Showcase Presents: The Spectre Volume 1 (DC Comics, $19.99)

Reprinting Showcase #60-61, 64; The Brave and the Bold #72, 75, 116, 180, 199; The Spectre (first series) #1-10; Adventure Comics #430-441; DC Comics Presents #29, Ghosts #97-99

Story and art by Gardner Fox,  Murphy Anderson, Michael Fleisher, Jim Aparo and diverse hands

 

[NOTE: Randy Jackson has already reviewed this book, and did an excellent job (it’s here, go read it). But I do have some different angles to approach and want to explore those.]

The Spectre isn't a very well-known hero, and that's probably because of two things that become apparent in this Showcase: 1) He doesn't sell very well, and 2) He's gone through a lot of changes. Now, the latter is undoubtedly due to the former, as writers and editors tinkered with the character to improve sales. But nevertheless it remains a truism: The Spectre's status quo has never been very status for very long.

Even in the Golden Age, The Spectre went through a sequence of alterations. He began in 1940 in More Fun Comics as the vengeful ghost of murdered police detective Jim Corrigan, who killed bad guys willy-nilly. But that was quickly toned down, and in a couple of years Corrigan was (re-) established as separate from The Spectre, with the latter having to rest inside his human counterpart to recharge. Even that didn't last long; Corrigan made a late enlistment to go fight World War II in 1944 (give him a break, he'd been dead for a while), and The Spectre became an invisible guardian angel for a character named Percival Popp, the Super-Cop. And even that ended in 1945, when The Spectre appeared for the last time in both More Fun Comics and All-Star Comics simultaneously. (Roughly the first half of the Ghostly Guardian's More Fun appearances have been reprinted in DC Archives: The Golden Age Spectre Volume 1, and all of his Justice Society appearances have been reprinted in DC Archives: The Golden Age Justice Society Volumes 1-5.)

The Showcase Presents begins with the Astral Avenger's first Silver Age appearance, in this reprint series' predecessor, the try-out series Showcase, in issues #60-61 and 63 (Jan-Sep 66). To absolutely no one's surprise, the creative team consisted of Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson.

The reason that was a no-brainer is because The Spectre's appearance in Showcase was part of a running jump-start DC was taking on its Golden Age superheroes, who had been successfully re-introduced in Flash and Justice League of America stories in the early 1960s. Showcase #55-56 (Apr-Jun 65) gave Dr. Fate and Hourman a try-out, and Brave and the Bold #61-62 (Sep-Nov 65) starred Starman, Black Canary and (tangentially) Wildcat. All of these books were by Gardner Fox (who also wrote JLA) and Murphy Anderson, so when The Spectre was trotted out for three issues of Showcase in 1966, it would have been surprising had the creative team NOT been Fox and Anderson. 

And, as noted, this was the Disembodied Detective's first Silver Age appearance, as he hadn't appeared in any of the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups to that point. Given a blank canvas, Fox opted to go with the scenario in The Spectre's Golden Age "middle period," where he lived inside Jim Corrigan, who was a separate, um, person. 

Now, to today's fans, the obvious question would be: "Well, if The Spectre isn't Jim Corrigan, who is he?" Sorry, in the SIlver Age, nobody thought through stuff like that, and we wouldn't get an attempt to answer that question until the Astral Avenger's acclaimed 1992-98 series, by John Ostrander (and it changed after that, anyway). Heck, nobody was really paying attention to any of the odd suggestions of this series, as evidenced by all the unintentional homo-erotic dialogue between Spectre and Corrigan. ("Farewell for now, Jim -- until I once more return to your body!" "I'll be waiting, Spectre!" Get a room, you guys.) 

Anyway, these stories follow a sort-of formula, as you'd expect from Gardner Fox, whose formulae for his Justice League run has been analyzed to the nth degree by our own Commander Benson. In each of the three Showcase stories, some otherworldly threat would arise, and Spectre would go fight that, while Corrigan would fight the human crooks who were somehow empowered by this astral villain. Two of The Spectre's other-worldly villains were essentially Satan stand-ins, Azmodus and Shathan, the former resembling traditional depictions of Satan (horns, black goatee, red skin), and the latter a sort of Surtur the fire demon look.

These otherworldly battles -- which, presumably, most of us are here for --- consisted mostly of the astral foes battling in some other plane, Dr. Strange style, only without Ditko's creativity in depicting those realms. Spectre and his foe would grow to tremendous size and throw planets and comets at each other. Fox would toss in some dramatic techno-babble (magic-babble?) about astral energy and psycho-whatsis indicating how critical this battle was, but honestly, if you're over the age of 10 you realize it's nonsense and that Fox is making up the rules as he goes along. Still, this was fun stuff to me when I was 10, and -- perhaps due to nostalgia -- it still is. Fox's word-salad is professional word-salad, and is appropriately breathless. And Anderson's depiction of mystical realms is so precise and mundane -- the virtual opposite of Ditko -- that they can seem all the more plausible.

I should note here that one of the hallmarks of Spectre stories is weird and unnerving transformations, like where Spectre inhabits a puppet or turns people into inanimate objects. Fox uses some of that -- in one scene two gems turn into death's-head eyes (another Spectre hallmark), and then into The Spectre himself. Cool! But he just scares the crooks, he doesn't kill them, as he originally did in the Golden Age. I thought that worth mention, because the subject will come up again.

I'll also mention at this point that the Supernatural Sleuth got some extra exposure simultaneously with his Showcase appearances, by playing an important role in the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossover of 1966. Things would have gone very badly for both Earth-One and Earth-Two if the Ghostly Guardian hadn't countered the Anti-Matter Man for two issues in Justice League of America #46-47 (Aug-Sep 66).

Audiences at the time appeared to need a little more convincing, though, so Spectre got two more try-outs, in tandem with Batman and Flash, respectively, in Brave and Bold #72 (Jun 67) and #75 (Dec 67), both written by Bob Haney. As a boy I always tried to figure why every team-up selection was made in B&B, and sometimes I even figured it out right. The Spectre's two (almost) back-to-back appearances always baffled me, though, because he wasn't a popular enough character to deserve that. But I hadn't read those Silver Age DCs in any particular order, so the obvious wasn't obvious to me at the time: These two appearances follow Spectre's Showcase try-outs, and lead me to believe that those sales were borderline enough for DC to take a couple more chances on the character. And it appeared to work, because after these two B&B adventures, Spectre was awarded his own series. 


About those Brave & Bold appearances: You may wonder how it could work to pair an incredibly powerful character like Spectre  with a non-powered character like Batman in a way to provide genuine drama. The answer is: it couldn't, and didn't. Interestingly, when I read these stories as part of the Brave & Bold run, I didn't notice how stupid they were. And that's because they took place in what we now call the Haneyverse, where everyone shouts "Blazes!" and characters act out of character to make Haney's puns work, and Batman can do anything, because the plot calls for it, or blunder so badly you wonder why he's still alive, when the plot calls for that. In context of the Haneyverse, these stories sorta worked as light-hearted groaners.

But reading them in between Spectre adventures written by Gardner Fox, these Haney stories jump out as juvenile, implausible and almost incoherent. It appears that in this case, context is everything. As to the art, the inevitable Ross Andru and Mike Esposito did the first, and Carmine Infantino did the second. Both made me miss Murphy Anderson.

Anyway, as noted, those B&B stories -- no matter how dreadful -- led to The Spectre getting an eponymous series, which lasted a whole 10 issues (Nov 67-May 69). Needless to say, it wasn't a hit. And because of weak sales, once again the Ace of Shades went through some ch-ch-changes.

The first issue gave us no surprises, as it was essentially a fourth Showcase appearance with Fox and Anderson once again at the helm. A ghostly pirate who is more powerful than The Spectre (!) leads the Spirit Sleuth in a battle through time, which is fun for the various eras depicted. (Roman gladiators, Paris kidnapping Helen of Troy, etc.). But the second issue gives us a welcome shock: A young, but already eye-popping, Neal Adams on pencils. The third issue puts an equally young Mike Friedrich at the typewriter, still with Adams. Finally, in issues #4-5, Adams both writes and draws. 

Now, anyone who's read Continuity Comics or the recent Batman: Odyssey has an opinion on Adams' writing skills. Whatever you think, you're right, because these stories will support it. I have my own opinion, which wasn't changed a whit reading these. Hint: I think Adams is a very good artist. And further: Adams' fantastic art was enough for me when I was 10, and it's enough for me now. I don't really need a great story when I can savor these pencils.

One thing of interest during the Adams run is that it firmly established The Spectre as an Earth-Two character. We sorta already knew from Justice League of America stories that there was no Earth-One equivalent of the Astral Ace, but Fox confirmed that he was an Earth-Two phenomenon in The Spectre #3 (Mar 68) with a Wildcat team-up. At that time, Wildcat was unique to Earth-Two, so that meant Spectre lived there, too.

But evidently that wasn't enough for the audiences of 1969, because with issues #6-8, Jerry Grandenetti replaced Adams, with Anderson on inks, and Fox back as writer (on #6-7, with Steve Skeates on #8).

I am by no means a Grandenetti fan; I find his work erratic, almost childlike. But even I can see some value to his work on occasion, especially on horror stories.

Not here. I doubt even Grandenetti fans would disagree with me that there is no inker less suited to Grandenetti's flowing, undisciplined style than the very disciplined, very precise Anderson. Grandenetti's every flaw, from lack of anatomy and perspective, to eccentric storytelling, is exaggerated, and the virtue of his free-flowing style is stymied, as Anderson tries to turn Grandenetti's work into DC's house style. It's really a mess. 

As to story, in the eighth issue, the changes alluded to begin -- and once the drip begins, it turns into a waterfall. 

Skeates writes a story where Corrigan won't let The Spectre into his body -- settle down, Beavis -- until the Ghostly Guardian gets him out of a jam with some trigger-happy hoods. The exhausted Spectre does so, but sloppily injures a bystander in the process. "The Voice" that gives The Spectre his powers finds this reprehensible for some reason (The Spectre has done much worse in his 38 years), and tells The Spectre he will suffer a weakness with each succeeding adventure as punishment. And lo, in this issue, The Spectre suffers blindness to complicate his adventure.

Right. Like a nearly-omnipotent character like The Spectre is going to be hobbled by blindness. He's a ghost, for cry-eye! Do they even need to see? But this is hardly surprising, given that at this point, DC had saddled all of its near-omnipotent characters with some kind of weakness: Superman had kryptonite, Green Lantern had yellow, the original Green Lantern had wood, Martian Manhunter had fire -- heck, even Dr. Fate had a weakness: His lungs, which could be overcome by drowning or gas. (Yep, that one's pret-ty odd.) So now The Spectre was going to get one, and a different one every issue!

Wow. You don't have to be a good editor to know this is not going to work. It's the dumbest idea ever spawned.


Fortunately, it didn't last even 30 days. In the next issue, the whole rotating-weakness thing is forgotten by returning writer Friedrich, who institutes a new status quo. In the set-up story at the beginning, The Spectre fails in some minor regard, and once again "The Voice" feels the need to micromanage, and assigns The Spectre a book which includes various naughty people who are doing naughty things that he must judge (after they have an adventure, of course). This means that The Spectre was now an anthology, with various short stories that don't include the Ghostly Guardian until the very end, where he steps in, but even so rarely to become involved, instead usually delivering a crime-does-not-pay epilogue. 

And in the tenth issue, in one of the three stories, Spectre's judgment is that the protagonist is irredeemable, and he kills him dead. D-E-A-D. Remember when The Voice was upset because Spectre injured someone two issues ago? Evidently The Voice is on vacation, because this is seen as perfectly OK, even by Corrigan and other witnesses, because, well, it's the last issue. Never mind.

And it looked like DC gave up on The Spectre at this point, even killing him off at the end of the annual JLA/JSA crossover of 1970, in Justice League of America #82-83 (Aug-Sep 70).

But can you really kill a ghost? Because up next are the famous Spectre stories that still resonate with the character to this day, from Adventures Comics #431-440 (Jan 74-Jan 75). Yup, the Michael Fleisher stories that prompted Harlan Ellison to describe Fleisher as "bug-fuck," among other uncomplimentary terms. (Although Ellison would later say he meant "bug-fuck" to be complimentary. And I kinda believe him. Have you ever read Ellison?)

And, frankly, I love them. I loved them then, when the Li'l Capn was in high school, and I love them now. They were all written by Fleisher, and all drawn by the incomparable Jim Aparo.

As you've no doubt heard (assuming you haven't read them), these 11 stories follow irredeemable murderers who are eventually tracked down and killed by The Spectre. In each case, the death is inventive, visually disturbing (although they are bloodless) and often revoltingly appropriate. (A manniken maker is turned into a manniken and melted; that kind of thing.)

Now, anyone who's read this far may have guessed -- and Fleisher confirms -- that he got his inspiration for this approach by reading the original Spectre stories from 1940-41, claiming that even a number of the deaths were lifted straight from those old stories. And this is supported by the Spectre/Corrigan relationship, which is once again that they are the same being, as they were in the beginning. So for those who whined at the time and panicked DC into ending this series: You are wrong, you are terrible people, and you should shut up forever.

Because, yes, there were complaints that this series was too violent, blah blah. Humbug. The violence was almost entirely psychological, and had ample precedent. And these stories were less violent than the crime shows all over TV at the time -- and by today's standards, they are virtually tame. Ha-rumph, I say. The nay-sayers ended a perfectly cool series, and now posterity is denied whatever Fleisher and Aparo would have done with it.


Although Fleisher did write three more stories, that were later illustrated by Aparo in the 1980s and published the fourth issue of a 1988 series which reprinted the other 11 stories, The Wrath of the Spectre. Those stories are not included in this book -- although they should be -- but will hopefully lead off a Showcase Presents: The Spectre Volume 2. Got my fingers crossed.

Having said all that, there are a couple of other elements of interest to mention here. 

One is that Fleisher added a love interest, a rich girl saved by The Spectre who falls in love with Jim Corrigan. But he's a ghost, so he can't dally with mortals. Boo hoo. I found the story tedious, but it did add some eye candy to the series, as Aparo constantly drew the heiress in bikinis and whatnot.

Also, Fleisher added another cliche, the dogged reporter who realizes some otherworldly force is responsible for a series of gruesome deaths, realizes there's some connection with Corrigan, and begins turning up underfoot. He turns up again later, which is the only reason he needs to be mentioned.


Finally, something I don't see many people mention, is that Fleisher didn't put his Spectre series on Earth-Two, or maybe even Earth-One: Jim Corrigan lives in New York City. Yes, the real New York City, introduced to the DC Universe for the first time. (In the 1960s, The Spectre operated out of the Gateway City of Earth-Two.) Not only that, but Corrigan refers to the bespectacled reporter -- whose name is Earl Crawford -- as "Clark Kent," and another cop says "Gee, are you really Superman?"

Think about that. This series didn't take place on Earth-One either! The Spectre operated on a world where Superman was a fictional character -- or at least one whose secret ID was widely known. Where on Earth(s) is that? Believe me, that was revolutionary for mid-1970s DC Comics!

Anyway, what follows after this series' abrupt cancellation (Adventure actually went on to be a digest reprint book for a while) is a hodge-podge of Spectre's various appearances during his Adventure run, and afterward through 1983. In most of the, the Fleisher approach still prevails. They are:

  • The Brave and the Bold #116 (Dec 74): Another trip to the Haneyverse, but palatable due to Aparo art.
  • DC Comics Presents #29 (Jan 81): Teaming Superman and Spectre, it's an early appearance by writer/artist Jim Starlin of Warlock and Captain Marvel fame over at Marvel; it's amusing to see DC try to doctor his art so that Superman's face looks like Curt Swan drew it. Anyway, there's only a story because Superman acts like an idiot and tries to fight The Spectre. He loses, badly, and the story ends, weakly. But it's interesting because of the Starlin presence, and because Superman loses so badly in his own book.
  • Ghosts #97-99 (Feb-April 81): This is really a try-out for a Dr. Thirteen series, probably to become the star of Ghosts should sales warrant. They evidently didn't. Notable for the return of Earl Crawford, who does something the cliched "dogged reporter chasing the hero" never does: He gives up the chase, because he's afraid of The Spectre. Good boy!
  • The Brave and the Bold #180 (Nov 81): Perhaps Spectre's best B&B appearance, because it's most like his best series, from Adventure: Written by Fleisher, drawn by Aparo.
  • The Brave and the Bold #199 (Jun 83): The good news: The story's by Mike W. Barr. The bad news: It's drawn by Andru/Esposito. I didn't used to dislike these guys' work (except on Amazing Spider-Man), but the more I see it in these reprint editions, the more I tire of it. 

And that's the last of The Spectre's adventures until his second series, and hopefully that will be part of a second Showcase Presents: The Spectre. And while we're at it, DC, where are the rest of those Golden Age appearances?

Addendum

That concludes what I have to say about Showcase Presents: The Spectre Volume 1, with one minor exception. It's a weird little thing that only I seem to care about, so bear with me.

As most fans know, Silver Age DC had a predilection for assigning nicknames to their heroes, often (but not always) alliterative ones. Superman was the Action Ace, the Metropolis Marvel, the Last Son of Krypton, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, and so forth. Batman was the Gotham Guardian, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the Darkknight Detective, the World's Greatest Detective, etc. Flash may have had the most -- someday I intend to make a list and count -- including the Crimson Comet, the Wizard of Whiz, the Fastest Man Alive, the Monarch of Motion, the Scarlet Speedster, ad infinitum. Some of them were quite silly -- The Atom was sometimes the Lilliputian Lawman -- but virtually every hero had two or three nicknames, and it's my guess they existed so that the omniscient narrator didn't have to keep saying the main hero's name umpty-billion times in a single story.

The Spectre was no different, and in fact, may even rival The Flash in number of nicknames. Just through the 1970s I noticed Ghostly Guardian, Discarnate Detective, Disembodied Detective, Man of Night, Astral Avenger, Awesome Avenger (sometimes Awesome Avenger of Evil), Spirit Sleuth, Man of Darkness, Spectral Sleuth, Grim Guardian, Ace of Shades, Wonder Wraith, Discarnate Destroyer, Supernatural Sleuth, Ethereal Detective, Grim Avenger, Disembodied Daredevil and Grim Ghost. I stopped writing them down after reading the 1970s stories, and didn't look at the Golden Age, so there are doubtless more.


Why so many? At a guess I'd say it's because "The Spectre" doesn't trip off the tongue as easily as "Batman" or "Superman" who -- despite having appeared in thousands more stories than the Ghostly Guardian -- have fewer nicknames. But that is just a guess. Anyone else care to speculate?

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I wonder if the number of nicknames the Spectre had owed more to the simple fact that there were so many shifts in style and tone for the character over the years.

Thank you for reading, and commenting, Randy. You wrote your own review, but still commented on mine. Always a big man.  Kudos!

Also, you might be right. On the other hand, there are other characters over the years who never sold and had abrupt shifts in editorial direction, and yet had no extra nicknames. Blue Beetle, Challengers of the Unknown, Doom Patrol, Captain Atom, Animal Man ... there's a long list of characters or teams that have been re-invented over and over, and don't have multiple names. 

But I suspect you've got your finger on something. Not sure what, though.

The characters you point out are a bit of a motley crew when you get down to it Cap.  The Blue Beetle and Captain Atom were both Charlton characters, and it may simply be that there was little effort there to give them nicknames.  As for the others, I'm blanking on teams with nicknames and Animal Man...well, he's definitely Animal Man.  I don't think I've ever read a pre-Crisis story with Animal Man--well, I'm sure I have but it wasn't the slightest bit memorable. 

I would guess that there was a desire at DC (and to a lesser extent, Marvel) to attach importance to nicknames along those lines, at least through the Silver Age, but I think that began to wane during the Bronze Age.  I can't recall other publishers putting much emphasis on that sort of thing.

Regarding our reviews, I think we both came to the same conclusion, albeit in slightly different ways.  It's an uneven collection--there are moments of brilliance, and there are moments of boredom.  That being said, for those who consider themselves scholars of the Silver and Bronze Ages, it's worthwhile to own.

The Spectre has always been a difficult character, not only to write, but to have around at all! He was so toned down in All Star Comics so there could be a full length story to tell, not just the Ghostly Guardian devouring the Psycho Pirate on Page 2!

Any epic battle, alien invasion, mystical menace or global catastrophe in the Silver/Bronze Age had to have readers wonder, "yeah, the heroes are in trouble but where's the Spectre?" He was even mention in the X-Men/New Teen Titans book.

...I.ve often thought that the 60s series. abrupt last.issues format change reflected the speedy rise of DC.s " mystery " line in thet

Captain Comics said:

Thank you for reading, and commenting, Randy. You wrote your own review, but still commented on mine. Always a big man.  Kudos!

Also, you might be right. On the other hand, there are other characters over the years who never sold and had abrupt shifts in editorial direction, and yet had no extra nicknames. Blue Beetle, Challengers of the Unknown, Doom Patrol, Captain Atom, Animal Man ... there's a long list of characters or teams that have been re-invented over and over, and don't have multiple names. 

But I suspect you've got your finger on something. Not sure what, though.

..era , essentially turning the Spectre into a horror host . Who edited those issues ?

Emerkeith Davyjack said:
...I.ve often thought that the 60s series. abrupt last.issues format change reflected the speedy rise of DC.s " mystery " line in thet

Captain Comics said:

Thank you for reading, and commenting, Randy. You wrote your own review, but still commented on mine. Always a big man.  Kudos!

Also, you might be right. On the other hand, there are other characters over the years who never sold and had abrupt shifts in editorial direction, and yet had no extra nicknames. Blue Beetle, Challengers of the Unknown, Doom Patrol, Captain Atom, Animal Man ... there's a long list of characters or teams that have been re-invented over and over, and don't have multiple names. 

But I suspect you've got your finger on something. Not sure what, though.

Emerkeith Davyjack said:

. . . essentially turning the Spectre into a horror host . Who edited those issues ?

 

 

Dick Giordano.

 

...Thank you . The revived horror/" mystery "concept did really take off fast in the DC of that period  after HOM started it after dropping Robby and J'onn !

Commander Benson said:

Emerkeith Davyjack said:

. . . essentially turning the Spectre into a horror host . Who edited those issues ?

 

 

Dick Giordano.

 

Randy Jackson said:

As for the others, I'm blanking on . . . Animal Man...well, he's definitely Animal Man. 

 

 

The only sobriquet I ever remember seeing for Animal Man in the Silver Age was "the Man with the Animal Powers".

 

...I have always liked the Dominoed Daredoll myself .  Babs - Batgirl - of course !!!!!!!!!!!

Commander Benson said:

Randy Jackson said:

As for the others, I'm blanking on . . . Animal Man...well, he's definitely Animal Man. 

 

 

The only sobriquet I ever remember seeing for Animal Man in the Silver Age was "the Man with the Animal Powers".

 

Although Silver Age Spectre stories do take us into his thoughts, he's a less knowable character than many others and that might mean there was more reliance on narration describing him. I don't have most of his stories from the period so I can't check this theory against the actual tales.

You don't have to be a good editor to know this is not going to work. It's the dumbest idea ever spawned.

Keep in mind, this is the company that teamed Batman with Wildcat and Sgt. Rock. That introduced Don Rickles into the DCU. That gave the Metal Men human identities. That turned over Supergirl to Mike Sekowsky, who knew nothing about her. That named a comic Sword of Sorcery and a character B'wana Beast.That let Wonder Girl join the Teen Titans. That revealed that Carter Hall (not Hawkman) was an alien to an aghast public.

That. Created. Mopee.

I believe "DC's Dumbest Idea Ever" deserves its own thread, and it could end up the longest one on the board. Even before we get to the nu52.

-- MSA

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