It took better than a year, but in the autumn of 1967, the Spectre was awarded his own title. For the first time since the concept of parallel Earths had been presented to the readers, DC launched a series set entirely on Earth-Two.
But why the Spectre? DC had floated a few concepts for an Earth-Two series past the readers. The Doctor Fate-Hourman team in Showcase. The Starman-Black Canary team-up in The Brave and the Bold. That’s not to mention the occasional appearances of the original Flash, Green Lantern, and Atom in the titles of their respective Earth-One counterparts. Those stories had always proven popular with the fans.
Common sense says that sales dictated the decision. I don’t have any way of accessing the sales figures for the Ghostly Guardian’s three Showcase try-outs, but DC insisted that they had found overwhelming favour with the readership. In the letters page of that first issue of The Spectre, editor Julius Schwartz explained:
But you can’t keep a good man down . . . not when the insistent clamor from the readers demands otherwise! So once again---thanks to his admiring public---the Spirit Sleuth has been resuscitated---in his own regularly scheduled magazine. We’ll work like the devil (villain-wise) to give you the tops in thrilling entertainment. We won’t fail you---so don’t fail us to---KEEP THE SPECTRE ALIVE!
To corroborate this reported popularity, the lettercol carried strongly congratulatory letters on the Spectre’s Showcase appearances by regular correspondants such as Joseph Arul, Bob Butts, and Paul Seydor.
But I can’t help thinking that there were other considerations at play, as well. As I have often mentioned here, this was the time when Marvel Comics was beginning to worry the suits at DC. Marvel had gone from being the yappy little dog in the backyard next door to a genuine threat to DC’s predominance in the comics industry. Forced to admit that Stan Lee had latched on to something, the folks at National Periodical tried to beat Marvel at its own game. It tinkered with the art, with the dialogue, with the narrative voice of the captions, attempting to make their comics seem more like Marvel’s.
For the most part, the changes were inadequate and didn’t fit DC’s style, anyway. It was like putting catsup on a New York strip. But Jack Liebowitz and his editors came to one realisation that was spot-on: traditional super-heroes were on the way out. The current generation of comics fans was more sophisticated. It wanted more than simple stories about bank-robbing super-villains and concealing secret identities from snoopy girlfriends. The fans now wanted outside-the-box heroes.
My hunch is that the super-heroes from the Golden Age, whom a mere two or three years earlier had been so well received when they were revived on Earth-Two, were now just too conventional, too much old school, to entrust with their own series, and DC understood this. Except for the Spectre, who was just off-the-wall enough to maybe work.
The fact that the Spectre was a bona fide ghost set him apart from the run-of-the-mill costumed crime-buster already. That and his status as an emissary from God allowed for more outer-worldly situations. The cosmic adventures of Marvel’s flagship super-team, the Fantastic Four---Galactus, the Negative Zone, the Inhumans, and the like---were wowing the fans, and I suspect that DC saw the same potential in the Ghostly Guardian, with his nigh-omnipotent powers and ability to traverse space, dimensions, and time.
The Spectre was unconventional in another way. Most DC super-heroes spent half their time in their civilian lives, with the attendant jumping through hoops to keep their costumed identities secret. Most of Marvel’s heroes rarely had to bother with this, and neither did the Spectre.
I admit this was one of the more interesting aspects of his mythos. I’ve always had a particular fondness in super-heroes and civilian identities that were actually two different people. Captain Marvel and Billy Batson. The Mighty Thor and Dr. Don Blake. The dual nature to their existences was actually the most intriguing aspect to their stories. It was even more so for me with the Spectre and Jim Corrigan, whom---unlike Cap and Billy, or Thor and Dr. Blake---existed at the same time. There was something enjoyably quirky about seeing Spec confer, plan, and even argue with his own alter ego. And like the other dual-persona heroes, the Spectre’s human form was his weak spot.
That first offering, in The Spectre # 1 (Nov.-Dec., 1967), took advantage of those idiosyncrasies. It also maintained what had come to be known as “the Earth-Two look”, coming from the gold-standard talents of Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson.
“The Sinister Lives of Captain Skull” opens with an assassination attempt. U.S. ambassador Joseph Clanton is in Gateway City, a brief stop-over on his way to Switzerland to engage in critical negotiations with “the other side” (read: a Communist bloc aggressor), when he is critically wounded by a sniper’s bullet. The bullet has lodged in the ambassador’s head in such a manner that the surgeons are forced to use a new experimental procedure to save his life.
Clanton survives the operation, but the doctors are surprised when a brawny man wearing a hospital gown and speaking eighteenth-century English emerges from the recovery room. The mysterious figure outmuscles the staff and escapes. At the same time, Ambassador Clanton has disappeared from his hospital bed.
The brutish stranger steals pirate garb from a costume shop and then a car. Passing motorist Jim Corrigan, Gateway City police captain, spots the fugitive and recognises him, from police bulletins, as the man who fled from Ambassador Clanton’s hospital room. Corrigan gives chase. The detective manages to shoot out one of the tyres of the stolen car on the fly, but is surprised when the tyre instantly re-inflates itself. This gives Corrigan an inkling that mystic forces are at work. Unfortunately, Jim can’t call upon his ghostly self; with some aggravation, he recalls, “The Spectre sure picked a fine time to be off on a mission to one of those mystic realms of his!”
Overtaking his quarry in Gateway Park, Jim wrestles with the man, who calls himself Captain Skull and laces his archaic speech with nautical terms. Despite the pirate’s greater strength, Corrigan holds his own---until Captain Skull levitates out of the detective’s grasp. The airborne Skull rips a bronze statue from its pedestal and prepares to crush Corrigan with it when the Spectre returns from his off-world mission.
The Wonder Wraith and Captain Skull square off in an exchange of magical energies. Then a chance contact with the supernatural pirate severely weakens the Spectre. Forced to keep his distance, Spec is unable to prevent Skull’s escape.
Spec and Jim compare notes and come to the suspicion that Captain Skull is, somehow, Ambassador Clanton himself. To confirm their hunch, the Spectre travels to the astra-dimensions (read: Heaven) and consults with the Voice (read: God). The Voice informs him that the mysterious buccaneer is the psychic spirit of one of Ambassador Clanton’s ancestors, a pirate named Captain Skull. The experimental technique used to save Clanton’s life inadvertently released the psychic spirit of Skull and drew it to the present era, where it inhabited the body of the ambassador.
The abrupt displacement in time imbued the spirit of Captain Skull with “megacyclic force”, the source of his mystic powers. The only way to neutralise the threat of Captain Skull is to return his spirit to his own body, in his own time. These things are never easy, though. The Voice warns Spec that, so long as Skull’s spirit is filled with the megacyclic force, should they make even the slightest contact, the Ghostly Guardian will be destroyed.
Back on Earth, Jim Corrigan has been doing his own research at the library. From the dusty archives, Jim has traced the times and places of the real Captain Skull’s pirate activities in the 1700’s.
When the spirit of Captain Skull resurfaces, the Spectre is on hand to take them both into the time stream, back to the time of the real pirate’s life. The psychic spirit eludes the Spectre and takes refuge in a series of Ambassador Clanton’s ancestors throughout history---mediæval robber baron Sir Guy the Cruel; Roman gladiator Commodus; and Paris, prince of Troy.
The need to avoid any direct contact with Skull’s psychic spirit hampers the Spectre’s efforts, but ultimately, the hero finds a way to fight megacyclic fire with fire, sending the pirate’s spirit back into his own body.
It was a good opener, classic Fox. A tightly scripted, fast-paced plot, filled with the esoteric references that Fox loved to insert---facts on gladiator contests, Greek mythology, and the history of piracy. The inventive writer had also found a way to provide the overwhelmingly powerful Spectre with a foe he couldn’t defeat in two panels, yet distinguish it from previous Silver-Age Spec villains. Azmodus/Shathan represented God versus the Devil. The ghost of Ace Chance was the evil counterpart theme. Captain Skull’s threat was that the Spectre couldn’t fight him directly.
Anderson was, well, Anderson. His skill was at the top of its form, shifting between prosaic Earth-bound scenes and inchoate metaphysical backgrounds with equal detail and facility. It looked like smooth sailing for the Spectre series.
Unfortunately, the seas turned rough almost immediately.
The first lurch came with issue # 2 (Jan.-Feb., 1968), as Neal Adams replaced Murphy Anderson as the series artist. I'm not a big Adams fan, but I don't deny that he is a remarkable talent. At the time, he was the most "realistic" of all the artists in DC's stable. However, that actually proved to be a disadvantage. The ultra-realism of Adams' art worked best when he was depicting real-life scenery--the buildings, furniture, clothing, trees, cars, and all the elements of life that one sees everyday. However, it didn't work so well in the inter-spacial, inter-dimensional, cosmic backdrops in which the Spectre usually found himself.
Both Anderson and Adams are supremely skilled artists. But their styles are significantly different, and that was the rub. The reader had to make quite an adjustment in expectations after Adams took over the art.
At least Gardner Fox was still on hand to provide the script. At least, that’s what the by-line on the splash page said. But if it weren’t for that to go by, one might have his doubts. Some of the usual Fox touches were there. The villain, an “etheric double” of a stage magician, drew from Lovecraftian elements, complete with real-life historical exemplars duly noted. And Jim Corrigan was now dating Mona Marcy, from the Ace Chance story---another typical Fox nod to continuity.
In fact, “Die, Spectre---Again!” turned much of the spotlight on Jim Corrigan, beginning with a series of impossible crimes which was confounding the detective’s efforts. Things heat up for Jim when actions he must take to aid his ghostly self lead to his suspension from the police force.
But where the script takes a decidedly un-Fox-like turn is the amount of story time devoted to examining the relationship between Jim and the Spectre. Once again, and more clearly this time, it’s established that Spec must rest inside Jim’s body periodically to replenish his powers. But more strikingly, Fox inserts a considerable amount of characterisation, enough to establish that there are some differences between Corrigan and his alter ego.
When the Spectre returns from a particularly tough Justice Society case to reinhabit his human form, Jim remarks, “Wait---I’m going on a date with Mona Marcy! Couldn’t you arrange to let us have some privacy?” It seems that Corrigan has begun to view his alter ego not as part of himself but as a separate entity.
And later, after the Spectre reports to Jim on his first encounter with the etheric double, Corrigan displays annoyance at Spec’s insistence that mystic forces are at work.
These sequences made up for the loss I felt at Adams replacing Murphy Anderson. It was just the kind of thing that makes dual-persona super-heroes so fascinating to me. It was just surprising to me that it came from Gardner Fox’s typewriter, who usually stuck in characterisation on the fly. And there would be more of this kind of thing to come.
Adams held on to the art chores for The Spectre # 3 through # 5. But there was a change in writers. Fox was out. He was replaced on # 3 by Mike Friedrich, in one of his first scripts for DC. I’ve never come across an explanation for why Adams took over the art chores, but I know why Fox was given the heave-ho. He was one of the writers who, in 1968, approached Jack Liebowitz looking for some security in their twilight years, in the form of health insurance and a retirement plan. Liebowitz’ response was to show them the door.
From this point, the Spectre series was definitely headed for the rocks.
Friedrich dedicated more than half the story in # 3 to the Spectre's JSA buddy, Wildcat---so much so that the Discarnate Detective was almost a guest-star in his own series. (Never a good sign that early in a title's run.)
For issues # 4 and # 5, Neal Adams did the scripting as well as the art. In terms of tone, Adams' writing didn't differ from Friedrich all that much. Both attempted to "ground" the Spectre by drawing innocent third parties into his cosmic adventures. This led to a shift in the Wonder Wraith's demeanour and dialogue. No longer did he seem set apart from humanity. Instead, he was genial, warm, and interacted with normal humans in the same fashion as conventional super-heroes. On the plus side, Adams' scripts further explored the relationship between the Spectre and Jim Corrigan. That almost made up for turning the macabre Spectre into "your friendly neighbourhood Ghost-Man".
Then, with issue # 6, everything was shifted around once again. And I do mean everything. Adams was out, both as artist and writer. Now---and for the next three issues, Jerry Grandetti handled the pencils and Murphy Anderson was brought back to ink him. Also brought back was Gardner Fox as writer.
Nevertheless, the series didn't feel like it had been reset to its Showcase days. Grandetti's art showed a remarkable lack of straight lines or attention to anatomy. Actually, it leant very close to a "big foot" style, and not even the refined detail of Anderson's art could quite pull it back. And Fox's scripts lacked their usual tight structure, instead becoming eclectic and unbalanced.
To me, those Fox/Grandetti-Anderson issues had the feel of fan fiction, written and drawn by talented amateurs whose skill hadn't quite reached the level of professionals.
Thus, the title drifted, until # 8 introduced a change meant to inject more drama into the Spectre's adventures. Fox was out again as writer and Steve Skeates was brought in. According to the plot, the Spectre, bone-weary at constantly fighting evil on Earth, hurriedly disposes of three gunmen with one irritated swath of eldritch energy. Unfortunately, he is careless, and an innocent passer-by is critically injured by the forces unleashed by the Ghostly Guardian. For this, he is taken to task by the Voice. The big boss castigates the Spectre for his rashness and ordains that whenever the Discarnate Detective finds himself in moments of stress, a weakness will manifest itself, and this weakness will vary on each occasion.
Shortly thereafter, the Spectre finds himself up against a wizard of the black arts from the 18th century, and as they lock horns, Spec finds himself stricken blind.
Obviously, the goal in this new direction was to ratchet back the Spectre's near-omnipotence, so that he couldn't resolve every situation by one last-ditch wave of his green-gloved hand. And by doing so, insert more drama into the stories.
As I mentioned, Spec's weakness was supposed to change with each situation. However, the readers never saw what vulnerability would next be visited upon him, since with the next issue, yet another change in the series format was introduced.
The Spectre # 9 (Mar.-Apr., 1969) waved good-bye to Skeates as writer and "welcome back" to Mike Friedrich. Friedrich ignored the developments introduced by Skeates and set off on a new direction. As shown, the Spectre is fed up with half-way measures in his fight against evil, so on the very next occasion, when he confronts a murderous gangster, Spec simply kills him with one blast from his skull-orbed eyes.
This precipitous action so enrages Jim Corrigan that he refuses to let the Spectre return to the refuge of Corrigan's body. To make matters worse, the Ghostly Guardian is once again summoned before the Voice. God is rather hacked off himself at the summary killing of the gangster. He decides, since the Spectre is so keen on acting as judge and jury, to bind his ghostly emissary to a Journal of Judgement, containing the names of men whose lives must be judged.
As a result, this issue and issue # 10 (May-Jun., 1969) contain short stories in which the lives of various men in the Journal of Judgement are reviewed and examined. Then, at critical junctures in their lives, the Spectre steps in and decides what action, if any, to take. In essence, these are human-interest stories, similar to those written by Will Eisner, in which the Spirit would show up in only the last few panels to set things right or make commentary. Only, Mike Friedrich was no Will Eisner.
In short, the Spectre had become a supporting character, reduced to cameos in his own series. Sound familiar? That’s just what had happened in his More Fun Comics series, just before it got the axe. That’s why few fans were surprised, or cared, that there was no Spectre # 11.