Thursday, July 21, 2011

A People's History of Captain America:

 Years before Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, one of my favorite things to talk about with my fellow geeks as kids were the “dirty secrets” of various superheroes. After all, if in the Marvel and DC universes the history of superheroes stretched back many decades, surely the heroes would have all the skeletons in their closets that real historical figures did. Battered wives, histories of racism, acts which oppressed the common man, etc. Or maybe people would just be extremely misinformed about the heroes and have all kinds of silly theories and accusations to make, like J. Jonah Jameson. Many years later, in college, when reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, me and a friend were delighted at how much our silly fannish speculations sounded a lot like what a real historian would write, even though we didn’t care much for that book otherwise. We also got a huge kick out of Zinn’s mention of Captain America in his chapter about the McCarthy era, even if Zinn erroneously described Cap as a comic-strip hero.
Not to make it sound like we were all a bunch of of fan boy sophisticates, far from it, but rarely did any of our youthful speculation revolve around the sex lives of characters or crude jokes. Even at that age all the standard superhero jokes were pretty worn out and dull to us. Yes, it’s illogical that the Hulk’s pants don’t rip, yeah Clark Kent’s co-workers must be dumbasses to not recognize him as Superman, and yeah Batman’s relationship with Robin makes him seem like a pedophile. Yeah, yeah, we get it. Those jokes are so stale they make even the lamest of knock-knock jokes look like Monty Python and the Holy Grail in comparison. Way back in the early days of Mad, Harvey Kurtzman really did get it right the first time. It’s pretty depressing that people still find such tired material funny even today and act like it’s ”edgy” and “clever” and think that it “really puts all those dumb geeks who take these things too seriously in their place hyuck hyuck”. Whatever. Even then I wanted something more from my superhero parodies. I mean, if these parodies were supposed to cast an adult, sophisticated eye on supposedly childish and ignorant superhero comics, shouldn’t those parodies themselves be, well, adult and sophisticated? Jokes about the Flash getting a speeding ticket are hardly at a Jonathan Swift-level of satire. (*heh* Flash-Swift. See? I can do it too) Would it also be too much to ask for the writers to know something about the characters beyond just general information they learned through cultural osmosis?
Many years later, when I was hunting down the hard-to-find Golden Age of Marvel Volume Two TPB, I came across info that showed that one of the Simon & Kirby Captain America stories reprinted therein had already been reprinted before in a 1994/5 “Collectors Preview” magazine. I hunted the mag down, and among various other articles about Cap (as well as that Simon & Kirby story I was looking for), found this hilarious Zinn-style “expose” by Mike Kanterovic. Not only does this do a spot-on job mimicking Zinn and other, less-trustworthy real world “truth-seekers”, but also really does come off as something a person in the Marvel Universe would write. There are also lots of great in-jokes for Cap fans, especially the references to the various Cap impostors, here mistaken for the real Cap. Best of all? It’s actually funny. Enjoy.

  Heh Heh. And in a few hours, I'll be there at the midnight screening.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Four Villains improved by Media Adaptions

 One of the biggest stereotypes about comics fans, probably second only to the old “basement dweller” image, is that they needlessly bitch about changes made in media adaptations, even if those changes improve the story, or make it more accessible to the general public. Personally, I've seen both legit complaints from fans, as well as stupid ones, so I sorta see both sides of the issue. On one hand, I’ve seen plenty of comic book-based films that make things more cartoony, less adult, less morally complex, and often, even more inaccessible and off-putting to the public than the original comics themselves ever were. From Tommy Lee Jones’s one-dimensional, unsympathetic Two-Face in Batman Forever, to the in-name only Catwoman film, to the idea of making Man-Thing into a lame “monster rampage” film where the titular creature is a villain, to whatever dumbass’s idea it was to make Jonah Hex into Wild, Wild West, I could go on and on (especially about Jonah Hex).
 But on the other hand, there have been some instances where media adaptions of comics have improved things, some by leaps and bounds, some only by going in a direction that the comics themselves were afraid to go in, or didn’t care to.  I’ve been thinking of making this “original vs. adaption” comparison into a recurring feature of this blog. Since everyone loves a good villain, I decided to kick things off by discussing instances where the portrayals of villains in other media were actually better than the source material. In order from least to greatest:
 I put Loki here because, really, no one ever doubted that he was one of the most pivotal and important villains in the Marvel Universe. But has he ever really been a great character? He could be entertaining in the early silver age, when he was bringing gas station logos to life or turning entire cities into ice cream, but never did he really rise above simply being a B-level Joker and A-level Myxzptlk in his mayhem, other than the fact that he actually had ideas of world conquest. For years, writers have had trouble deciding whether he should be a mischievous prankster or pure evil, all that has stayed consistent has been his hatred for Thor. Sibling rivalry obviously plays into this, but this aspect was never really used to make him sympathetic or complex.
 However, Loki has recently undergone something of a renaissance, going through several transformations, from a woman to a child, where now he’s more or less reformed for the time being. Back in 2004, he actually played a major heroic role in a Spiderman storyline. But it was 2011’s Thor film which finally gave the villain the type of sympathetic backstory he needed. Here, Loki has no intention of actually conquering or killing anyone at first, all he wants is acceptance. He’s shown to be capable of acts of mischief, many potentially deadly, but he’s not really any more reckless or stupid than Thor himself. In fact, as we see, Loki’s opinion of Thor isn’t exactly a belief that he is alone in feeling. It’s easy at first to think of Loki as a jealous prick, especially since Odin seems to approve of him more than he does Thor, however, when Loki learns that he’s been being played for a fool his entire life, and that Odin’s kindness to him has only been to keep him under his thumb, is what drives Loki to full-out villainy. Even then, his goals are noble, in their own, warped, genocidal way; to wipe out the evil frost giants who he himself is a member of.
 Loki’s portrayal in the film is certain to provoke plenty of discussion regarding the nature vs. nurture debate, and it’s a credit to Tom Hiddleston’s performance that Loki manages to come off as unhinged enough to make a credible villain, sympathetic enough to be relatable, and all without going too overboard in either direction. You really have to feel for Loki, exiled by the family that has been playing him his whole life, and having burned his bridges with his biological family too. He’ll be an outsider everywhere he’ll go, what’s left to do, but villainy? No matter if the Loki portrayals in the films devolve into the one-dimensional villain of the earlier comics, at least now we can understand fully why he ended up that way.
Mad Hatter:
 Here’s an example of a character, whom when regarding the comics, was one the creators just plain didn’t care about. The first Mad Hatter showed up in 1948, as an Alice in Wonderland-styled robber. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Batman villain inspired by Alice, Tweedledee and Tweedledum predated him by several years. You’d think in the Golden Age, where writers were often likely to go overboard with literary references, that this story would be brimming in clever Lewis Carroll allusions, but it isn’t, in fact, the Hatter isn’t even the main focus of the story! The main focus of the story is Vicki Vale, that’s right, the story which introduced the Hatter was also her very first appearance, and the Hatter himself is just…kind of there. He makes a few “off with their heads” cracks and sips tea in his hideout, but nothing really memorable or clever. The story could have used the Penguin just as easily.
 The concept of the Hatter was abandoned until 1956, when Bill Finger created a character named Jervis Tetch; a fat, mustachioed hat collector obsessed with adding Batman’s cowl to his collection, but who was only called “The Mad Hatter” in the story’s title and as a joke by a background character. Tetch really only appeared in cameos showing get-togethers of Gotham’s criminals after that, but he actually made more appearances in the 60’s than many higher-pedigree Bat-foes. In any case, Tetch was THE Mad Hatter for years in the comics. He even showed up on the Adam West show, where actor David Wayne gave him a surprising amount of menace, if you could overlook that his hat shot laser beams out of it. Tetch also showed up in the 90’s Batman newspaper strip, where, in spite of a rather sympathetic origin story, he was treated as a cold villain.
 Eventually, the Alice-inspired Hatter was brought back in the early 1980s, and claimed that Tetch was an impostor, in a story which introduced the concept of him using mind control. There was confusion for years, even after Crisis, as to which Hatter was the official one, with Jervis actually popping up in the Barr/Davis Detective Comics run as if the other Hatter never existed. However, the Alice-based Hatter became cemented as THE Mad Hatter in 1992 when he was featured in the episode Mad as a Hatter of the Batman animated series, voiced brilliantly by Roddy McDowall. Here, Jervis Tetch (yes, here the two characters were combined) was a brilliant but miserable little man who had been obsessed with the story of Alice in Wonderland since childhood. Working as a scientist at Waynetech, continually bullied by his bosses, and suffering from unrequited love for his secretary Alice, Tetch attempts to use his mind control devices to make it appear that he’s popular and well-respected when consoling her over her abusive boyfriend. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Tetch goes mad with power and Alice reconciles with her boyfriend. While in lesser hands the character could have come off as a creepy stalker and potential rapist (this backstory for the Hatter was based off of a man who shot up his office when a coworker spurned him), McDowall generates some genuine pathos for the lonely little man, but also makes him chillingly psychotic when he becomes angry. A bizarre combination of whimsy, menace, romanticism, and dark humor, and loaded with Lewis Carroll analogies, this episode and its portrayal of the Hatter instantly made him more complex and viable as a villain than he had ever been portrayed before.
 Sadly, the comics have never really used this portrayal, the villain has since usually been portrayed as either a generic nutcase who speaks in quotes at best, or as a sleazy pedophile at worst. Too bad, but maybe it’s for the best, without McDowall’s excellent voice-acting, as well as considering that sleazy, pedophilic overtones are pretty much inherent with anything Alice-related, maybe the Mad Hatter just won’t work in comics the way he did on the cartoon.
On a side note, I’ve always wondered why they didn’t make the second Mad Hatter a pedo instead, I mean, just look at that mustache.
                                  Chris Hansen would like you take a seat, Mr. Tetch...

Baxter Stockman:
 Really, I could have put all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle villains on this list, because even if they weren’t improved as characters on the cartoon shows or the movies, they were all given more prominence. When people say the original Turtles comics were dark and filled to the brim with deaths, they aren’t kidding; almost all of the villains were done in one. The mad scientist Baxter Stockman is notable for several things, being the second villain the TMNT fought, being April ‘O Neil’s employer, later attempting (almost successfully) to kill off April, and being set up to be Donatello’s personal archenemy. He was also one of the few black supervillains in comics at the time, too. Otherwise? Not much else. Baxter was as one-dimensional as you could get; his motivation for attempting to conquer the world with his mouser robots and killing people? He thought it would be fun. No, seriously.
Bizarrely, this most one-dimensional of one dimensional villains has been made, repeatedly, into the most sympathetic and complex villain in both cartoon adaptions. While much hated for its banal plots, animation mistakes and departures from the comics, the 1987 Fred Wolf cartoon did have some rather daring double entendres, fun B-movie references, great music and boasted one of the funniest gay couples in television history in the characters of Shredder & Krang.

 Here, Baxter (now white to avoid accusations of racism) was a well-meaning, benevolent inventor who was trying to solve the city’s rat problems. Baxter’s inventions worked too well, however, and he was continually out of a job. The scientist was then manipulated by Shredder into giving him his mouser robots. Unbeknownst to Baxter, Shredder used the robots to launch an orgy of destruction (which realistically, had to have killed thousands. Shredder wasn’t always incompetent on the cartoon). After the turtles confronted the mousers, what did they do to Baxter? They made him take the blame for everything and stole his van. Baxter was committed to an asylum, then was broken out and was continually abused by Shredder into making weapons, until finally Krang tried to kill him by throwing him into an atomizer, which turned him into a fly-monster by fusing his DNA with that of a fly.
 As shamelessly unoriginal as this idea was, as well as that Fly-Baxter was easily the most silly-looking villain on the show, it’s impossible not to pity him. He was just a guy looking for work who got royally screwed over, robbed and framed, and then stripped even of his own humanity, with his intelligence and memories of his human life rapidly diminishing. Some fans find the character’s high–pitched, buzzing voice irritating, but not me, because each time Stockman would appear, he would be less intelligent, less human, more animalistic, and a little more deranged. In spite of the repetitive plots of his episodes, you knew each time Baxter would show up he’d go a little crazier, and then have some other horrifying indignity heaped upon him. In a way, this made him the closest thing to a genuinely frightening villain on the show. It may not be Greek tragedy, but compared to other 80’s cartoon villains, who else was as sympathetic? There was something compelling watching the fly-man desperately trying to become human again while talking to his only friend (a sentient computer), constantly lapsing into fly-like behavior and forgetting his goals. And the big kicker was; Baxter never got a happy ending.
 In the 2003 cartoon, Baxter is more similar to his comics self in that he’s thoroughly amoral, but only at first, in a nod to the ’87 cartoon, here he works for Shredder. Only, rather than being berated or given an impossible sci-fi punishment like being atomized or shot into another dimension, Stockman suffers a more…disturbing fate: He gets vivisected, alive. Evil as he was, these scenes are some of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see in a kids show. This led to an infamous episode called Insane in the Membrane (which was banned) where he attempts to recreate his body by having his brain transplanted into a clone of himself, only for the clone body to rot. Coupled with flashbacks to Baxter's dying mother, the episode is truly overwhelming in its mixture of pathos and horror, rivaling even the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Gorier than most horror movies, it truly needs to be seen to be believed. There’s a new TMNT cartoon coming out in 2012, as well as a possible new live action movie. If Baxter is in either, let’s hope the filmmakers remember the pathos the cartoons gave him that made him such a great, compelling character, something he never was in the comics.
Mr. Freeze:
 I have to admit, I’ve never really been too comfortable with science fiction themed villains in Batman. Oh, I know that all of Batman’s villains are science fictional to some degree, but few are to the overt degree that Poison Ivy, the various incarnations of Clayface, some of the lesser known ones like Dr. Double X, and of course, Mr. Freeze are. They just seem…gimmicky.
And that’s all Mr. Freeze, or as he was originally called, Mr. Zero, was; a gimmick. Just one of many Bald Evil Scientists ™ in comics, he was already a criminal even before becoming a freak. After stupidly spilling chemicals all over himself while readjusting his “freeze gun” (which looked like a kettle) he was forced to live in subzero temperatures. Obsessed with ice apparently even before his accident, he started stealing diamonds (“ice”) before confronting Batman and Robin, where he accidentally cured himself by, not kidding, having a steam bath.
 Lamest origin, gimmick and ending ever. Could be worse though, “ice” is now a term for crack. Also, he seemed like a pretty happy guy, so his cure didn’t really have any emotional impact.
For some reason, this one-shot joke of a villain was chosen for use on the Adam West show, where his name was changed to Mr. Freeze and he was actually one of the most frequent villains on the show besides the big timers like Joker, Catwoman and Penguin, and was played by three different actors; George Sanders, Eli Wallach and Otto Preminger (!!??). He was subsequently revived in the comics, where his name was changed to fit with the show, and with no explanation for how he returned to his frozen state. For some reason, he was also used on the various Batman cartoons, even though his appearances in the comics were as infrequent as two appearances a decade. Before long, he was being played as comedy relief; the Joker once referred to him as a “Second-rate Captain Cold”.
What’s bizarre about all this is, why would such a minor villain be so frequently used in the media adaptions? He wasn’t exactly easy to draw or instantly recognizable, nor were “freezing” effects easy to use on television. It’s like Mr. Freeze was an ex-child star adopted by the media because they felt sorry for him. But the funny thing is, this constant media exposure helped propel him into being one of Batman’s most recognizable opponents. The funnier thing is, the idea of a sympathetic, tragic Mr. Freeze, an idea long ascribed to the Batman: The Animated Series episode Heart of Ice, actually began on the Adam West show of all places! Not exactly renowned for three-dimensional characters, especially villains, the show portrays Freeze as the one villain Batman feels pity for, and whom he vows to someday cure of his affliction. Actually, Batman has good reason to feel guilty for Freeze’s condition; in this continuity, Batman himself was indirectly responsible for Freeze’s accident! This is the closest the Adam West show ever came to having a gray morality.
 For the most part, guest star George Sanders, a truly excellent actor, plays Freeze as a cackling one-note villain, not far removed from the comics or the show’s other zany, overacting villains, although his silly puns and delightfully fake accent are infinitely more amusing than Schwarzenegger’s ‘comedic” portrayal in 1997’s Batman and Robin. But there’s one great moment where Freeze has Batman at his mercy, and they sit down for dinner James Bond-style. Slowly, Freeze stops overacting and seems collected and calm, trying to make conversation with Batman. Batman tries to reason with him, promising him a cure, but then Freeze snaps:

" This I do not believe. No, you must PAY for what you did to me, for forcing me to live like this: never again to know the warmth of a summer breeze, never to feel the heat of burning logs in vintertime! Revenge. That is what I need! Revenge! I will have revenge! "

 Sounds quite a bit like Freeze’s vow of revenge in Heart of Ice, doesn’t it? Yet, the thing is, Sanders doesn’t deliver these lines bombastically or over the top, he remains calm and collected, but shaking, just a bit, barely concealing his red-hot rage. He genuinely loathes Batman, and genuinely intends to kill him, and for the first time in this goofy show’s history, you believe he will do it. What’s more, you want him to. It’s a fantastic moment of acting from Sanders, and really makes you wonder  how good the show could have been had it been filled more often with such moments. Alas, the scene lasts only a moment and subsequent episodes would return Freeze to being a goofball, but the seed was planted for Heart of Ice.
 As for Heart of Ice itself? What is there to be said that hasn’t been said? Here Freeze isn’t just a sympathetic villain, he’s so painfully sympathetic it’s hard to use the word “villain”. Here, Freeze is a scientist trying to cure his dying wife, whom he places in cryogenic suspension, only to get screwed over by his corrupt boss, who attempts to destroy Freeze’s experiment. Freeze struggles with him and is apparently killed by being doused with chemicals, only to survive in a way that makes him wish he were dead. Having lost everything, all that is left is a cold, ruthless killer. One of the darkest, most intense, and most morally ambiguous episodes you will ever see in a cartoon, this episode singlehandedly elevates Batman: The Animated Series from a merely good show to art. Equal parts Death Wish and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, what makes the episode so fascinating is that Freeze, had this story been told solely from his viewpoint, as well as if he had succeeded (and gone on to fight crime, possibly), would be considered the hero. Batman, self-righteous and a defender of Freeze’s  greedy boss, in essence, comes off as the real villain of the piece. Yet, Freeze is no angel either, indiscriminately freezing henchmen and civilians to achieve his goals. This episode instantly turned Freeze into one of Batman’s most well-known and popular villains, and the comics subsequently adopted the show’s backstory.
Unfortunately, Freeze’s next-big media appearance, 1997’s Batman and Robin, pretty much killed the character for many. Nevertheless, Freeze remains a mainstay of Batman’s rogues gallery, all because of one really great episode. Let’s just remember that George Sanders got there first.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Golden Age Spectre Archives:

  Synopsis: Detective Jim Corrigan is dead—and well and living as the Spectre; cloaked, invincible embodiment of god’s wrath.
  Read alongside the original versions of The Spirit and Plastic Man (my regular reading when it comes to comics, elitist snob and contrarian that I am), just about any comic book series comes up wanting in comparison. They truly were what almost singlehandedly made the Golden Age golden rather than a crude stone age. But even by the standards of the Golden Age, The Spectre Archives seems almost truly first. The writing is juvenile and self-indulgent in a way that rivals even the crudest modern wish-fulfillment web comics featuring author self-inserts, and the art, despite some occasional wild flights of fancy, is crude and unfinished looking to the point I was actually crying for Joe Shuster’s Superman work (during the period where he wasn’t using assistants and his eyesight was rapidly fading) in comparison!
 But you know what? I want to read it again, with pleasure.
 There are two things which should be kept in mind when reading The Spectre:
 Surrealism and the phrase “ahead of its time”.
 Surrealism, as most of the general public has come to understand it, means “weird”. What it actually means though is the taking of everyday, mundane objects and putting them in bizarre situations or contexts. The surreal can be weird, baroque and mind-bending. It can also be banal, understated, and sometimes dull.
 The phrase “ahead of its time” can mean many things. Obviously it describes an idea that’s a precursor to something which came later, but the manner in which it is used often varies. Something can be so advanced in terms of technique it stands head and shoulders over everything else and becomes hailed as a masterpiece. Other times it’s something that was a flop in its time and that doesn’t hold up too well today, but it came first and “stood out” among everything else, which may be the reason it flopped. Then there’s the odd case when something comes out that contains the seed of a great idea in it, but is so out there that the creators didn’t quite know what to do with the concept.
 It is the latter usage of the phrase which describes Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily’s The Spectre to a T. While the concept of a dead man who returns to earth to wreak revenge on the living dates back millennia, rarely had it actually been used in stories where the avenging wraith in question was the hero of the story. Novels featuring chapters where the monsters become the narrating voice had occurred, notably Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and short stories such as Lovecraft’s The Outsider (and plenty of others, but naming them would give away some excellent twist-ending stories), Robert Bloch’s The Cloak and P. Schuyler Miller’s Over the River also featured monsters or characters who become monsters as the obvious reader identification figures. And clearly the countless numbers of horror stories about killers who met justice at the hands of their victims’ ghosts intended for us to sympathize with the ghosts and not the killers. But still, having a ghost as the protagonist of a story? And even more so, as a hero in a medium widely considered to be for children? (In “More Fun Comics” no less.)
 That alone was enough to make the Spectre unique. But even further, not only would he be a ghost, he’d communicate directly with god, affect the world of the living independently (other than being “bound to wipe out all crime”, Spec was pretty much a free agent, not doomed to haunt one particular spot or family like other ghosts), travel to other dimensions and galaxies, and war with other spirits! Oh, and he’d also continue living his human life largely as he left it, with no one the wiser.
 The thing is, that’s all well and good as an idea, but it takes a hell of a lot of talent to pull off successfully, and I wasn’t too convinced that Siegel and Baily did…at first. Initially, the novelty of having a ghost as a hero was enough on it’s own to propel the strip, despite the fact that Jim Corrigan starts out as a rather unlikable fellow; the type of macho, alpha male wish-fulfillment figure that introverts love to write and read about, but would probably be scared shitless of if they met in real life. 

Clearly, Siegel understands women...

Nevertheless, Siegel achieved some moments of real pathos. Unlike other heroes of the time, who swore off romance pretty much because girls are icky (these comics were being written predominantly for 8 year olds) or were “playboys” in name only, Jim Corrigan had a very good reason for never getting serious with his love interest Clarice Winston: He was dead. There’s a great moment in the origin story where Corrigan, already aware that he’s a ghost, but still entertaining thoughts of a normal life with Clarice, realizes he no longer needs to breathe, dashing all his hopes as he realizes he literally has nothing in common with the people he once knew. It’s a moment worthy of Stan Lee at his best.
 Obviously, this kind of tragedy is a great basis for a series, but in 1940s superhero comics, such ideas and emotional complexity were unheard of. This was an origin story, once all that mushy stuff was out of the way, readers wanted to see fights, fights and more fights, human drama and characterization be damned! So without this great emotional hook, all that was left was a typical superhero series, only this time with a hero, who since he literally could do almost anything, could not in any way be rooted for, be endangered or be identified with. The Spectre’s very uniqueness trapped him in a rut.

Once the novelty wore off, story after story was the same tiresome cops and robbers affair, but with a superhero in it. There is no fun in seeing an omnipotent supernatural being battling crooked fur manufacturers (twice!) or ordinary hijackers. This could still have been handled well, the stories could have at least had fun showing off Spec’s powers; after all, Plastic Man mostly faced ordinary foes, but it was fun to watch how he inventively used his powers. Or these stories could have been straight up horror stories, with the villains as the focal character, and the Spectre only intervening to give them their comeuppance in some gruesome way, which was a direction  the series would in fact, take in the 1970s.
 Neither direction is gone in. The Spectre mostly uses his powers to read minds, and on several occasions, shrink so that he can walk through telephone lines. There are some cool scenes of him splitting off from Jim Corrigan like an amoeba, though. As for him acting as a sadistic judge, jury and executioner, with several notable exceptions not withstanding; the Spectre actually racks up a very low body count in most of these stories. Spec's methods of dispatching his opponents aren’t very creative either; most just involve him staring at people with a “gaze of death”, which is memorably rendered at first as skulls that appear pupils in Spectre’s eyes (possibly an homage to Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane story Skulls in the Stars, which isn’t a symbolic title, the story really does have skulls in the stars), but in most of the stories where he employs the gaze, this memorable visual isn’t used.

There is an interesting attempt to give the Spectre a worthy foe in the character of Zor, a sort of evil version of the Spectre, and the volume’s only recurring villain. The Zor story includes a nifty scene with Spectre and Zor having a snowball fight with comets, which was memorable enough to be referenced in the 60’s Spectre revival on a Showcase cover. It’s too bad that Zor himself, despite his powers, pretty much behaves like a stereotypical mad scientist(complete with a castle filled with Strickfadden-style equipment), and dresses like a Simon Legree character with top hat, monocle, tuxedo and mustache. I should give him credit for longevity, though; he popped up in cameos in Crisis, All-Star Squadron and has been bedeviling Zatanna as of late.
 So for the most part, these Spectre stories are a waste of the character’s enmormous potential. The opening banner for each story, moody and dripping with menace, is the best thing about many of these first.
 But then I got to thinking, what if all of this monotony, this sore letdown from the excellent origin story, all these inconsistencies and flaws….were intentional?
 What if the reason Jim Corrigan doesn’t use his powers much and mainly fights ordinary criminals is because he feels he will become too detached from humanity, and that he has an unfair advantage? This would explain why he sews a costume rather than willing one to appear. Perhaps he doesn’t want to confront dangerous, occult menaces because he’s afraid of admitting he’s become part of that world. Or maybe it’s because he’s a pretty simpleminded guy, all in all. “Two-fisted police detectives” aren’t known for their artistry or lofty, philosophical pontifications, so that’s why he doesn’t venture into other galaxies, or use his powers to their fullest extent. Even if he wanted to, keep in mind, he’s still a rookie, and possibly can’t grasp the magnitude of his abilities. I like this idea; an ordinary, not too bright, uncouth schmoe who gains extravagant supernatural powers and looks like a solemn, mystical figure, but acts like a thug. I myself once wrote a story where the seemingly cultured, Fu Manchu-esque villain turns out to be a dumb redneck, so I love the idea.
 Maybe the reason Zor is so dull and stereotypical, and maybe the reason the art is so drab, with no attempts at spooky shading or running wild with creepy imagery, is because Bernard Baily is trying to create a truly surreal universe, in that the mundane is used in odd ways. Evil spirits don’t have to be big, elaborately inhuman beings that look like monsters; maybe they can just look like normal people, stereotypical, archetypal people too. There are, not exaggerating, two stories in a row where the Spectre encounters ghosts who are just guys in hooded robes, regardless of what they wore in life. Maybe ghosts have their own sense of fashion, for how they should look when they become ghosts, so they all instantly appear that way. Spectre himself also wears a hooded cloak, so even he’s not immune.
 Dear god, if Siegel and Baily intended all of this….then The Spectre is an absolute work of genius! More and more stories started to feature supernatural villains too, so my interest was piqued. In spite of my disappointment thus far, I read on.
 Wow. The Spectre, ‘tho well past page 100 at this point, was dynamite from thereon. There are some truly insane plots, and the visuals alternate between being mind-bending and being so dull or underwhelming that they take on a genuine eeriness. And best of all, all of the stories from then on presented some sort of supernatural or weird menace, that even if not actual worthy foes for the Spectre, were odd enough to be interesting, far better than ordinary crooks at least.
 There are some awesome moments, like when Spectre intimidates an ordinary henchman into revealing a car’s location…by taking him to another planet and getting them both swallowed whole by a monster.
They should try this at Guantanamo more often

 Standout stories include The Mad Creation of Professor Fenton, which starts like an ordinary mad scientist story and then turns into both a precursor of Donovan’s Brain (by two years, in fact) and then The Blob. It’s an absolute high for any pulp magazine or 50’s sci-fi buff.

 The Ghost of Elmer Watson, where the Spectre battles a ghost with noble intentions, but whom the Spectre believes is going too far in his vendetta, even though each of his victims sorely deserves their fate, is also a memorable one. Even though the Spectre has killed people for less justified reasons, he still wants the killers turned over to the law for a fair trial. What??? It’s silly, and makes Spec look like a gigantic hypocrite, and the later attempt to make us lose sympathy for Watson feels forced (much like how Jeph Loeb writes Harvey Dent in Dark Victory) as well as robbing the story of some genuine ambiguity, but it’s nevertheless fascinating in how the character of Elmer Watson, intended to be an evil opposite for Spectre (if a well-intentioned one), is exactly how later writers for the strip would characterize the Spectre himself! Watson’s ghost also materializes as a living shadow too. Several months later, Spectre’s co-star in More Fun Comics; Dr. Fate, battled a villain named Ian Karkull with similar powers and similarly sympathetic motives. Coincidence?

 There are other gems too, like The World within the Paintings, The Incredible Robberies (which introduces a villain who really should have been the Spectre’s archenemy), Menace of the Dark Planet and The Strangler (which barely even involves the Spectre, but is a great, locked room mystery mostly featuring Jim Corrigan). All of those stories are in chronological order too! Like I said this comic is dynamite. I must mention, Baily’s artwork improves by leaps and bounds, too. Too bad The Spectre would be cancelled in 1944, if it had lasted into the 50’s, we could have seen Baily really let the horrors loose, as he produced some of the most gruesome covers of the era.
 So finally, the Spectre’s potential was tapped. My only problem? At this point, the volume had come to an end. While I’ve heard the stories were later weakened by giving Spectre a comedy relief sidekick named Percival Popp, I really wouldn’t be honest if I said I wouldn’t buy up a second volume of this stuff in a heartbeat. Would I compare even this run of great stories to the best of the Golden Age? No, but it sure as hell is well above average! They certainly are trippy enough to hold up better than most other mainstream super hero comics of the era.
 So while I wouldn’t call even the best of these Spectre stories great, they really are ahead of their time. You can see the obvious influence they would have on characters ranging from the well-known to the obscure: Aarkus the Vision, The Black Widow (who got her powers from Satan rather than god, and also did the Skull-pupil thing), Sergeant Spook, Mr. Justice (who looked so much like the Spectre I can’t believe the publishers were never sued), Kid Eternity, the Ray Plamer Atom (who also could shrink so that he could walk through telephone lines) Dr. Strange (well, at least as far as the weird, surreal settings and scenes of Strange’s spirit leaving his body go), the Hal Jordan Green Lantern (who also employed the amoeba-alter ego gimmick) Deadman and Spawn. Even elements of Jim Starlin’s cosmic/religious allegory writings seem to have their roots here. Spectre may never have been able to carry a series for very long, but having such a wide influence has to count for something.
 I also gotta say I liked it better than reading about another character named Jim Corrigan. Sue me.