The Killing Ghost – The Spectre in Adventure Comics


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.

*Retroactive Fandom* The Riddle of The Spectre


A few words of context

In 1986, when things were otherwise then they are now, and I was active in UK Comics Fandom, I wrote an article about The Spectre that was published in Arkensword, a high quality fanzine published by Paul Duncan of Coventry that was one of only two then-fanzines to enjoy a circulation of over 1,000 copies.
The piece was written in the immediate wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as a prelude to a new version of the Spectre, written by Steve Gerber, that promised to modernise the character, and to introduce an alter ego relationship relevant to the 1980s.
No such version ever appeared, nor any hints as to Gerber’s plan. According to Wikipedia, Gerber missed the deadline for issue 1, to be drawn by Gene Colan, in order to watch the last day of filming on the Howard the Duck film, and DC cancelled the project: not worth that last day, eh? The prospect of Gerber’s series led me to publish an article on The Spectre to date, on the various, contrasting incarnations of the character that had been thrown together without the least regard for continuity between the various versions. It was fun, and I made fun of the twists and turns that were, frankly, irreconcilable.
Ironically, a few years later, I came up with one small idea that made the whole pre-Crisis history come together. Though I’d been out of fandom for some time by then, I wrote my idea up as a sequel. Arkensword was dead, as were most of the fanzines I’d read or written for. I can’t remember if it was ever published and, if so, in what magazine. I don’t even have a copy myself.
Recently, I thought of these paired articles and decided I would reprint one and rewrite the other here, to give them a decent home. That was until I re-read ‘The Riddle of The Spectre; or, Continuity? What Continuity?’. If you really want to know what I wrote in 1986, you can go hunt out a copy of Arkensword 16 for yourself, because I’m not willingly going to let anything that awful be published on my blog. I need to rewrite both. Besides, I’ve thirty years of new information I didn’t have back then to include.

The Riddle of The Spectre

The Spectre is dead: Long live The Spectre.
In the tradition of Julius Schwartz, at the beginning of the Silver Age, Steve Gerber has been commissioned to create a Spectre for the Eighties. Back then, things like that happened without any thought for previous versions, which is why so much time and effort went into Crisis on Infinite Earths. No longer will that happen, Marv Wolfman assures us: Gerber’s Spectre will be the only Spectre there has ever been.
Thus passes Jim Corrigan, died 1940, deceased 1985. He leaves behind a history so convoluted, so inconsistent, so thoughtlessly plotted as to defy the very notion of continuity itself. It has been rumoured that Roy Thomas planned to straighten all this out in a Graphic Novel, but if The Spectre of old is now dead – which was the point all along – is there any point?
But it’s a shame to leave it like that. There are happy memories for some of us invested in one part or another of The Spectre’s career, and a lot of fun to be had picking over the bones of Jim Corrigan’s afterlife.
The Spectre debuted in More Fun Comics 52, February 1940, published by Detective Comics. He was created by Jerry Siegel, with artist Bernard Bailey, Siegel’s most substantial creation outside of Superman. The Kryptonian was about the vast enhancement of the body’s attributes: strength, speed, invulnerability etc. The Spectre was possibly the only idea that could extend beyond that: incomparable, illimitable power, bounded only by the imagination. Though at that time, the imagination was pretty bounded by writer’s crude notions.
Jim Corrigan seemed to have it all made: a successful Police Detective, engaged to marry heiress Clarice Winston, bringing in half of Gats Benson’s mob. In retaliation, Benson kidnapped Corrigan and Clarice, sending Jim off to swim in a barrel of concrete. Jim died. His spirit ascended but, at the borders of Heaven, was sent back by a Voice (presumably that of God), to combat evil.
Corrigan returned as a ghost, to resurrect Clarice, who had been shot, round up the rest of the mob and frighten Benson to death with a glance. He then jilted Clarice without explanation. How could he tell her he was no longer alive, did not breathe, could not… hold her.
As The Spectre, Corrigan appeared to be dressed in white and dark green, but don’t be fooled: hood, cape, trunks, gloves and moccasin sandals were costume, the white areas were The Spectre’s body.
As a character, The Spectre’s series was full of potential rarely realised. There was a freewheeling aspect to it typical of a time when anything went because no-one knew what might work. There were even flashes of genuine imagination, every now and then, but there were too many lame monster and magic stories, the thudding dullness of Corrigan’s Captain being convinced the Spectre was behind every crime and berating Corrigan for not bringing him in, and too much stiff and stilted art from Bailey. At first, the avenging ghost used to leave almost as many bodies in his wake as did the villains, but this didn’t last as long as a later writer suggested, as Detective Comics realised they had a money-making industry on their hands and started smoothing off rough edges.

The Spectre – Golden Aga

When Charley Gaines, at All-American Publications, Detective’s sister company, ordered up All-Star Comics to promote both company’s characters, The Spectre was chosen to represent More Fun, alongside Doctor Fate. Perhaps, as a Detective Comics character in an All-American comic, there was a subconscious bias against Corrigan, but despite his popularity, he never got considered for the JSA chairmanship, the route to a solo title.
Nor did he shine overmuch, despite being potentially more powerful than all the rest of the team put together. Gardner Fox wrote him competently, but lacked the intensity that Siegel could bring to the solo series, and even had him gassed into unconsciousness in issue 13 (drawing a retcon from Roy Thomas courtesy of The Monitor in 1985). And unlike other members, changes in The Spectre’s series were not taken up in All-Star.
To my surprise, instead of being parcelled off in Corrigan’s origin story (which required two issues to complete), Clarice Winston hung around a very long time, still in love with Jim (and he still in love with her) in a very touching manner that provided an oft-needed touch of stability.
But in More Fun 74, the series was changed permanently in a bad way by the introduction of Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, a short, klutzy and over-eager Private ‘Tec who wanted to team up with Jim Corrigan. At a stroke, The Spectre became second fiddle to his comic relief, a fate that other heroes didn’t suffer until much later in the decade.
An issue later, Popp’s investigations threatened to expose the barrel of cement in which Corrigan’s earthly remains lay in the river, so The Spectre got permission from the Voice to restore Corrigan to life. Which wiped out his excuse for not marrying Clarice, except that Popp took up so much of his and Spec’s time, she was pushed out.
And in issue 90, Corrigan went off to War, leaving The Spectre behind and suddenly invisible for the rest of the run until issue 101, after which More Fun was abruptly repurposed as a comic comic. And at more or less the same time, The Spectre was forced out of All-Star by the split between All-American and Detective Comics. Thus ended the Golden Age of Jim Corrigan.
Twenty years passed. Superheroes went out of and came back into fashion. In 1966, Julius Schwartz had stopped introducing new versions of old characters and was testing the revival of JSA characters in Showcase and Brave and Bold: Dr Fate and Hourman, Starman and Black Canary, all written by Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson. For Showcase 60, Schwartz planned to pair Dr Mid-Nite and The Spectre, but in the end went for the Ghostly Guardian alone.
I bought ‘The War that shook the Universe’ one Saturday afternoon, walking from my Gran’s in Droylsden to the newsagents at Fiveways, poring over the spinner rack, and selecting this after a good half hour’s consideration. It was a good choice. Fox wrote what was the first retcon at DC, explaining why The Spectre – an all-powerful, immortal being – should have ‘retired’ for twenty years. Ingeniously, Fox conjured up Asmodus, an evil, demonic equivalent whose arrival on Earth had cancelled out both his and The Spectre’s energies, trapping them in their respective hosts.
The Spectre was released by the death of Asmodus’s host and had to fight the demon’s plot to trap him permanently within Corrigan. But Asmodus was only the herald of the greater menace, Shaithan, who arrived the next issue and who very clearly stood for the Devil himself. To defeat both adversaries, The Spectre required illimitless power, power of and from good (which, in 1966, included American soldiers fighting in Vietnam). He was, in short an incarnate form of Good.
Response was mixed: I loved both issues but many readers didn’t, rejecting the very idea of supernatural characters and menaces in the Silver Age of scientifically minded heroes. Schwartz, who was expecting to start a solo series, was surprised at the unfavourable commercial response. Fox’s approach wasn’t entirely successful, adopting a dry, mytho-religious tone that tried to reduce The Spectre’s supernatural abilities to semi-scientific energies.
Still, Schwartz didn’t give up. A third Showcase appearance in issue 64, half a year later, winding back on all-powerful entities to a ‘mere’ ghost was added to The Spectre’s appearance in the 1966 Justice League/Justice Society team-up. This was undertaken without any supernatural elements whatsoever, The Spectre being treated as ‘merely’ a character with immense power and a pycho-matter body.
The story called for Earths-1 and -2 being pulled into hyperspace on a collision course, and The Spectre physically holding the two planets apart until, in order to save everything, he agrees to the Earth-1 Atom shrinking him to one inch and then expanding him again, a process that causes any subject so treated (except Ray Palmer) to blow up.
It all sounds a bit callous (not to mention risky for the two planets) but worry not. Being all-powerful, The Spectre merely willed the atoms of his body to regroup themselves from all over the Universe.
These two stories lifted The Spectre over the hurdle and he gained his own comic in 1967, starting with one last, and unsatisfactory, Fox/Anderson story, then falling to lesser hands, amongst whom Neal Adams had to be classed. Weird and wonderful were The Spectre’s adventures, but most of all they were not very good. It was a different failure of imagination: in making The Spectre seriously all-powerful and Good with a capital G, it begged the question of who or what could pose him a threat.
In an attempt to combat the sales drop-off, DC tried to side-slip towards the still-successful Mystery market. Steve Skeates was brought in to do this, in keeping with the prevalent trend towards Relevance. As a punishment for casually killing crooks when he had much too much power to need to do so, The Spectre was sentenced to read from the Book of Judgement, short, pallid, sub-EC stories. Once again a supporting character in his own series, The Spectre only lasted one more issue before suffering his second cancellation.
Thus far, for all its changes of emphasis and direction, The Spectre’s story has been reasonably straightforward. But that was before Denny O’Neill. This is where it starts to get tricky.
In the late Sixties, O’Neill was DC’s hottest writer and Julius Schwartz’s go-to guy for updating series that had run out of steam. On the evidence of Justice League of America 82 – 83, it’s hard to see why. This was the out-and-out worst JLA/JSA team-up ever written, a nonsense farrago whose climax set Earths-1 and -2 onto a collision course again, requiring The Spectre to once more interpose his body between them, except that this time the resultant gravities tear him apart and he dies.
Come again? He’d already done that once and survived. Furthermore, O’Neill gave the impression of never having read a Spectre story before when, in order for him to enter the fray, Dr Fate has to summon him from imprisonment in a crypt (what crypt?), although the effectiveness of this crypt has to be questioned when set against Dick Dillin having drawn Spec as attending the Justice Society meeting in the first part. That one we’ll have to put down to pure sloppiness (did Julius Schwartz really edit this?)

The Spectre – Silver Age

So The Spectre was once again dead, for four years that is. Former EC artist Joe Orlando had joined DC as an editor, but was struggling with Adventure Comics, ever since it’s long-term feature, Supergirl, had been pinched for her own title. Six issues of floundering, including the debut of the mysterious Black Orchid, then a mistress of disguise with neither identity nor origin, led to a revival of The Spectre.
This was the infamous run written by Michael Fleisher, then a fixture at DC’s offices, researching his six-part ‘History of Superheroes’ (of which only two parts ever appeared). Orlando, who had recently been mugged in the street in front of his wife, was bubbling under with rage and susceptible to Fleisher’s proposal to go back to the character’s origin as an avenging ghost. With spectacular art from the then-little known Jim Aparo, a new series was launched in issue 431.
This version of The Spectre was controversial from the start for its gruesomeness. It went back to the idea of Jim Corrigan being a ghost that transformed into The Spectre and The Spectre not as an embodiment of Good fighting spiritual adversaries but as the pursuer, and executioner, of evil men, who would be despatched in various colourful, bloodless but graphic means: a hairdresser cut in two by scissors grown to massive size, a fake fortune teller turned into crystal, tipped over and shattered, and a man turned to wood and sliced up in a band-saw, etc.
I confess that I loved it in 1974, mainly for Aparo’s art, but even then I was aware that the stories were repetitious. Evil, heartless bastard villains prey upon and/or kill innocent citizens, The Spectre kills them brutally. The only real imagination lay in the latest graphic disposal.
The series rejected all versions before it. In the letters page, Orlando dismissed the crypt as Denny O’Neill’s problem, claiming his was the Earth-1 Spectre (whilst permitting an exchange with the reporter introduced to query The Spectre’s actions in which he’s sarcastically referred to as Clark Kent, leading a rookie cop to ask if he’s really Superman). Fleisher defended himself with the faux-naif claim that all these devices came from the original series. No, they didn’t, it was a lie. Jerry Siegel never wrote a scene in which his hero animated a hand-axe to cut his girlfriend into seven separate body parts in one panel (the scene got past the Comics Code Authority since it wasn’t actually Gwen Stirling being chopped up but rather a mannequin of her: then again, The Spectre didn’t know that until after he’d eviscerated her…) and that was before you thought of comparing the art of Bernard Bailey to that of Jim Aparo.
There was even a revoltingly predictable story in which Corrigan pleaded for relief from his task and was rewarded by the Voice by being restored to a human being. Except that the Voice didn’t tell him this had happened, so Corrigan only found out when he was shot. In this series, even God was a sick bastard. Jim took to the opportunity to visit the despairing Gwen (and impliedly shag her senseless, but then it was the first time he’d gotten any in thirty-four years). Then he got murdered by a mobster and returned to being a ghost. Sigh.
That story appeared in Adventure 440 and became the perfect, if unintended, finale of the run. DC had been taking heat from fans from the start, and, as soon as sales showed a slight downturn, publisher Carmine Infantino ordered the series cancelled, leaving three stories written and paid for but not drawn (these would be drawn by Aparo in 1988 for the mini-series Wrath of The Spectre, reprinting Fleisher’s run in issues 1-3 and presenting these ‘new’ stories in the fourth).
Immediately after this charming run, The Spectre re-surfaced on Earth-2 for the 1975 JLA/JSA team-up. There was no trace of the raving ghost: instead Spec stayed invisible and intangible throughout, merely intervening with the Voice to have six JSAers restored to life after they’d been killed by the JLA (don’t ask).
Were there now two Spectres after all? Jim Corrigan turned up in a single panel of the revived All-Star 70, without a sign of his ghostly companion, but the next two, almost simultaneous appearances to The Spectre himself were both clearly on Earth-1. The avenging ghost of Fleisher turned up in a three-part Dr Thirteen story in Ghosts, to enable the great sceptic to refuse to believe in him, whilst a version evidently much closer to Fox’s messianic agent appeared in DC Presents… to prevent Superman from entering Heaven, and to teach him a lesson about hubris.
In 1984, whilst writing Swamp Thing, Alan Moore introduced yet another, and utterly magnificent conception for The Spectre, as the Guardian of the Road to Hell, only for Roy Thomas to negate this idea by having The Spectre turn up back on Earth-2, in America vs the Justice Society, a courtroom drama featuring the framing of the JSA for treason as an excuse to summarise their every adventure.
Thomas posited that there was and only ever had been one Spectre, and that he’d moved to Earth-1 for unspecified reasons. Yeah, right. This Spectre was a mess of previous versions. He was no longer invisible, intangible and benevolent on Earth-2, and instead he threatened to destroy the planet for the crime of trying the JSA (they turned down his offer to move them to Earth-1, so he quit Earth-2, forever, sobeit.)
Marv Wolfman used The Spectre in Crisis, to directly challenge the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time, causing the shattering of existence, and putting Spec in a handy coma for the rest of the series. Roy Thomas used him at the start of The Last Days of the Justice Society, having him destroyed and wiped out of existence, all the way back to his start. But it was Alan Moore who gave The Spectre the closest thing to a fitting finale, even in defeat: his arrogance at his powers and his desire to use them to the glory of God leads to him allowing the bird carrying the pearl of distilled horror to pass, to summon the Ultimate Darkness, the Shadow cast out by Light. The Spectre believes he will defeat the Darkness, but he is beaten, unhooded, broken, even his powers inadequate.
The Last Days of the Justice Society came out a week later, with a passing reference to the struggle against the Darkness as ‘a mighty affair’, excusable if Thomas didn’t know Moore’s story in advance but nevertheless demeaning. Given Thomas’s attitudes to anyone else writing the JSA, the slight may well have been deliberate.
Such was the story of The Spectre, a confusion of different portrayals and states, impossible to reconcile into any cohesive history. It doesn’t matter now, because The Spectre is Dead. Long Live The Spectre.

The Riddle of The Spectre Revisited

(After some thought, I decided it was impossible to reconstruct the thoughts and associations of thirty years ago, so this part of the post will effectively be a new article, attempting to rediscover the tenor of my thoughts. Since I’m trying to reflect the ideas I had circa 1990, I’m going to ignore all later versions of The Spectre and his story.)
It started with a single moment of inspiration, from which I realised that all the contradictions and wildly fluctuating treatments of the Spectre’s pre-Crisis history could be resolved into a harmonious whole. The crucial point came in 1970, when Denny O’Neill decided to end the eighth JLA/JSA team-up by killing off The Spectre. I can see his reasoning behind that: O’Neill was much more comfortable with street-level heroes and the Sixties approach to The Spectre as cosmic incarnation of Good made it even harder to fit him into a story that he could resolve in an eye-blink than Superman.
So O’Neill imprisons Spec in a crypt from which only a séance can free him, just in time for him to intervene between Earths-1 and 2 on collision course, bouncing the two planets back where they belong but unable to prevent the gravitational forces from tearing him apart, thus killing – or rather destroying – The Spectre. But…
What if? What if, in that final moment, feeling himself torn apart, unable to recreate himself as he had in 1966, because he’d had notice of The Atom’s plans to blow him apart and time to imbue his molecules with a kind of spectral magnetism whereas now he only just has time to intervene at all, what if in that last moment as he thinks he’s falling into endless rest, Spectre’s survival instinct kicks in and he makes one final attempt to cohere, grabbing at an Earth to form upon? But he gets Earth-1…
How does that affect everything? Firstly, let’s work backwards.
Jim Corrigan became The Spectre in 1940, under order by the Voice to eradicate crime. At first, his methods are often brutal and he kills criminals with grim purpose. This was not the Voice’s intention so if we shift history slightly, The Spectre is instructed to raise Corrigan’s body from the dead and bond to it. Corrigan’s humanity tempers The Spectre’s darkness, and ameliorates his ruthlessness.
But now that Corrigan is alive again, he’s anxious to play his part in the War his country is fighting. He joins the Army, but the separation has an unintended effect: without Corrigan as a host, The Spectre cannot materialise. He can effect criminals but is invisible: he joins forces with private Detective Popp because he has no alternative: the police still don’t trust him.
This lasts until 1945 when The Spectre disappears completely for twenty years, forced into imprisonment inside Jim Corrigan by the arrival on Earth-2 of Asmodus, a demon of similar status to Spec, intent on spreading evil. The two beings cancel each other out until 1965, when the death of Asmodus’ host alters the balance. He can escape Earth, The Spectre is freed. The twenty years he has spent imprisoned, unable to use his magical energies, has built them up to an incredible level: it has also kept Jim Corrigan younger and fitter than he should be.
But this energy is not infinite. Gradually, and more so, as he faces menaces of incredible force, such as Shaithan, and the first threat of the two Earths colliding, these diminish, enough that, after a prolonged period of being absent from Corrigan, he reverts to his earliest form, that of the killing ghost.

The Spectre – Bronze Age

Corrigan’s outrage causes a permanent separation between the pair, and in order to discipline the Spectre, and ensure he doesn’t revert fully to his earlier savagery, the Voice confines him to a crypt (a-hah!) where he must read from the Book of Judgement until he understands humanity better. Only to be released by séance performed by a magical practitioner of great ability, such as Doctor Fate.
Whilst in the crypt, Spectre’s energies have again increased through lack of expenditure, giving him the power to separate the Earths from collision. But at a terrible cost…
Let’s move forward. The stress of surviving, and the enforced separation from Corrigan, leaves The Spectre weaker than ever before. He cannot return to Earth-2. It’s all he can do to ‘be’ Jim Corrigan, NYPD Detective. Slowly, his energies start to build up again, but without an anchor in the form of a human host, he reverts to his original form as the killing ghost. This time, out of step with Earth-1, he is even more inhumane the deaths he deals out more bizarre and horrific.
Back on Earth-2, Jim Corrigan is seen again only once, in a single panel of the revived All-Star Comics. Without his spirit to sustain him, the energies bequeathed him by The Spectre’s presence dissipate: I believe he doesn’t live much longer.
Finally, having borne his duty for too long, The Spectre appeals to the Voice for rest, and restoration of his human status. Besides, Gwen Stacey’s hurling of herself at him is getting too persistent to ignore. The Voice which is common to both Earths and to others, responds by granting his wish, knowing that without supernatural protection, Jim Corrigan will soon be killed again. But this is necessary to bind The Spectre fully to the Earth-1 universe. Now he is whole again.
Having died and been reborn again, The Spectre has the energies to try to return to Earth-2. He succeeds, partially, but he cannot materialise. He cannot approach the ageing Corrigan on this Earth, he is invisible but more than that, he is intangible. Understanding his estrangement from his former home, all The Spectre can do is plead with the Voice to restore the lives of six former JSA team-mates, inadvertently killed by the JLA.
The Spectre returns to Earth-1. Frustrated that he can no longer contact his old friends, The Spectre’s anger overwhelms him briefly, in opposition to the ultimate sceptic, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker but after that he accepts his role and begins to grow in wisdom and authority. It is The Spectre who is sent to halt Superman when he threatens to break the bounds of heaven, and it is his decision to stop the Man of Steel without violence that earns him a vast increase of power.
But he hasn’t, yet, totally abandoned his life on Earth-2. With his increased energies, he fights through the barrier, only to discover his old comrades threatened with charges of Treason. Using all his energies to make himself visible, and placing himself under massive stress, enough to warp his judgement, he threatens to destroy Earth-2, and rescue the JSA. He could never have done it: not even at the height of his powers, back in the Sixties, could he have achieved that, but the bluff might serve to rescue the situation.
The JSA’s response is negative, however. They will not join with him. Spurned, The Spectre accepts the final breach and returns to Earth-1 permanently. As punishment for his recklessness, he is set to guard the access to Hell and prevent illicit incursion there.
From there, as the Multiverse is under attack by the Anti-Monitor, The Spectre travels back in time, with the heroes, to the Dawn of Time, where he is the only one with the power to stand up to the this adversary. Even he cannot defeat him, but the battle destroys everything from the Dawn of Time on, putting The Spectre in a state of shock until the Universe has reformed itself and the Anti-Monitor finally defeated.
Determined to redeem himself, The Spectre makes the mistake of assuming no greater foe can exist. He permits the passage of the Pearl of Ultimate Blackness beyond the Universe of light, sure he can overcome the Darkness, to the glory of the Voice, but to his horror, he finds himself but a child in its hands, beaten utterly, and broken. His energies have travelled back in time to the Spear of Destiny, opening the door for Hitler to undo the new history, but in his attempt to intervene he is wounded, fatally, by the Spear, and only has time to alert his old JSA comrades before he dissipates entirely…
The Spectre is Dead, Long Live The Spectre

Epilogue

Whatever Steve Gerber intended for The Spectre is lost to history: no hints, notes or rumours ever emerged from the cancellation of the project due to his deadline issues. The Spectres of Doug Moench and John Ostrander, not to mention Hal Jordan and Crispus Allen are irrelevant to this piece.
The second part of this retrospective was a self-indulgence in 1990 and is even more of one in 2020. Given that the history I’d reviewed so bemusedly for Arkensword had been swept into non-existence so far as the DC Universe was concerned, the entire piece was nothing more than an exercise in cleverness: see, look at me, I solved the riddle. That it was nothing but an exercise in advanced Roy Thomasness – but far less convoluted and congested I hoped was self-evident then as now.
I’m presenting the two pieces together in this package just for the hell of it, to see my thoughts in print. It’s not the only piece I have planned on The Spectre now I have access to the whole of his pre-Crisis history. Keep an eye open for an in-depth survey of Michael Fleisher’s little run…

More Fun Comics – The First Original


New Fun Comics

Getting my hands on a DVD-Rom of More Fun Comics, a National Allied Publications/Detective Comics inc./National Periodical Publications Golden Age title published from 1934 to 1947, completes my collection of what I think of as the Big Four, that is, the four comics who contributed characters to All-Star Comics and the Justice Society of America.
That’s my angle of interest, but it must be acknowledged that More Fun has a historical significance of its own. As New Fun it was the first ever comic book to feature all-new material, and in issue 6 it offered the first published work by Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two instalments of Henri Duval, Swordsman of France, before creating Doctor Occult in issue 8. By then, the title had become More Fun, as of issue 7 and, finally, More Fun Comics with issue 9.
My DVD-Rom is more in the mould of Flash and All-American than Adventure, but like the two All-American publications books, the title did not survive the Fories, being cancelled with issue 127, by when the reason for my interest had long since gone by the board. It starts with issue 8, so let’s look at that to begin with.
Cover-dated February 1936 and published by More Fun Inc., headquartered in Missouri, issue 8 is a revelation. It’s the last of the original, larger-scale format, 44 pages with card covers. Comic books began as reprints of newspaper strips and despite the all-original boast, the comic is still trying to stick with that formula. With the exception of a prose serial, everything appears for one page only, laid out like a Sunday strip: four tiers, mostly square panels containing illustrations more suited to books that comics, no animation or attempt at movement, a mixture of B&W, limited colour and full-colour, funny strips and adventure ones, multiple genres. When I said this was all-original, that only meant that none of this stuff had been printed before: there isn’t an original idea in the entire issue, and nothing is remotely readable.
The next issue shrank to comic book size and expanded to 64 pages, with some series jumping to two pages, and some new features appearing. If you’re expecting to hear about these, you’ll have to find another blogger: I’m an analyst not an annalist.
It’s more-or-less a given that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson used original art because he couldn’t afford the Syndicate fees for strips, and the young writers and artists he used were much cheaper. I’ve heard them described as rough, naïve, inexperienced and, reading between the lines, too untalented to make it on newspaper strips. Now I know they weren’t exaggerating.
None of this is of more than historical interest to me, except for an almost unbelievable letter of praise from a girl reader living in Newton Heath, Manchester, and there’s a lot of it to get through before we reach the meat of the run for me.
The change I had my eyes open for finally showed up in issue 31, May 1938. Gone was Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Vincent Sullivan was now Editor, not assistant Editor. More Fun was now owned by Detective Comics Inc. And inside the front cover there was a full-page ad for a new title: Action Comics no. 1.
There was no immediate change. New features replaced old but More Fun stayed the same. Dr Occult was dropped but Seigel and Schuster’s Radio Car, a Police series, continued its irregular course. Old features drifted on, unchanging. But with every month that passed, DC, as I suppose we should now call them, were becoming more aware of what a hit they’d bought from Siegel and Schuster, and Bob Kane, enlivened by ideas from Bill Finger, was shaping his own costumed character. Unseen and unheard, there was a tide rising and it was going to overflow soon.
For now, e.g., issue 41, the mix was still the same, various miscellaneous adventure series, a couple of gag strips. More pages were in full colour, through these continued to be distributed haphazardly throughout the comic, favouring the front of the book. The biggest difference was that every strip got at least two pages and several as any as four, making for only a dozen different series.
Issue 43, cover-dated May 1939, was released alongside Detective 27, with plugs for the new action-adventure strip starting that month, the Batman. And Charlie Gaines had established All-American Publications and All-American Comics. And by issue 49, there wasn’t a single gag strip in the book.
But patience eventually pays off. The long life of the original More Fun Comics, little changed from the title put together by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, ended in issue 51, cover-dated January 1940. in honour of that, let me list its contents. These were; Wing Brady, a Foreign Legion adventurer; Biff Bronson, an adventurer; King Carter, a globe-trotting cowboy adventurer: The Buccaneer, a sea-going adventurer; Kit Strong, a private detective adventurer, Lieut. Bob Neal of the Sub. 662, a Naval adventurer; The Flying Fox, an aviator adventurer; Detective Sergeant Carey, a Police detective adventurer; Sergeant O’Malley of the Red Coat Patrol, a Canadian Mountie adventurer; Bulldog Martin, an adventurer, and a single comic page starring Butch the Pup.
But the Buccaneer was ending. Its creator, Bernard Bailey would be drawing a new strip the following month, written by Jerry Siegel.

The white bits are not a costume

He’s there on the cover, with his green cape and hood, gloves and trunks, arms folded as he looks sternly down over a gang of crooks, The Spectre coming to turn More Fun around. Inside, he’s the lead feature, the first of a two-part telling of his origin as Jim Corrigan, hard-boiled Police Detective. The story’s familiar, as it should be given how often it’s been reprinted, but by the end of the episode, the ghost of Jim Corrigan is still wearing a tuxedo.
There’s one thing about the story that doesn’t sit all that well with me. Corrigan has blown out a party in honour of his heiress fiancee Clarice Winston to knock off some of ‘Gat’ Benson’s mob. Clarice is understandably angry with him for that. Corrigan’s hardly apologetic: indeed, he roundly tells her there’s only going to be one boss in this marriage, and that’s him. Clarice calls him a tyrant and a bully, but she still loves him.
Ok, it’s 1939, when marital relationships were looked on in a totally different light, and it’s hardly out of step, but it still jars modern sensibilities, or at least my modern sensibilities. But knowing more now of Jerry Siegel’s marriage and his personal history than I once did, I can’t help but sense a personal issue being worked on here. Jerry the mother’s boy, the nerd-before-there-were-nerds, who married against his Mother’s wishes, wouldn’t be the first writer to make his personal problems ‘work’ in his fiction.
The rest of the issue is unchanged, though I couldn’t help noticing that Bulldog Martin suddenly got a bottle of invisibility pills at the same time.
The other half of the story completes the tale with Corrigan’s revenge on Benson and his mob: dealing death with a glance, withering one into a skeleton, driving the rest out of their senses, you can already see where Michael Fleisher got his ideas from. Corrigan also revives Clarice from near death, breaks off their engagement rather woodenly, moves out of the apartment he shares with his best friend, all the time acting so strangely, and then sews himself a costume to wear as The Spectre. All these limitless super-powers and he gets out a sewing machine. It’s not the most favourable of signs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Corrigan gets the chance to relinquish his powers and receive eternal rest in his third episode, summoned to the edge of Heaven and getting an either-or offer from the Voice. Since he’s summoned in the split instant that a crooked Swami has fired a bullet at Clarice, who is proving impressively hard to shake off, Corrigan has no choice but to go for Option B: to be earth-bound, fighting crime until all traces of it are exterminated.
Only four episodes in and I have to say there’s a strange intensity about these early Spectre stories that just doesn’t come over in the solo chapters in All-Star Comics, which is self-evidently because those are written by Gardner Fox. Siegel brings a twisted perspective to Corrigan/The Spectre’s determined rejection of all human connection and an angry nihilism to the superficially charming Zor’s role as The Spectre’s evil equivalent.
I’m also intrigued that, whilst Corrigan and The Spectre are one being, the latter is already and constantly ’emerging’ from the former’s body, foreshadowing a significant development later in the series.

Half-helm only

The Spectre had obviously made a hit because in issue 55 he was joined by his partner in the supernatural, Doctor Fate. It’s a most odd first story as there is no origin, and whilst I knew this is held back some time, reprints had always centred upon Fate’s first meeting with debutante Inza Cramer. Here though, we start with Fate’s evil enemy, Wotan, targetting Inza to draw Fate’s attention, with the good Doctor – not described as possessing magic but rather the great secret of transforming Matter into Energy and Energy into Matter (what a gloriously meaningless attribute that is!) – not appearing until halfway.
So that was now two costumed heroes, both magical. Dr Fate took the cover for the first time in issue 56, continuing his battle with Wotan but overcoming him permanently (?), whilst the Spectre merely fought a gang of crooks. Elsewhere, More Fun was settling into a consistent run of adventure series, most of them veterans of the comic, though there was a new character, aviator Captain Desmo, who kept his face permanently concealed by flying helmet and goggles just as much as if he were a superhero.
And a new series, about Africa-based adventurer Congo Bill, facing up to a Phantom-esque villain called the Skull, started in issue 56. It’s a pretty basic adventure strip but it would last a surprisingly long time, hopping from title to until 1959, when, as we’ve already seen, it arrived in Adventure Comics, where Congo Bill was transformed into Congorilla.
The Doctor Fate strip also runs with a frenetic intensity. Gardner Fox just freewheels through each adventure, hurtling from one action to another, with very little evidence of a composed plot and a high-risk magical apocalypse threatened on every page. It’s gloriously goofy and gloriously weird. Both these strips burn in a way none of the other Justice Society members ever do. Though the basis of Fate’s power is still unsettled, now being an atomic force within him.
But the Gothic/Lovecraftian atmosphere of Fate’s series was fairly quickly decided to be a bit too intense for the readers, and this had to be dialled down. The first step, in issue 66, was to have the Doctor remove his helm and reveal a blond-haired handsome face: a human being, in fact, in response to Inza’s wish for someone she might love instead of a mysterious sorceror. Kent Nelson’s somewhat grisly origin, involving involuntary patricide, followed in the next issue.
At the same time, Congo Bill bowed out his short run in the comic.
Since their respective debuts, The Spectre had been the lead feature in More Fun and Doctor Fate closing things out. Now, in issue 68, the roles were reversed.
Despite Fate and the Spectre, More Fun had never wholly accepted superheroing.

The first time he was popular

Now the time was coming when this would change rapidly. Johnny Quick, a rip-off of The Flash in issue 71, Aquaman, a rip-off of the Sub-Mariner and The Green Arrow, a rip-off of Batman both in issue 73, all created by Mort Weisinger. In between times, Dr Fate got the toning down I knew was coming, getting rid of the supernatural and the eerie in favour of a half-faced helm that exposed his nose and mouth, and aiding his sudden vulnerability to attacks on his lungs. Only Radio Squad and Clip Carson survived the transition.
And Fate was not the only supernatural character to get toned down as issue 74 introduced The Spectre to Percival Popp, the Super-Cop. I have long read about, but never read, this comic relief character who was to dog Corrigan and his ghost for the rest of the series. Popp turned out to not be a cop but rather a private detective, determined to work side-by-side with Jim Corrigan. He was a short, skinny guy with a big nose, glasses and a shock of dark red hair. He could have been worse but he was bad enough: a comic relief character in January 1942?
The rest of the title was not at all impressive. Johnny Quick was crude. Aquaman and Green Arrow were as bland as their spells in the Fifties in Adventure, just cruder in style to begin with. And Doctor Fate had exchanged gothic/sinister tones for obsessive, pun-based wisecracking of a kind that makes Spider-Man look sophisticated.
The first history of The Spectre I ever read, as long ago as 1966, made mention of the time when the Avenging Ghost was permitted to resurrect Jim Corrigan’s body to life. I’d always been under the impression that this had preceded the arrival of Percival Popp, but in fact it followed it, by one issue.
Issue 75 saw Clarice Winston trying to re-enter Corrigan’s life. His cruel rejection of her in his origin is always held up as a key factor in that story but it leaves the impression that that was that for the lovelorn heiress. But Clarice remained as much in love with him as ever, and hopeful of getting married, and Jim still found her hard to resist. Now Popp, in his second apearance, took a hand in trying to put the two back together.

No comment

But Clarice was becoming the victim of an artist who was draining her life, and who was having a sculpture thrown into the river, exactly where Benson’s men had thrown Corrigan’s cement barrel. To prevent his body being found, and blowing his identity, The Spectre sought and received permission to restore Corrigan to life.
And the first thing Corrigan did was seek out Clarice.
It was a touching reward for her faith and patience. Now his excuse for not marrying her was, you’ll pardon the phrase, dead in the water. Did he get engaged to her? No, you’d think he was engaged to Percival Popp, in both his existences, since the little man became co-star of the series two issues later.
The success of the Green Arrow took me completely by surprise. By issue 76, he’d claimed the lead story and, an issue later, took over the cover. Clip Carson was dropped as from the same issue.
It might be germane to ask, if Green Arrow had become the most popular character in More Fun, as he self-evidently had, why was he not drafted into the Justice Society of America? There are two answers to that: America had entered the War, paper was rationed, no new titles were to be launched for the duration, and had they topped any reader’s polls, neither The Spectre nor Doctor Fate had anywhere to go to make room.
More pertinently, Green Arrow – and Speedy – already had a team to call home, Detective Comics’ Seven Soldiers of Justice, aka the Law’s Legionnaires, denizens of the recently created Leading Comics.
More Fun was now firmly a superhero comic. Clip Carson had gone, leaving only the long-running Radio Squad to disrupt the line-up. The Green Arrow’s stories were no better or worse than the ones in Adventure in the Fifties, the main distinction being that the Emerald Archer only fires real arrows, with points not gimmicks. Aquaman deals with mainly realistic sea adventures, without the constant ‘finny friends’ business, but he’s the entirely human son of a famous submarine scientist who’s taught him scientific ways of living under the water. Johnny Quick, now enjoying some solid art from ‘Mort Morton’, is the best of the bunch.
As for the old stagers, the de-powered Doctor Fate is not a patch on the full-helmed version. There are no magical or super-scientific foes, just ordinary crooks. The series is energetic enough and Inza is doing a sterling job of showing that you really don’t need to hide your identity from your girlfriend, but it’s still pallid stuff compared to the beginning. And The Spectre has now resigned himself to a full-time role alongside the ridiculous Popp. At least we no longer have to suffer the incessant and tiresome demands of the Cliffland Chief of Police that Jim Corrigan capture The Spectre because The Spectre is behind everything. Obviously. Not that much of a relief, sadly.
The War came to More Fun in issue 84, on the cover at least and, in passing, in Green Arrow’s strip. The next issue was billed as a big change in Doctor Fate’s life as the Doctor became a Doctor, retraining as a physician. This made me think: once again, the histories I’ve read of characters have not been as accurate as they might. Kent Nelson has always been portrayed as an archaeologist, like his father Sven, who changed profession to Doctor to be more useful during the War years. When he was revived in 1965, he was back in the digging business. Incidentally, having jettisoned the lower half of his helm, Fate dispensed with his golden cape as well.
In fact, throughout Fate’s series to date, once Kent Nelson was revealed, there was not one word about his profession. And how could he go on digs when he spent all his time in that walled tower in Salem?
Incidentally, the story revealing Nelson’s new profession saw Fate meet a plastic surgeon blackmailed into creating new faces for crooks over a brother in a prison camp in Germany, exactly the same set up as the Green Arrow story in the same issue.
Though he didn’t displace the Green Arrow from the leading position, Johnny Quick did get onto the cover for issues 86 and 87. As for issue 88, The Spectre story had him, and Jim Corrigan, as just a ghost again. There had only been one additional story after issue 75 to specifically reference Corrigan as human again (and dating Clarice), but this was a definitive continuity-reversal.
There was one final story to reference Corrigan and The Spectre as separate, and this was the one in which they separated. Corrigan the human could finally pass the physical, and went into officer-training, to fight the Japanese, leaving the Spectre behind to keep helping out Percival Popp. But separation from his host had the unexpected effect of leaving the ghost invisible. In possession of all his other powers alright, just not visible. So the once-mighty Spectre, who could kill at a glance, was now the stooge. Thankfully, not for much longer.
The same issue did include a development I was glad to see, the re-entry of Inza Kramer, fiancee to that dashing young Interne, Doctor Nelson. Aww, so sweet. Clarice Winston must have been green. But that would prove to be Inza’s final appearance in the series.
A minor detail that intrigued me by this point was a succession of adverts for Prize Comics, and then Prize and Headline Comics. No such titles were ever published by Detective or All-American, and these turned out to be titles published by Crestwood Publications, who had the bright and possibly unique idea of advertising in their bigger rivals line!
With paper rationing starting to bite, in the form of an order to reduce usage by 10%, More Fun, which had been monthly since it established itself, was demoted to bi-monthly status for the duration. All this was to was was to delay the changes lying directly ahead.
In the meantime, a slip on the cover of issue 93 plugged The Green Arrow and Speedy, whilst the Aquaman story was, for once, worth reading. The Monarch of the Sea guards a delayed freighter bringing supplies to Murmansk. The twist is that it has an all-female crew and, whilst Aquaman and the Germans patronisingly underestimate the ladies, they perform with calm confidence and aptitude, needing no condescension. Oh, and the Captain turns into a red-headed babe in a backless evening dress when they arrive!

Even less comment

Little things: Johnny Quick’s stories had adopted a comfortable formula by which the Mile-a-Moment hero has to help someone by doing a job that would take a dozen men a month to complete, but do it in less than twenty-four hours. At the back end of his run and using only the most minimal talents, Doctor Fate was only now being referred to regularly as ‘the Man of Magic’. And issue 94 saw the debut of Dover and Clover, twin private detectives who made Percy Popp look competent.
Nevertheless, they quickly proved to be so popular that they shared the cover of issue 98 with Green Arrow and Speedy, who were quoted as claiming this was “Our Mag”. Not for much longer it wouldn’t be but this issue saw the final appearance of Doctor Fate, in a sadly stupid and unbelievable little escapade that was below even the standards his series had sunk to. Cover date July-August 1944: in All-Star Comics 21, cover-dated Summer 1944, the Doc and Sandman were active in their last Justice Society adventure.
Fate was not replaced, unless you count a one-page comic historical feature a replacement. Two issues later, More Fun reached its historical 100th issue, without fanfare, celebration or effort of note, though Johnny Quick got the cover and the lead slot and Green Arrow was bounced back to fourth slot.
More Fun used to be The Spectre’s comic. It was so for the last time in issue 101 (January-February 1945). And the Ghostly Guardian, or else the Dark Knight as he was so frequently called over four decades before Frank Miller’s first Batman story, made his last appearance in All-Star in issue 23, Winter 1944. Like Doctor Fate, the disappearances were virtually simultaneous, and the last story undistinguished. Both had been undistinguished for a long time.
The Spectre’s replacement was introduced in a five-page prelude in issue 101. Superman had long been human until he reached manhood. Now he had a career to be revealed as Superboy, though not the Superboy Jerry Siegel had envisaged, nor a Superboy Siegel had any part in, More Fun‘s line-up would now consist of Superboy, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Johnny Quick, plus the stupid Dover and Clover. Sound familiar? It ought to, for reasons we’ll shortly learn.
Anyway, Superboy’s full-scale debut didn’t merit him the cover, which went to the twin detectives, nor even the lead slot, which was Green Arrow again. It was a younger Superboy than we would get used to, somewhere around age eight, and a Clark Kent who didn’t wear glasses and acted like a normal kid. There was some way to go yet.
And there was no rush to exploit the new character, though he was mentioned on issue 103’s cover, as Green Arrow and Speedy once again call out Dover and Clover for trying to take over ‘their book’, only for the clueless crime-crackers to turn up again to point out Superboy’s in it. And they showed him on the cover of the next issue, with the crime-fighting archers.
Superboy might have started without Jerry Siegel, but his name was on it, alongside Joe Schuster, next time around. There were none of the familiar characters, no Ma and Pa Kent, no pretty redhead next door. They wouldn’t come until later, and in a different title.
Because, after issue 107, cover-date January-February 1946, More Fun underwent a wholesale change of direction, to emulate its name by becoming a comic comic. The regulars, Superboy, Johnny Quick, Green Arrow and Aquaman, were shipped out en masse, to, as we have already seen, Adventure Comics, where they would stay for over a decade.

Alfred Bester created this?

With issue 108, Dover and Clover took over the cover, and the lead slot, greeting Genius Jones, who had travelled in the opposite direction and dropped into place behind them. The rest of the comic was new, or rather old – old hat, that is. A parade of silly characters and silly situations, without any of the ingenuity or humour of the newspaper strips of the era, or any of the rich cartooning abilities of their artists. But the next month, for the comic had been returned to monthly status now the war was over, just in time for its great change, Genius Jones – a creation of Alfred Bester, my life –  had both cover and lead slot and the detectives were back at the back.
In fact, they were settling in to alternate cover billing.
Now it’s fair to say that, with the exception of Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly and the Red Tornado, I get nothing from the Golden Age humour strips. Even Johnny Thunder was nigh on intolerable at times, when Peachy Pet took the lead. So from More Fun‘s change of direction to the end of the run, there is little to interest me. Nevertheless, I read each issue (semi-) diligently to check for anything requiring comment.
For the record, the line-up after the alternating leads consisted of Curly’s Cafe, Windy, The Gas House Gang, Rusty, Cabby Casey and Cunnel Custard, but if you want any more details than that, buy your own DVD!
That was until issue 121, which introduced Jimminy and his Magic Book, a fairytale adventure that got not merely cover status but two well-drawn stories inside. Genius Jones and Dover & Clover continued, as did Rusty, Windy and the Gas House Gang but everybody else was dropped.
There wasn’t much left. Howard Post’s art on Jimminy (whose other name was Crockett) may well have been the best ever to appear in More Fun, with a foreshadowing of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but More Fun was heading for cancellation. Superman crossed the cover of issue 125, Cabbie Casey replaced Rusty in issue 126, and with issue 127, cover dated November-December 1947, with no less than five Jimminy stories and one final Dover & Clover, it was gone.
So ended DC’s oldest title and Genius Jones andDJimminy went with it. Depending on dates, Dover and Clover may have had as much as ten more appearances in them across other titles, but they ended up in deserved limbo too. And, in the absence of a DVD of either or both of Leading Comics and Star-Spangled Comics, that completes my adventures in the Golden Age.

Michael Fleisher R.I.P.: A Study in Notoriety


Sometimes, when someone famous dies, it overshadows the passing of someone else who deserves attention. The day Sir Laurence Olivier died was also the day Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and many more, died, which was a much more personal loss for me, and one that, understandably, went virtually unnoticed.

Stephen Hawking’s death today has coincided with that of a figure who is much less deserving of attention than Mel Blanc, a former comic book writer who has not been involved with the field for decades, but who once achieved an unwelcome form of notoriety that played out when I was fully involved with comics.

This was Michael Fleisher. He left behind him a reputation that, for a time, he seemed to revel in, but which ultimately did him no good. Fleisher got his start in writing comics in the mid-Seventies. He had been installed at DC’s offices to research a proposed six volume history of comics, and from there started to get story assignments.

His first regular series became one of the most notorious of all time in mainstream comics, the revival of DC’s Forties character, The Spectre, in Adventure Comics.

Adventure was being edited by Joe Orlando, who had recently undergone a street mugging at gunpoint that left him furious and frustrated. The Spectre was the spirit of murdered Police Detective, Jim Corrigan, sent back by (impliedly) God, to fight evils with vast supernatural power.

The Spectre had been revived in the Sixties, as part of the Golden Age revival spearheaded by editor Julius Schwartz, where he had been treated as an almost God-like being. Fleisher proposed to go back to the root of the character, as a ruthless dispatcher of criminals. Orlando was just in the mood for that.

Fleisher played around a bit with The Spectre, taking him back to the original state, where Corrigan and The Spectre were the same being and both a ghost, ignoring the development that had seen Corrigan’s body restored to life and become a host for The Spectre. He introduced a new girlfriend in heiress Gwen Sterling (replacing original girlfriend Clarice Winston) and allowed her, unlike Clarice, to know that Jim was a ghost. And he thoroughly confused which Earth this was all taking place on by having a rookie cop respond to a sarcastic reference to ‘Clark Kent’ with a ‘Gee! Are you really Superman?’

But these were peripherals. Fleisher’s series was about one thing, and one thing only: how the Spectre slaughtered the villains. There was a formula to the series: sadistic and brutal crooks would prey on ordinary people without conscience: the Spectre would come along and kill them. The game was in what twisted manner, wonderfully illustrated by the great Jim Aparo, the Spectre would act. These included expanding a hairdresser’s scissors to massive size and cutting him in half, turning a fake crystal ball merchant into crystal an knocking him over to shatter and, most sickening of all, turning a man into wood and feeding him through a woodcutter.

The series was selling, but it was also arousing a lot of fan opposition. Apparently, Publisher Carmine Infantino, after taking a lot of heat for the series, looked for an excuse to end it and the moment the sales dipped, it was gone.

The series ran 10 issues. Twelve scripts had been purchased and two were left undrawn, which was exceptional behaviour for DC Comics in that era. They wanted The Spectre dead, which he had been all along, to be fair. Actually, the series ended appropriately with a two-parter in which Corrigan pleaded with God to restore his humanity, God did so without telling him, Corrigan promptly got shot, believing he was still a ghost (in this series, even God was a sadistic bastard), and then he got killed and went back to being The Spectre.

Fleisher was upset about the criticism of his work on this series, protesting that he had done nothing that The Spectre hadn’t done in the Golden Age. That may be so, but there is a world of difference between that being done in primitive, stiff art by Bernard Bailey and high-detail, polished slick art from Aparo.

And I am moderately confident that Bailey and co-creator Jerry Seigel never wrote a scene in which the Spectre chops a woman into seven separate parts in a single panel.

I’d bought and enjoyed the series, which appeared in the first year I came back to reading comics. I didn’t make a point of following Fleisher’s later career, though I was aware that he had acquired a high reputation after taking over DC’s scar-faced western bounty-hunter, Jonah Hex. I never read any of this series, but Fleisher was again noted for the twisted aspects of a Special he wrote, featuring Hex in his sixties, being killed by being shot in the back, like Wild Bill Hickock at the poker table, and his body being stuffed for an exhibition at a Wild West Fair. Not exactly John Wayne, nor even Clint Eastwood.

Then there was the matter of Fleisher’s (only?) novel, Chasing Hairy. Yes, from the dubious title onwards, this appears to have been a pretty repellent thing. I have never seen the book, let alone read it, but I have read a summary of its plot, and seen many quotes, and there seems to be general consensus that this is a pretty repulsive piece of misogyny, including sexual violence towards women.

What I do know is that Fleisher bought advertising space to promote his book, in which he received permission to feature several of the comics characters he had written at that point. These included Jonah Hex, acting scared by its contents, and Spider-Woman, relishing how super-sexy it made her feel, and that Fleisher certainly knew how to turn a woman on. By forcing her to perform a blow job and them setting her alight? Kinky.

And like Charles Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, Fleisher seemed to have something of a bondage fetish, allegedly constantly trying to introduce bound women into his stories, and having been complained about by more than one Editor, technically responsible for the content of the comic, for this tendency.

This was Michael Fleisher’s career, up to that point in 1983 when Gary Goth interviewed Harlan Ellison for The Comics Journal 53. This was a free-ranging talk, with Ellison offering unbridled opinion about multiple subjects. When it came to Fleisher, Ellison was enthusiastic about his work, saying that “there’s a genuinely twisted imagination at work” and describing it as “Bugfuck”. You might not agree with the actual wording, but it’s clear from context that Ellison is praising Fleisher, even to the extent to comparing him with H P Lovecraft.

Unfortunately, Fleisher did not see it that way. His immediate response was to demand an apology and retraction from TCJ. This would have been considered, but Fleisher went so far as to writ his own multi-page apology and retraction, including demands for banner front page headlines, in terms deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible to the Journal. No magazine would have conceded that, and the editors determined to investigate the aggrandising claims Fleisher was making, but were halted when he issued proceedings against TCJ and Ellison.

The Journal based their defence on their First Amendment rights.

The case ran for years, and polarised much of the comics industry, based mostly on individuals’ reactions to the abrasive Journal and its provocative stance. Journal publishers, Fantagraphics, published several fundraiser comics, featuring material donated by writers and artists, to pay legal bills, and at one time were accused by one of their enemies of taking everyone for a ride and that they were spending the money on cars etc.

Some less publicised efforts were made to raise money for Fleisher, but his main supporter in the action appeared to be Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, who gave up prodigious amounts of time to give evidence in Court about the damage the interview had done to Fleisher’s reputation in the market, and thus his income (which increased during the time it took to get the case to Court and was accordingly argued to have risen less than it would have without the defamation).

Eventually, the case went to Court with hearings lasting for weeks, after which the jury took ninety minutes to find for the Journal and Ellison. The word went around at the time that a juror had been overheard saying that they none of them believed a word of Shooter’s testimony.

The verdict came in just in time for a very short note to appear in TCJ issue 114. Gary Groth’s victory speech to the fan press was a reading of the First Amendment. But TCJ 115 went to town, with a cover dominated by Jim Shooter giving testimony and practically the whole issue given over to the course of the case and Trial transcripts. Fleisher’s ‘demanded’ apology was printed, as was the aborted refutation of his claims therein. Fleisher’s testimony didn’t arrive but Shooter’s was there in full, and it was not pretty reading, especially for those writers and artists at Marvel who suddenly found themselves officially reduced to puppets of the editor…

Shooter was growing increasingly unpopular for his dictatorial ways around Marvel, and the hostility around what was seen by many as an attempt to crush a magazine that constantly railed against him and Marvel was at one time cited as contributing to Shooter’s sacking as Editor-in-Chief not so many moons later.

It did for Fleisher’s career as a comic book writer. After this debacle, he disappeared from the industry, cut all ties with his former colleagues, and was believed to have been living in Ontario when word was passed that he’d died.

I doubt it would have made much of a splash anyway, but today it’s not even ephemera.

And there doesn’t seem to be much reaction in comics circles Stateside either. Fleisher actually died as far back as February 2, aged 75. He was a good writer, technically, but from all I read of his work, his imagination took him into dark and dubious areas that I personally would not want to navigate. His biggest, and self-induced problem was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that Harlan Ellison was praising him for that, and he started a lawsuit that blew up spectacularly in his face. Conspiracy theorists even contended that Fleisher was under the influence of Jim Shooter, who saw him as a means to crush The Comics Journal: certainly, that self-composed apology is more of an attempt at humiliation than apology and reparation.

Whether there’s any truth in that, I have no idea. Jim Shooter’s attempt to use Fleisher’s lawsuit for exactly that purpose sure blew up in his face.

Whatever the truths, Fleisher has gone into the dark. The legacy he leaves is minimal and corrupted. Even if the news had not coincided with Stephen Hawking, his passing would probably only been of interest to a few of us, who remember the saga. Not a legacy worth leaving.

If you can’t go wildly OTT at a time like this, when can you?

 

Theatre Nights: The Phantom of the Fair


Sandman Mystery Theatre  41-44 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
As I’ve previously stated, the Golden-Age Sandman appeared fully-formed, without explanation or origin. It took until 1986 for a retrospective origin to be written, only for that to be superseded by Neil Gaiman within two years.
That temporary origin was a typically convoluted affair by Roy Thomas: wealthy socialite, Wesley Dodds, learns of rumours that an assassin will attempt to kill King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England when they attend the forthcoming New York World Trades Fair. The supposed assassin is the Crimson Avenger, in fact a hero, one of the very earliest (before Superman) and sometimes mistaken for a villain in his early career. The Crimson is also the only hero apart from Sandman to start off in business suit and mask.
Now, rather than do anything sensible like go to the Police, Dodds decides to tackle the Avenger direct. As the Avenger operates with a gas gun, Dodds dons a gas mask (I assume that the green suit, orange fedora and grey cape are mere decoration). However, when he finally confronts the Crimson, in the Fair, he is shocked when the Crimson recognises his voice and unmasked. The Avenger’s real identity is crusading publisher/editor Lee Travis, who happens to be Dodds’s cousin (of course he is, comics can never accept that unrelated things can happen).
The true villain is an individual calling himself The Phantom of the Fair. Thus, though this origin has been wiped from existence, it came as no surprise that it should be obliquely honoured by the production of a play under the title of the villain.
And the Royals visit the Fair, and the Crimson Avenger is present, and there are nods and hints to the coming world of heroes, but this is a far different Phantom, with a far different aim in mind, and The Phantom of the Fair is the most visceral and disturbing of all the plays in this season, because underlying this story is sex, homosexual sex, a forbidden and illegal world in the New York of 1939. And the Phantom is a leather-clad figure of obsessive, perverted disgust and twisted self-loathing.
There is too much in this story, little details and moments, gathering in and binding, to speak of in any review. I shall do no more than touch upon the progression of the play throughout its engulfing four acts.
The story is set in and around the site of the famous 1939 New York World’s Fair, ‘The World of Tomorrow’, with its many famous features: the Trylon and the Perisphere, Democracity, the Lagoon of Nations etc. The setting awes and inspires Dian Belmont, so much so that she brings father Larry back for her second visit. Wesley, typically, is incapable of surrendering to the appeal of this vision of a better world without simultaneously seeing it for a fiction, a comfortable self-blinkering exercise that excludes evil by simply avoiding looking at it.
Unfortunately, others share that same view. Cannily, Wagner/Seagle/Davis begin by showing us the committee behind the Fair attacking its President, Grover Whalen (all the members are historically correct) over the financial failure it seems likely to be. This sets up a tension over the Fair’s reality before Wesley starts undermining it in his narrative.
But the killer who calls himself the Phantom of the Fair is equally determined to undermine the vision of the Fair. Even as Wesley and Dian enjoy their day, Lieutenant Burke is on the site – miles out of his jurisdiction – investigating the first in a series of murders, bodies been left provocatively to be found, and the notes that come with them assert the Phantom’s determination that what he represents be carried into the Day after Tomorrow, amidst its glacial perfection.
The Phantom turns out to be a very ordinary guy, with an ordinary name and a prosaic means of access to the Fair based on his involvement in its construction. His name is unimportant, and he is colourless in his public persona, but underneath, in solitude, he is a mass of seething passions and hatreds. Through his escalating cruelty, and growing delusion, we piece together a background that an almost make us feel sympathy to him: youthful experimentation with his cousin discovered by an overly-dominant father with his own, denied, tendencies, beatings and torture experienced and now regurgitated against young gay men that the Phantom both desires and loathes. I’m not going to go into any details as to the tortures the man inflicts, save to say that they include castration (and when his madness truly breaks, confronted by a Sandman who is seeking vengeance, not justice, this time), and it is implied that the [phantom has already castrated himself
It’s sick and it’s vile, and whilst the play does not indulge itself unnecessarily in graphic display, it does not shrink from what it is describing.
Nor do Wagner/Seagle/Davis concentrate solely upon the sickness of the Phantom. Burke, unsurprisingly, reacts to Hubert Klein’s diagnosis that the victims were homosexual (the medical grounds for this decision are clinically, and almost hilariously spelled out) with a disgust that underpins his every further action in the case.
But whilst Burke is the dinosaur tendency in almost everything in this series of plays, representing a contrast with Wesley Dodds, we then find that Wes is almost as disturbed by homosexuality as the Lieutenant. This is amply displayed in a wonderfully pitched scene in the gay bar Burke has terrorised, in which Wesley pretends to be one of the clientele, but is forcefully jerked out of his pretence by discovering his old friend and former college mate Robert Li in there. With his boyfriend.
Wes’s floundering is shown up even more by Dian’s rescue, her beautifully fictional ‘truth’ about his being there, and her blythe acceptance of Robert’s inclination: indeed, she has regarded it as obvious since she first met him.
But Wesley is seriously thrown, and Davis draws a wonderfully uncomfortable Mr Dodds, body language blaring, when Robert calls upon him to ensure their friendship is not compromised. He’s disturbed as much at being disturbed as at his discovery which, as such things are wont to do, immediately re-colours various elements of their shared past.
And the drama reaches its perhaps inevitable peak when Robert himself becomes the last victim of the Phantom, and the Sandman discovers that it is not possible to become inured to sudden, violent death.
Because its subject is so visceral, The Phantom of the Fair is probably the most powerful of all the stories in this season. It’s a subject that could so easily have been handled crassly, but Wagner/Seagle/Davis are on top of their form, and they avoid all the traps to produce a stunning drama, in which cross-currents constantly tug the story this way and that, and which enables them to build a complex interplay that encompasses many moments of no direct relation to the course of the story.
There are too many to go into detail about, and besides I don’t wish to spoil your own pleasure, but I have to draw attention to one deftly drawn, minimalist moment early on. Dian has dragged her father to the Fair. He’s quickly impressed with the size of the Fair, and also its cleanness, commenting that her mother would have liked it. We don’t see Dian’s face, or even body language, as they are minuscule figures in a crowd, but her response – “She… It is nice, isn’t it?” – opens up an aspect of Dian we have not previously seen, she having before this seemed to be perfectly at ease with the loss of her mother.
Perhaps, significantly, this inspires her to encourage her father towards a romantic liaison with his secretary, and to drag him into an exhibition of nude painting (though Davis is again wickedly effective in putting a revealing expression on Dian’s face).
One other, almost extraneous aspect of this play is the ongoing ‘superheroising’ of the world of the Mystery Theatre. For a start, Burke’s abrasive ways with Whalen (who is more concerned with protecting the Fair’s image than catching a serial killer nutcase – telling, given that Whalen was a former Chief of Police) leads to Mayor LaGuardia bringing in his best detective as back-up to Burke.
This is the legendary Jim Corrigan, loosest cannon on the force, back from suspension at long last. Burke doesn’t like Corrigan (Burke, in case you hadn’t noticed, doesn’t like much of anybody, but in this case he loathes interference). Corrigan reassures him that he’s not out to steal Burke’s glory: he’s a ghost, he won’t be seen. If Burke solves this, no-one will know he was there: if Burke misses anything, Corrigan will pick it up.
Of course, the comics fan has jumped liked a scalded cat at the first mention of Corrigan’s name, because we know that, before the year is out, Gats Benson will kidnap Corrigan and dump him in the river in a barrel of cement. Corrigan’s spirit will emerge and rise towards heaven, only to be sent back with vast supernatural powers to fight Evil as The Specre.
It’s a nod, nothing more, and to be frank it’s one of only two unsatisfactory elements to this play. Corrigan comes and goes within a page, and that’s it. He’s referred to as having phoned in information twice, but really he’s a cameo without point to the story, and his absence is a loose end.
Of more substance, but of equal irrelevance to the Phantom’s story, is Wesley’s encounter with none other than the Crimson Avenger. This one at least had to be included, in view of his central importance to that discarded origin, but he’s another diversion, a moment in which The Sandman crosses over into a non-existant series.
Investigating the Fair at night, The Sandman finds a bunch of mobsters strong-arming a man who owes them money. He doesn’t tackle them, but the Avenger does,since they’re here because of the case he’s pursuing. Big red cloak, even bigger automatics and a simple willingness to kill scum: the Avenger may be another midnight adventurer like the Sandman, but his mercilessness repels Wesley Dodds (but then inspires him to seeking vengeance against the Phantom.
It’s a longer episode, and the two players don’t actually meet: the Sandman tosses a distracting gas canister from under a bridge, distracting the last man from killing his hostage, and far from being grateful, the Avenger doesn’t like anyone horning in on his act. His ‘We’ll meet again” is a threat.
There’s an amusing coda at the next day’s press conference, when reporters try to bring the Avenger up. Burke refuses to confirm his presence, is derisive of the Press’s urge to big up the costumed vigilantes: the Crimson Avenger, Sandman, Hourman (Rex Tyler is clearly active now). He even suggests, sarcastically, that they move to Central City and try to interview “The Flash” (a continuity error there: the Flash of this era was based in Keystone City).
These are yet more signs that the superheroes were beginning to intrude into the pulp-noir of the Theatre.
Back, for a moment, to the story. It ends at Robert Li’s funeral, with Wesley assisting as a pall bearer, but it’s final grace note is of continuing security issues at the Fair. The King and Queen of England have arrived, Corrigan has uncovered a plot to assassinate them. Roy Thomas’s discarded origin is ready to play. But not in the Mystery Theatre.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Blackhawk.
Break a leg.

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.