoming Mr Terrific essay), they return to Earth, and can only be sent back by Jordan abandoning Redemption for Vengeance.
All this was a prelude to the Green Lantern: Rebirth series that restored Hal Jordan, but it also dovetailed into DC’s plans to have the Spectre cut loose: raw magical power, without a host.
This was the subject of the Days of Vengeance mini-series, one of several preludes to Infinite Crisis. Vulnerable without a host, the Spectre was seduced by the Jean Loring Eclipso (be fair: he hadn’t had any since that one night with Gwen Sterling, thirty years before) into seeing magic itself as the cause of Evil.
The Spectre set out to eradicate all magic, all its practitioners and, when this had been achieved, himself. In the end, he was challenged by Nabu, the last of the Great Ones of the Ninth Age of Magic. It was a sacrifice for Nabu: his death finally drew the attention of the Voice to its errant angel and the Spectre was bound, once again, to a human host.
This too was an existing character, Gotham City Police Detective Crispus Allen. Allen had been introduced in the police procedural series Gotham Central, focussing on the policing of a violent city like Gotham with a quasi-legal vigilante continually interfering. A long running sub-plot had entangled Allen with a crooked CSI named Jim Corrigan (no relation) but before Allen could get proof, he was shot in the back and killed by Corrigan. The protesting Spectre was forced into Allen’s body in the morgue, and he became The Spectre 3.
As the Spectre, Allen reverted to the classic costume, the only difference being that the Spectre now bore Allen’s moustache and goatee beard. His period saw a return to the character’s roots in vengeance for blood taken unwarrantedly. Allen did not, at first, want to be the Spectre, and was granted a year to think about it (corresponding with 52) and only reluctantly, and with no seeming control over the Spectre’s taking of blood, accepted the job, even though it required him to execute his own son.

The Spectre 3 – the price of power

It was in many ways a resurrection of the Fleisher/Aparo series, with less structure and a deeper but more perfunctory depiction of evil and decadence. It ended in Justice League of America, in James Robinson’s ‘Rise of Eclipso’ storyline: The Spectre’s old enemy lures him into a trap, cleaves him in two with a sword and takes the Spectre’s powers.
It’s an ignoble end, the more so because the new 52 intervened to wipe away all that has gone before. You will be little surprised to learn that already a Police Detective named Jim Corrigan has been lured to his death, and returned as The Spectre. The wheel turns on.

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