So a couple of months back, I started reading the TPB SPECTRE: Crimes and Judgments by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake (I’m now in the middle of their second collection, Wrath of God) as well as reading the various Spectre stories I have from the character’s previous’ series. And inevitably, decided to blog about the character, who’s been around since the Golden Age (cover by Bernard Baily, all rights with current holder).
In the Spectre’s first story (More Fun #52), by Bernard Baily and Jerry Siegel (yes, the guy who created Superman) Det. Jim Corrigan is trapped and executed by mob boss “Gats” Benson on the night before Corrigan’s wedding. At the gates of Heaven, a Voice (obviously Of God though it’s not stated) informs Corrigan that instead of eternal rest, he’s going back to Earth until he can wipe out evil. Materializing as the Spectre (the white of his costume is actually his dead body), he kills Benson and his gang just by willing it, and saves his injured fiancee, Clarice, with a touch (but as a dead man, refused to marry her).
It wasn’t a great strip. The Spectre’s powers were so awesome, no human could stand against them. Even supernatural forces were usually overmatched. Perhaps that’s why, just as fellow More Fun hero Dr. Fate become a more conventional crimefighter with time, the Spectre turned into a sidekick to comical, self-proclaimed “super cop” Percival Popp. After the Ghostly Guardian’s last story in 1944’s More Fun #101, the Spectre didn’t reappear for another 21 years.
The Spectre returned in Showcase—a tryout magazine to test the waters for new series (cover by Murphy Anderson, all rights with current holder)—after two previous unsuccessful attempts to give some DC’s Golden Age heroes (a Dr. Fate/Hourman team and Black Canary/Starman) a Silver Age series. The story (by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson) revealed that 20 years ago, the Spectre had become trapped in Jim’s body when his evil counterpart Azmodus had manifested on Earth.
Now Azmodus’ host body has died, freeing both spirits to confront each other. Azmodus lost but his master Shathan—as close to Satan as the Silver Age could get——showed up the next issue. He lost too. After one more issue of Showcase, the Spectre got his own book.
Once again, the Spectre’s nigh-omnipotent powers were a problem. To make it an even match, each issue’s ghostly villain would tap into some power source that amped him up to the Spectre’s level. This usually felt a little forced, except for #3, in which the focus isn’t on the Spectre but on the aging, non-super Golden Age hero Wildcat. The final Spectre story had the Voice strike him blind as punishment for a mistake; I imagine later issues would have used similar power-limiting punishments. However the last two issues were just a horror anthology where the Spectre narrated events from the Book of Destiny.
In 1974, Michael Fleisher and artist Jim Aparo gave us a new and very different Spectre in Adventure Comics (Cover by Aparo, all rights reside with current holder. Images taken from Mike’s Amazing World of Comics). He was still omnipotent, and used his powers ruthlessly: turn a crook to wax and drop him on a fire, turn a gunman to wood and send him through a buzz-saw, animate and enlarge a pair of scissors and snip a crook in two. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, particularly not from a super-hero (the Punisher, who debuted around the same time, was still an anti-hero). There were other elements to the strip, such as the tragic love of Gwen, a living girl, for the dead Corrigan, but the violence was the core of the strip. And it’s defined the character ever since.
More on the Spectre’s history and the Ostrander/Mandrake paperbacks, in Part Two.