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.
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?)
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.
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
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…