Having now read practically the whole of The Spectre’s pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths history, thanks to my More Fun Comics DVD, I want to go back to what was undoubtedly the most controversial part of his career, the infamous ten-issue run by Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo in Adventure Comics 431-440, 1974-5, before the feature was cancelled on the instructions of DC Publisher Carmine Infantino. That the cancellation was abrupt was evidenced by the fact that it left three bought-and-paid-for scripts that had not been drawn. But times change and the run was reprinted as a four issue mini-series, The Wrath of the Spectre, in 1988, with the outstanding scripts drawn by Aparo and published as the final issue.
Re-reading the original ten issues, which hold a certain significance for me, having been one of the first series I followed so avidly when I was drawn back into comics in 1974, I wanted to take a closer look at the series and how it developed, and that’s going to be issue by issue.
The Wrath of…The Spectre (Adventure 431)
Fleisher’s first story sets the tone for the run, but also the template. Four crooks, led by the vicious Fritz, ambush a security van carrying banknotes. The guards are forced out by tear gas and surrender, but Fritz executes them anyway. The Police intervene, wounding one of the gang, Pete. Rather than try to rescue him, Fritz shoots him dead. The three villains separate. The case is pulled by Lieutenant Jim Corrigan, who gets a lead to one man, Charlie. Charlie tries to shoot Corrigan but the bullets go right through him and he fades away. Spooked, Charlie goes on the run, stopping to warn the third, Hank, observed by The Spectre. The Spectre appears, giant-sized,, to Charlie, who swerves off a mountain road to his death. He appears to Hank, who pulls a machine gun on him, only for the Spectre to melt first the machine gun then Hank, like wax. Finally he joins Fritz’s plane to South America. Fritz, the only one who can see him, holds a gun to a stewardess’ head. There is a black out, and when the lights reappear, Fritz is a skeleton. The story ends with Corrigan’s Captain complaining the crooks haven’t been caught and Corrigan assuring him that they can’t get out of New York City.
The first thing you should notice about that synopsis is that it took twice as long to relate the villains’ fate than their villainy. That alone demonstrates where the importance of the story lies. The robbery and the killings are the McGuffin to give The Spectre a reason to execute, and how he goes about it is the whole point. Here, it’s pretty mild. One man drives off a cliff, one is melted, the third turned into a skeleton. When he’s later challenged over the brutality of these deaths, Fleisher will blandly claim that these methods all come from the old stories. The skeleton is correct, and so is the melting, whilst the car crash is a nothing.
And Fleisher riffs off an old Jerry Siegel trope at the end. Corrigan would bring in the crooks but his Captain would always chew him out for not capturing The Spectre.
Incidentally, Russell Carley is credited with ‘Art Continuity’. Fleisher had no previous experience in writing comic books and, whilst he learned, Carley would convert his stories into comic strip format.
The Anguish of… The Spectre (Adventure 432)
Three masked assassins – in real life two hairdressers and a fashion model – break into the estate of millionaire Adrian Sterling to plant a bomb in his swimming pool that’s timed to kill him during his morning swim. His distraught daughter Gwen, who hasn’t changed out of her bikini, is interviewed by Corrigan and suggests issues with her father’s business partner, Maxwell Flood, before, little more than an hour after witnessing her father blown to pieces, she comes on to Corrigan, who politely rebuffs her. Corrigan visits Flood as Sterling’s ghost, causing Flood to contact the killers. The Spectre follows him to the hairdressers, where Eric strangles Flood with a hair-dryer cord. The Spectre animates one of his teasing scissors to giant-size and cuts him in half with it. Peter flees to contact Vera, who’s in the middle of a show. Corrigan approaches him on the street, but so too does Gwen, who’s driving around looking for him. Peter seizes Gwen but Corrigan turns into the Spectre, who turns Peter into sand before telling Gwen to forget him. He then ages the young, beautiful Vera until she dies of old age. Gwen, having forgotten she has a car, walks the streets alone, at night, in New York, wearing a mini-skirt.
Now, I was going to try to keep the synopses straight, factual recounting. So far as the story goes, it is exactly the same as the first ones. Vicious killers kill victims, Spectre kills them, this time in slightly more bizarre and brutal manner, two of these methods being blackly ironic.
The big difference between the two is the introduction of Gwen Sterling. Gwen’s the modern day version of Clarice Winston, the heiress with the hots, except that Gwen knows that Corrigan is a ghost and knows he is The Spectre.
The other big difference is that Clarice was genuinely in love with Corrigan and he with her. Theirs was a tender relationship. But any reading of Gwen’s interest in Corrigan has, if it’s being honest, got to reflect that the girl is acting like a total slut. Her Dad’s been killed in front of her eyes, which you might normally expect to cause serious trauma, but when the Police arrive she hasn’t changed out of her bikini. Sure, she’s put a robe on but she hasn’t even wrapped it around her, so that Corrigan can see she’s got big tits, broad hips and long legs. Seriously, she can’t wait to get past giving a lead to Dad’s potential murderer so as to get the important stuff: is Corrigan married? Does he have a girlfriend? She’s practically yanking her bikini pants down already.
Corrigan goes off to locate and dispatch the killers. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t take action against Eric until he’s killed again but the point of the story is for bad guys to die, and it is only Flood who is being murdered. It’s an axiom of the series that black is black and white is white, and that once a criminal is always a criminal, with execution the only outcome.
But we still aren’t done with Gwen. Her father’s not been dead a day and she’s cruising the streets looking for Corrigan, presumably in the hope of a quick one on the back seat. Seriously, what was Gwen’s relationship with her father that, before 24 hours have passed, she’s trying to get a total stranger to fuck her brains out?
That final page, of a disconsolate, orgasm-deprived Gwen wandering the streets, is terribly sloppy writing. Has she forgotten she was in her (expensive sports) car? Fleisher has or else he’s hoping readers won’t notice. Or is he trying to suggest that Gwen is making herself into a target for muggers and rapists to attract Jim/Spec’s attention. After all, he did tell her that if he weren’t a ghost he’d like to have… well, what do we think?
Attention to Fleisher’s run has rightly been drawn to the violence, but there’s a completely twisted psycho-sexuality to this set-up that’s repulsive. But we will see more of Miss Sterling.
The Swami and… The Spectre (Adventure 433)
Even the story titles are formulaic.
Swami Seelal is running a crooked séance racket to bilk the gullible out of large sums of money. When Mrs Vanderbilt explains she will have to drop out because her husband will no longer fund the Swami, Seelal’s assistant, Smiley, arranges a fatal accident for him. Lt Corrigan is suspicious the moment he hears the deceased had stopped paying a crooked Swami and approaches Seelal, who dismisses him. Speaking of gullible, Gwen Sterling turns up, telling the Swami all about the man she loves who is a ghost and can he help restore him to being human, so they can have an active and vigorous sex-life? She even tells him Corrigan’s name. Seelal uses Gwen to set up a trap for Corrigan, to be bombed to death by Smiley, who goes on to plan to knife Gwen to death. The Spectre has Smiley dragged into a grave by ghosts and visits Swami’s next séance, emerging from his crystal ball to turn him into crystal and tip him over to shatter. He then doesn’t tell Gwen what a stupid idea it was, though he should, the woman is as stupid as she could be.
It’s the same again: nasty crime, nastier punishment. Once again, we need to look at Gwen, and boy is she stupid! Her brains are certainly in her knickers. What part of ‘I’m dead’ is she not getting? And what part of I have a secret identity does she not understand?
The problem lies not in Miss Sterling but in Michael Fleisher, and to a lesser extent in Joe Orlando. Fleisher is showing misogynist tendencies in making Gwen such an airhead, but that might be passable if it weren’t joined to this twisted sexuality.
I shall have more to say about that in regard to the next issue.
The Nightmare Dummies and… The Spectre (Adventure 434)
Art credited to Frank Thorne and Jim Aparo, the former providing layouts.
Fleisher manages to produce a twist on his formula by making the menace this time into store mannequins, coming to life and brutally slaughtering first truck drivers delivering them (and destroying themselves at the same time), and secondly customers in a department store. This attracts the attention of The Spectre, who melts them. Corrigan then traces the mannequins back to their suppliers, who mainly mass-produce them but who keep on staff an old guy called Zeke Borosovitch, who makes them by hand, very slowly, whilst treating them as real people and defending their right to run amuck and kill people as justified by how they’re treated (as mannequins). Enter Gwen, still chasing Corrigan, who sends her away angrily, sick of explaining to her. Zeke offers her comforts and a way of getting Corrigan for her and she’s exactly stupid enough to believe him. Instead, he makes a perfect Gwen mannequin to go to Corrigan’s apartment and plunge an axe between his shoulderblades. Of course it goes all the way through into his dressing table mirror, whereupon he animates it to chop her into seven pieces. Only then does he discover it’s not Gwen but a mannequin. He then goes to Zeke’s nest and when the old bugger threatens to cut her throat, the Spectre turns him into a mannequin himself, to be burned.
Oh God, where do you start? The series takes a rush into the fantastic by introducing the mannequins, without any suggestion of how ol’ Zeke – who couldn’t act any more suspiciously without employing cheerleaders to dance round him chanting ‘Guilty! Guity! Guilty!’ – actually invests them with life. And for what purpose? To kill people randomly in a manner that draws attention to their maker. Fleisher was already claiming to be copying the Spectre’s sadistic executions from Golden Age comics which in respect of this issue, and the next, is a flat-out lie, but he’s certainly stolen their complete lack of concern for making sense.
And oh Gwen, Gwen, Gwen. I get that you’re desperate, especially after your beloved Jim has hit you round the head with the sharp stick of reality, but thinking a crazy old coot could help you? Gwen’s fate is to get stripped to her very tiny bra and panties and tied to a chair, leading inevitably to her looking like an idiot in front of the ghost she loves.
But that’s not the disturbing part of this story. Firstly, there’s the bit where the Spectre cuts Gwen – his would-be girlfriend, someone he knows to be honest (if a pain in the arse) – into seven pieces in a single panel and only realises it’s not actually Gwen until after she’s ‘dead’. And if that bit of misogynistic sadism isn’t enough, on the very same page we not only have Gwen tied to a chair in her skimpies with Zeke gloating over her with lines like how fetching she looks struggling against her bonds, how her mannequin is ‘luscious’ and later calling her a ‘luscious little chickie’ even as he’s holding a knife to her throat.
Ok, someone’s got a thing for bondage, which is fine between consenting adults but this was a 1974 comic approved by the Comics Code Authority, whose decision to let this through is just as perverse as the Radio 1 controllers putting Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on the playlist despite its overt references to transvesticism and homosexual fellatio, because they didn’t understand it.
According to the trial transcripts published by The Comics Journal when his libel suit against them and Harlan Ellison failed, Fleisher constantly tried to work female bondage into his comics: I don’t know, I never read them. But you’ve got to implicate Joe Orlando in this little sickness: the editor is the ultimate arbiter of what saw print.
The Man who Stalked The Spectre (Adventure 435)
At least we got rid of the ellipses.
By now, reader reaction was filtering through to Orlando, and a section of the audience were complaining at how one-note the series was. This was the audience that, if they were familiar with The Spectre at all, remembered Julius Schwartz’s incarnation of good. Unlike the audience that took all the wrong lessons from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (though I’m far from certain about Miller’s intentions with that), they didn’t like a hero who was even more violent than the villains. To represent their opinions, completely ineffectually, Fleisher and Orlando introduced a responsible alternate viewpoint.
This is freelance magazine writer Earl Crawford, who’s been researching all the bizarre deaths that have been happening around New York this past eight months. The latest one is a member of the Grandenetti gang, merciless armed robber, who hid from the cops in a refrigeration plant and was found frozen to death in a block of ice. Crawford takes his suspicions of an occult force to his editor, who thinks him crazy but gets him embedded in the Grandenetti task force under Lt. Corrigan. A second member is trapped in a toy store. The Spectre animates a lead Viking figure to full size to smash an axe into the guy’s head: Crawford finds a lead figurine of a guy with an axe in his head. He follows the last member, holed up in a sawmill, to warn him to surrender rather than die, but the guy’s about to use him for target practice when The Spectre arrives, turns the killer into a wooden statue and feeds him through the bandsaw.
To be fair to Fleisher, he does have Crawford articulate the liberal case pretty fairly. Crawford never loses sight of the fact that the Grandenetti’s are killers, nor does he seek to make any excuses for them: no caricatural ‘bleeding-heart’ stances here. But he makes the case for a fair trial to determine guilt, for due process rather than vigilantism. And when he witnesses the fate meted out by the Spectre, his emotional response is to challenge the necessity for such sadism: ‘couldn’t you at least leave something for his family to bury?’ he screams, before heading off to get a much-needed scotch.
No, Crawford makes his point quickly and in the strongest possible manner. He’s going to keep on making that point, though without significant variation. Fleisher has had him say everything at once, and The Spectre ignored him completely. Crawford can talk but the Spectre acts.
There’s an irritating scene in this issue that bugged me back in 1974. Orlando had also responded to fan’s criticism of the lack of continuity between this and the previous Spectre series by asserting that these were the adventures of the previously unheard-of Earth-1 Spectre. Then he lets Corrigan sarcastically call Crawford Clark Kent, twice, the second time prompting a clearly mentally challenged Police to ask if he’s really Superman?
Oh yes, the perennial clever in-joke, so smart and so instantly destructive to the reality of the story.
The Gasman and… The Spectre (Adventure 436)
A motor show is disrupted by gas-masked men who kill the crowd with phosgene gas. They are working for a former Nazi General seeking to re-establish Hitler’s goals. The General demands $1B which the city agree to pay. Lt Corrigan takes the money to the directed place trailed by Earl Crawford, whose editor has refused to publish the story Crawford has filed about last issue’s events. The Spectre turns the terrorist who tries to kill him into a stone pillar, spikes two of the terrorists with a pair of compass pointers expanded in size and turns the General’s boat into a giant squid that eats him. Crawford sees nothing of this.
A perfunctory synopsis for a perfunctory story. Apart from Crawford’s story about issue 435 being spiked, there is literally nothing to write home about, and that’s about all you can say about it.
The Human Bombs and… The Spectre (Adventure 437)
This story is pencilled by Ernie Chua and inked by Jim Aparo.
When Gwen Sterling becomes the seventh and last in a series of people kidnapped without any demands being issued, Lt Corrigan is detached from Homicide to pursue the case. The victims have been gathered by a nameless mad scientist researching Hypno-sciences. He hypnotises his thugs to walk into his fish-tank of barracudas to be eaten. He hypnotises the victims into acting as suicide bombers to go out and rob. After the first blows himself up when tackled, everybody else is allowed to proceed unchallenged. When it’s Gwen’s turn, Corrigan allows her to take his car and follows her as The Spectre to the scientist’s lair. He melts the bombs and wipes everyone’s memories, easily survives a 2,000,000 volts electric shock, doesn’t fall into an alligator pit and, inexplicably, a hypnotised mad scientist falls into it himself.
Where do I begin with this one? As a story, it’s got far more going for it than the previous one but the number of holes and cliches in a mere thirteen pages…
Let’s start with Gwen. Since she’s either gagged or hypnotised for all the story we’re spared any of the gushing whining towards her beloved Jim. On the other hand, she’s supposedly one of seven specific victims chosen by our unnamed mad cliché, but we are given no clue as to why she or anyone else are selected. Only one other, a Mr Vanderbilt, is named: he’s the suicide. He’s obviously known and, as the name suggests, rich, but no-one seems to recognise Gwen when it’s her turn and the only other victim who so much as gets a thought-bubble is an employee afraid his boss will fire him for being late. For that matter, these kidnappings are headline news but no-one is surprised about the unfortunate Vanderbilt wandering around free.
So Jim Corrigan, Homicide Lieutenant, gets himself transferred to deal with this kidnapping but he keeps reporting back to his ordinary boss in Homicide, who’s riding him hard over the fact that Corrigan’s discovered nothing.
In fact, Corrigan gets nothing until it’s Gwen’s turn. Apparently it’s taken this long for a special Police hot-line to be set up to report robberies in motion which enables Jim to get there before it’s over. Gwen’s just proposing to leave on foot, is she? After all, she has to steal Corrigan’s car to get away? How was Mad Cliche going to keep her from being followed, at walking pace, back to his lair? I mean, we know she’s fit (not in that sense), she swims but if she were an Olympic runner, capable of outdistancing Police cars whilst carrying the contents of an entire jewellery store, Fleisher should have told us.
So, once The Spectre finds the lair, it’s all over bar the sadism. Firstly, he dismisses this suicide bomber threat by simply dissolving the bombs, which is a minor thing for his powers but it makes the resolution too perfunctory. Then he wipes the six remaining victims’ memories, no doubt to spare them the pain of knowing what they’ve done, but none of them killed or even injured anyone. More to the point, he’s sending them out to resume their normal lives in a world that knows everything they actually did and which includes journalists and Police who may want to question them about their involvement: someone didn’t think this bit through by more than a millimetre.
Lastly, there’s the disposal of the Mad Cliche. A scientist, and a clever one if a wee bit on the immoral side. Who keeps an alligator pit in his lair. An alligator pit. Worse than that, after watching The Spectre treat 2M volts like skipping ropes, he expects The Spectre to a) fall into the pit and b) be eaten by the alligators.
Maybe in 1940. But not in 1974 nor for a long time before that.
Last point: Fleisher tries to flim-flam the readers at the end by teasing them over whether it’s a spark of conscience in the breast of the Mad Cliche or something else that sends a man as clearly hypnotised as anyone else in this excuse for a story into the alligator pit (an alligator pit, yeGods!). It’s pitiful.
It’s also an object lesson in demonstrating that the only thing that mattered in this series was violent death and sadistic retribution.
The Spectre haunts the House of Fear (Adventure 438)
Another Chua/Aparo art job.
Herman Miller, postman, is going about his business when he is chloroformed and kidnapped to the Museum of Natural History where another Mad Cliche, this one an unnamed taxidermist, is secretly creating an exhibition of American life. Unfortunately, Miller comes round too soon, grabs a taxidermist’s knife, and has to be shot dead, ruining him. When his body is found, Lt. Corrigan pulls the case. Miller is still clutching the knife. Corrigan doesn’t recognise it until he hears a radio report of a theft in progress from a taxidermist suppliers. He calls off the Police, frightens one guy to death and changes his look to impersonate him, which gets him back to the Museum where he animates two stuffed gorillas to kill the Mad Cliche and the other one.
Another perfunctory story that barely fills its ten pages. There’s another plot hole in how the dead postman’s body is dumped in a garbage tip but no-one has bothered to remove the specialist knife he’s grabbed: lazy, lazy writing. It’s a second Mad Cliche without a name in two stories, but what I picked up on was The Spectre’s closing speech: ‘No death could be as hideous as the crimes they committed… not even a death wrought by… The Spectre!”
I mean, that is terrible writing in and of itself, but what I read in it, then and now, was weariness, a confession by Fleisher that he was stumped, couldn’t come up with anything spectacularly disgusting for once. As for the sequence itself, the narrative in the third last panel refers to two stuffed gorillas, but in the second last panel Chua draws three, and there are four in the last panel whilst the villains have clearly only been beaten to death, which is very much not much cop for The Spectre.
It’s a pretty clear demonstration of what we’ve already seen thus far, that Fleisher and Orlando’s approach is inherently limited. The Spectre’s series took advantage of a relaxation of the Comics Code Authority’s regulations on the depiction of violence, but there was still a ceiling and since outrage has to grow to remain outrage, it doesn’t take long to hit that ceiling again.
The Voice that doomed… The Spectre (Adventure 439).
This was the first of a two part story that, by an apt coincidence, ended the original publication run, and for which Aparo returned. It was also the first not to credit Carley for ‘Script Continuity’.
Gwen Sterling is making a deposit in a Bank when it is raided by the Symbiosis Liberation Army, to take Gwen hostage as well. Corrigan follows as The Spectre and kills them by having their three-headed hydra symbol come to life and squash them. Once again, Gwen pleads with Jim that she loves him and wants to marry him, to which Corrigan reacts with black humour: to him it is a sick joke and it’s reached the point where seeing each other at all is hurting both of them. He demands a clean break, to which Gwen reluctantly agrees. That night, racked with frustration, hurting over the ‘life’ that he’s denied, Corrigan asks to be released from his burden. Unheard by him, the Voice confirms he will be human in the morning. All Corrigan is aware of is feeling different. He doesn’t learn he’s human again until he goes in in his usual style to catch a mobster’s pet killer and gets shot by three bullets. He spends a week in hospital before his survival is assured. First thing he does on release is go round to Gwen’s when she’s about to have her morning swim (bikini-time again), ‘asking’ her to marry him next Tuesday and snogging her massively (and I bet that’s not all he did, either). But mobster ‘Ducky’ McLaren consults his toy duck, who says Corrigan won’t get to his wedding…
It’s the first half of a story and, as such, is all set-up. We know what’s going to happen, because it’s the same thing that happened thirty-five years earlier, when Jim Corrigan was engaged to marry Clarice Winston, and Fleisher isn’t going for subtle in his foreshadowng. But did we ever expect anything different?
The only point I’d make about this story is the one I made when I first read this in 1975 and from which I’ve never varied: in this series, even God was an evil bastard.
Though it’s nowhere made explicit, and the reality of it has, I believe, been denied at least once, there’s no doubt that the Voice was meant to be God. John Ostrander’s Spectre series made it explicit that The Spectre is God’s instrument of Vengeance. Even without this there’s simply no plausible other identity for the Voice. Here, he’s listening to Corrigan’s plea and deciding to grant it. A merciful moment indeed. Now Corrigan can have the life we wanted, marriage, a wife, kids, sex.
But you’ll notice that the Voice doesn’t tell him his wish is abut to be granted. No, Corrigan has to find out about it the hard way, the extremely hard way, through pain and shock, and a brush with a more real death than his last one. Why the hell didn’t God tell his faithful servant he was planning to bless him in this almost very short-lived manner? Because the sadistic approach made for a better visual, but a nastier story, and The Spectre in Adventure is about nasty.
Besides, it’s not like Jim Corrigan is going to be Jim Corrigan for long…
The Second Death of the… Spectre (Adventure 440)
Hang about, aren’t those ellipses in the wrong place?
Lt. Corrigan gets a tip from a street vendor that ‘Ducky’ McLaren’s gang want to surrender but only to him. He goes to a very lonely meeting place expecting a trap and it is one: Corrigan is shot to death and his body left at Gwen Sterling’s door for her to find. After the funeral, Corrigan’s body is summoned from his grave to the Voice. Corrigan’s pleas for the peace of his grave are rejected and he is told in no uncertain terms that it is his destiny to be The Spectre. He returns to Earth and his grave where a late-passing gravedigger hears him knocking inside his coffin and releases him. Presumably he was in a coma and his vital signs so low the doctors thought he was dead, theorises the gravedigger, as they do, to which Corrigan agrees. He turns into The Spectre to find ‘Ducky’s mob. He turns ‘Ducky’s duck into a real, giant sized duck so it can eat him and, when the rest of the gang flee in a car, he hurls it into outer space. Finally, he visits the weeping Gwen to report he’s back to being a ghost again and, needless to say, the wedding – and the relationship – is off.
Well. As a result of Infantino’s eagerness to cancel the series as soon as he had the least excuse, this story proved to be the perfect finale for the Fleisher/Aparo run, but there were still three stories written and paid for, so that was never the intention.
Frankly, see my comments on the last issue. But let’s lay it out again. The Voice has shown sympathy towards Jim Corrigan’s anguish and allowed him to revert to being human again. And done this in full knowledge that within a month at most Corrigan’s going to get killed again, that Gwen Sterling’s heart is going to be shattered, and there’ll not even be peace because Jim Corrigan is destined to be The Spectre forever after, whether he likes it or not.
So what, may I enquire, was the point of turning him human again to go through that? I repeat, in this series, even God is a sadistic bastard.
I mean, we all knew it was inevitable, so could the story have been told in a more appropriate manner? Easily: by presenting it as a vision, shown by the Voice to Corrigan, of what will happen if he takes up his gift? Or if the Voice, instead of acting like a bastard to the newly-dead-again Jim, had told him that this has been a lesson, to show you the futility of escaping your destiny, and rewinding time to the night Jim issued his plea. I may not be a Christian, but I resent this kind of cheap representation of God as being no better than the alternative almost as much as the believers do.
And it would have avoided making Gwen Sterling collateral damage too.
Three scripts that followed on from this reset, eh? I wonder what was in them…
The Arson Fiend and… The Spectre (Wrath of The Spectre 4)
Inked by Mike DeCarlo.
A rundown tenement building is on fire. Lt Corigan and the Fire Chief suspect it to be the work of arsonist Freddy ‘The Torch’ Fisher. Corrigan turns into The Spectre to save a woman and child inside by providing a magic staircase for them to descend. Earl Crawfords account of the fire is disbelieved by his editor, determining the reporter on proving the existence of The Spectre. By asking one of the dead, The Spectre confirms Fisher’s guilt, whilst Crawford’s research identifies the building owner behind the spate of fires. Both arrive at the next building expected to be torched, where The Spectre reverses bullets from Fisher’s gun back into him, then burns him to death. Crawford produces a full story complete with pictures, but his editor suspects these to be fakes, produced to evidence Crawford’s growing obsession: maybe he’s killed Fisher himself and set this up? Crawford is arrested and tried. He tells the complete truth, about The Spectre. As a consequence, he is found not guilty, but by reason of insanity, and is confined to an asylum, indefinitely.
Well, had the series continued in Adventure, this would have constituted a change of direction. Firstly, The Spectre saves lives in an open demonstration of magic, in public. Then he only kills one person, in a very ordinary manner based on his track record. And finally he disappears from the story just over halfway through it, leaving the emphasis on Earl Crawford, who’s considered mad because of his statements in court about The Spectre. This really is an oddball of a tale and a departure from the formula.
What was it? Were Fleisher and Orlando feeling the heat from above and trying to change direction to counter it only to be beaten to the punch? Both men, and Aparo, have their say about the cancellation in the editorial material in Wrath of The Spectre 4 and that notion isn’t discussed. Aparo had been expecting it because of the violence, Fleisher is adamant it was solely down to sales (cue Mandy Rice-Davies) and Orlando more or less supported the controversy aspect: the series wasn’t doing better than other horror books so ‘why annoy anybody?’. Interesting.
The Maniac and… The Spectre (Wrath of The Spectre 4).
Inked by Mike DeCarlo.
In the asylum, Earl Crawford is starting to get stir-crazy. He’s visited by a mysterious, nameless, grey-haired woman he’s never seen before (so they let just anybody visit inmates in an asylum for the criminally insane, do they?) She tries to lift his spirits by telling him she knows he told the truth and that The Spectre does exist, and that others outside believe him and are working for his release. When he begs her for something to help him escape, she gives him a penknife. The woman is a disguised Gwen Sterling, sent by Corrigan. Crawford uses the penknife to remove the bars across his window (oh really?) and escapes by knotting his blankets into a rope (seriously?). Meanwhile, The Spectre impersonates Freddie ‘The Torch’, turning up at a Police Station to deny being dead and suggesting Crawford be released, before fingering his boss Harrison DeMarko. The Spectre visits DeMarko and turns him into a cactus. The Police tackle the escaped Crawford but only to tell him he’s free. They let him just walk home whilst he awaits his insanity papers being overturned but Crawford knows Fisher is dead and wants answers to what’s going on, and who that woman was.
Oh my God. Did a professional comic book writer turn this in? And did a professional comic book editor really pay for this instead of, as Mort Weisinger infamously once said, taking the script to the can and wiping his ass with it?
Earl Crawford has been sent to an Asylum for the Criminally Insane because he told the truth about The Spectre, placing an obligation on Spec to resolve the situation. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t intervene during the trial but instead lets Crawford’s reputation be fully besmirched, first as a potential murderer but mainly as a nutcase, and leaves him to get committed before dong anything.
Sending a disguised Gwen in to do no more than tell him not to despair is a pointless complication that raises far too many questions. I can’t repeat too often, this is an Asylum for the Criminally Insane, not Dr Smooth’s Sanatorium for Rich People Who Aren’t Taking Enough Water With It: they’re not going to let total strangers who haven’t given their name in just like that, and what the hell is she doing anyway apart from getting involved in a storyline that Spec resolves without need of anything from her?
So she gives him a penknife. I mean, things that might conceivably assist an inmate from escaping haven’t been confiscated in advance? And a penknife as an instrument of escape from a high security unit? By all means: grilles fixed outside a window can be unscrewed by a penknife blade everybody knows that. Sheesh.
Then there’s The Spectre’s cunning plan to free Crawford, consisting of one appearance as Fisher to a single cop, with some dodgy dialogue and an offhand reference to a) his own guilt and b) shopping his boss for no discernible reason. ‘Fisher’ then disappears in implausible circumstances, never to be seen again. And this is the ‘evidence’ that overturns Crawford’s insanity conviction? Let me remind the late Mr Fleisher that Mr Crawford was not convicted of murder so the reappearance of the body is wholly irrelevant, he was committed as insane because of his allegations about this avenging ghost and nothing The Spectre has done has changed those ‘insane’ comments one iota.
And they let a guy who’s escaped from an Asylum for the Criminally Insane just walk home without a Court Order?
This was a seriously bad story. And it didn’t even have mega-sadistic violence to justify it: turning a guy into a cactus, in a business office that the Police are shortly to visit in pursuit of DeMarko, which won’t arouse anybody’s suspicions? Do you think that will impress us, buddy?
The Voodoo Hag of Doom! (Wrath of The Spectre 4)
Inked by Pablo Marcos.
Earl Crawford has gone back to work at his magazine as if nothing ever happened. His assignments have kept him too busy to pursue either The Spectre or the mysterious grey-haired woman so he abruptly resigns (he’s supposed to be a freelancer, how can he resign?) to cover The Spectre in his own way (food? rent?), though he immediately comes back to cover one last ‘weird’ assignment. This involves Sterling Textiles Inc., where one arrogant chauvinist Board Member has tried to get Gwen Sterling to sell her inheritance from her late father because she obviously knows nothing about anything, being a girl (very Seventies argument, though as Gwen has spent all her time being an airhead motivated by her lust, it may actually hold some truth for once). This argument is overtaken by the arrival of a mysterious, wrinkled, giggling Voodoo Queen apparently trying to get Sterling Textiles to stop making immoral and revealing dresses and threatening to kill the Board Members one by one by Voodoo if they don’t stop. To prove her power, she dunks a voodoo doll of one Board Member into a fish tank, causing him to die on the spot. This takes place in front of four reputable witnesses yet everyone, including Corrigan, is surprised to find the man has drowned. The Hag kills a second Member before it’s revealed she’s acting for a third out to gain sole control. He pays her off, intent on doing the other two himself. The Spectre visits the Hag and turns her into a spider. Crawford, meanwhile, has broken into Sterling Mansion to try to beat the killer to it. Accidentally, he finds a grey wig hidden in plain sight, plus the mystery woman’s clothing. He then witnesses Board Member Mr Slater prepare to murder Gwen only for The Spectre to snap his mind and send him back to his childhood. Crawford now has further food for thought…
And that was where it really did end, with Gwen implicated alongside The Spectre and Crawford on the trail, but by the standard of these last three stories, one that wasn’t worth pursuing.
It’s immediately noticeable that these lost stories abandon the published run’s standalone stance, not to mention the quite obvious dialling-back on The Spectre’s sadism. The change is welcome for the kind of change it is, but it’s accompanied by the abandonment of editorial standards in ensuring that the story is reasonably believable behind the supernatural aspects. It’s because The Spectre is such a fantastic figure that the world against which he is seen has to be humanly plausible.
Instead, it’s a stupid convenience for Fleisher to ride roughshod over. Take Crawford: the man is and always has been a freelance writer, albeit one who might as well be on staff for the one magazine he writes for. I’m well aware that in itself isn’t out of the question, but to then have him resign from a post he doesn’t have? And to do so without thought of an income?
Then there’s the Voodoo killings. This was the first time The Spectre had come up against another supernatural figure since his own late-Sixties title. It’s a change of direction, though we don’t know if it were a one-off or the start of a new trend. Either way, it’s magic being openly performed and advertised as such, and whilst you can forgive ordinary people not believing it as such, Corrigan’s complete surprise at learning Henderson was drowned is unbelievable.
As for the rest, it’s all clearly foreshadowing for stories that would never be written. Crawford breaks into Gwen Sterling’s home – the first time we’ve seen her there when she’s not been in the pool – and links her to the mystery woman. She disguised herself once and several weeks later she still has the wig left out, a wig that makes a young, beautiful woman with a voluptuous figure look old and unattractive. And she’s kept the dowdy clothes in her wardrobe? Next to the miniskirts and tight dresses? It’s not like she has to be thrifty and save them for when she is old enough to need them. I mean, she’s not just a millionairess, she co-owns a company that makes clothing. This kind of lazy writing bugs me intensely. Think harder, you clowns!
Finally, it was noticeable to me that, by the end of this story Sterling Textiles had only two board Members left, the young, beautiful, inexperienced girl and the chauvinist pig who wanted her to sell up. He’d been the obvious red herring for the murderer, and now he would have been… well, what we don’t know.
They asked Fleisher in 1988 about whether he was up for writing more Spectre stories, and he modestly disclaimed being able to do it. By then, Fleisher’s ill-advised libel suit against The Comics Journal and Harlan Ellison, which involved his Spectre series, had seen him crash and burn and driven him out of the American comic book industry. After a short spell writing for 2000AD, Fleisher left comic books for good, his own as much as anyone else’s. There would be no more.
This was how Michael Fleisher wrote The Spectre, at an alien time in our history. Like the cosmic Good version of the Sixties, this Spectre reflected his times. A closer look at the actual stories, instead of the legends, reveals that, indeed, they had nothing to them but the ‘imaginative’ deaths: repetitious and one-note and, when Fleisher turned his hand to writing a more serialised form, putting the characters personal lives more to the fore, his inadequacies as a writer became far too obvious.
I’ve never read any of Fleisher’s Jonah Hex, on which the highpoint of his reputation rests. I’m unlikely ever to do so now, but I hope that series did enable him to be a better, more wide-ranging writer than he proved here, and that it is a worthy legacy for a man who allowed far too much of a darkness inside him to show in his writing.