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.

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