Vengeance is a dish best served dead: The Spectre again (#SFWApro)

My first post on DC’s Spectre ran up through Michael Fleisher’s 1970s series, which defined the Spectre in a way no previous series had done (I thought I’d have Part Two up sooner, but no). The concept of the Spectre as a brutal avenging angel (plus a couple of appearances in TV’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold)is the one every comics writer using the character has worked with ever since. In terms of sales, however, the series was not a success: after ten issues of Adventure Comics Aquaman came in and replaced it, even though DC had three Fleisher-written stories that hadn’t come out yet. Adventure‘s letter column said the sales had dropped after the first few issues. When the Fleisher run was reprinted years later in Wrath of the Spectre, including the unpublished three, editor Joe Orlando said he’d heard second-hand that a lot of comics creators hated the series, hated the Spectre’s brutal execution MO, and that this played into the cancellation.

The Spectre next had a three-issue run in the anthology series Ghosts, then got his own book again, scripted by Doug Moench, in 1987 (cover by Michael Kaluta, all rights with current holder) In this series spectre1the Spectre had greatly reduced powers, but still carried out his mission of vengeance, with Corrigan frequently locking horns with the Spectre over the Ghostly Guardians methods. Like a lot of Moench’s work, it didn’t click with me.

Then came the John Ostrander/Tom Mandrake series of the 1990s, and this did click. I’ve read the first two TPBs, Crimes and Judgments and Wrath of God and I wish more was out. The creators do a remarkable job combining elements of every previous run into something new. The greatest strength of the first two volumes is that they take a hard look at the Spectre concept. Why would God require Corrigan walk the Earth until evil is erased? Why target murderous hoodlums rather than war? Pollution? Racism? It turns out Corrigan’s mission wasn’t simply to destroy it, but to understand it, and so understand his own angry, frustrated soul. And that the Spectre isn’t his ghost but an angel of judgment bound to him (details of why and how came later in the series), its anger truly uncontrollable: when a dying woman begs Jim to stay with her, he has to hunt down the killer instead. Though by the end of Vol. 2, the Spectre has slowly begun a path toward redemption that would occupy much of the series.

Ostrander and Mandrake do an amazing job, though sometimes they fail the premise. In one story the Spectre wipes out Vlatava, a fictional country torn by civil war, because everyone there  has blood on their hands. The following issue the Spectre goes to Northern Ireland, but instead of unleashing his wrath, he kills one person and then leaves. I don’t know if they were uncomfortable genociding a real place or worried about the effect on the DCU (which is supposed to look reasonably close to our own world), but the difference made the second story very unconvincing. Overall, though, they’re a great pair of TPBs.

At the end of the Ostrander/Mandrake series, Corrigan finally gets eternal rest. In the Day of Judgment crossover event, Hal Jordan, deceased former Green Lantern (he’d turned evil, become a super-villain, then redeemed himself by dying to save the universe), becomes the Spectre’s newest host. A new series in 2001 has Hal using his willpower to control the Spectre and turn him into a spirit of redemption. The execution didn’t grab me, but I did like the premise. DC editor-in-chief Dan Didio, however, was determined to have Hal back as Green Lantern so Spectre eventually wound up bonded once again to a dead cop, black detective Crispus Allen. In the Spectre’s occasional appearances since it’s been mostly stock Fleisheresque stuff, rather than exploring the implications of a black spirit of vengeance.

While the Fleisher version remains definitive, the Ostrander/Mandrake run is easily my favorite.

(Cover by Tom Mandrake, all rights to current holder).

spectre1-1

 

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