Friday, December 27, 2013

WRATH OF THE SPECTRE: ADVENTURE COMICS #431, 432, 433, 434, 435, 436

The Spectre, created in 1940 by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, was revived in 1974 to headline DC's ADVENTURE COMICS anthology series. The Spectre's alter ego, NYPD homicide detective Jim Corrigan, was murdered by gangsters and returned to Earth by God's hand as an avenging ghost, on a mission to rid the world of all evil.

Legend has it that DC editor Joe Orlando was mugged, and decided afterward that he wanted a superhero who could operate outside the law and bring brutal vengeance down on criminals who had otherwise escaped justice. The dormant character of the Spectre was re-tooled to become the vehicle for Orlando's revenge fantasies, in a series written by Michael Fleisher and illustrated masterfully by Jim Aparo.

Script: Michael Fleisher | Art & Letters: Jim Aparo
Art Continuity: Russell Carley | Colors: Adrienne Roy
Editor: Joe Orlando

The first few Spectre stories set up our hero's new status quo as an instrument of vengeance. Jim Corrigan is a police detective who uses his position to learn of newly committed crimes, and then heads out to kill the perpetrators in the most creative methods possible. These aren't simple robbers he usually goes for, either -- Fleisher's criminals are bloodthirsty and downright evil. The very first story features an armored car heist in which the hijackers needlessly execute the truck's guards, them gun down one of their own men to keep him from talking to the approaching police. The Spectre tricks one of these men into driving off a cliff, then magically melts the second man and reduces the third to a lifeless skeleton.

Fleisher's second tale finds the Spectre avenging the death of a textile manufacturer by killing the man's assassins -- one of whom, a hairstylist, our hero cuts in half with an enormous pair of scissors. The murdered businessman's daughter, Gwen Sterling, begins hitting on Corrigan before her father's body is even cold, which had me wondering if she had hired the killers. But no, she was simply that tactless/flighty. Gwen learns in the course of the story that Corrigan is the Spectre, and although the attraction between them is mutual, the ghostly Corrigan will not become involved with a mortal woman.

The third story sees the Spectre transform a con-man swami to glass, then shatter him. Gwen puts in a second appearance, seeking the swami's aid to become closer with the man she loves, and setting her up as not only the Spectre's unrequited love interest, but also as the series' regularly featured damsel in distress.

Script: Michael Fleisher | Art: Frank Thorne & Jim Aparo
Art Continuity: Russell Carley | Letters: Jim Aparo | Colors: Adrienne Roy
Editor: Joe Orlando

The Spectre's next adventure is notable for featuring guest pencils by Frank Thorne, probably best known for his work on Marvel's RED SONJA series. And naturally, since this is a Thorne-illustrated comic, Gwen winds up imprisoned in her underwear (while her clothes are put onto a mannequin sent to kill Corrigan). The villain of the story is a deranged old mannequin maker named Zeke, who sends his creations out into the world to kill people. The reason behind his goal is never established, and for that matter, his ability to imbue life into inanimate objects is not touched upon -- not even regarded as a curiosity.

It's an entertaining story on the surface, and the Thorne/Aparo art combo is very impressive, but Fleisher's disregard for the wherefores of his plot are a bit disconcerting.

Script: Michael Fleisher | Art & Letters: Jim Aparo
Art Continuity: Russell Carley | Colors: Adrienne Roy
Editor: Joe Orlando

The next pair of stories introduce Earl Crawford, freelance writer for NEWSBEAT magazine, who has made it his goal to learn what strange force is out there, turning criminals into skeletons, glass, etc. Strangely, as the series proceeds, no one else seems to share Crawford's curiosity about the case. Everyone acts as if he's nuts for even suggesting there could be a supernatural force pulling off these supernatural acts. Crawford never lays eyes on the Spectre, who can choose whether or not anyone sees him, but by the stories' end, he has witnessed the Spectre's powers in action and knows he is on to something.

Curiously, Crawford is the spitting image of Clark Kent -- a fact commented upon by Corrigan when they meet. The book's introduction states that Fleisher wrote his stories full script, with no communication with his artists, so it would seem Aparo took it upon himself to make the resemblance as overt as possible. Doubly confusing is that characters in the story know who Clark Kent is, and make reference to his double life as Superman. Does this mean these Spectre stories take place outside of normal DC continuity?

I know that the Spectre was firmly a part of the DC Universe prior to this, as a member of the Justice Society of America, but perhaps these particular Fleisher stories are meant to occur in a parallel universe where the rest of the DC characters don't exist. I'm uncertain whether they were ever referenced in the Spectre's later appearances.

It's also possible Fleisher was just making a joke and I shouldn't be thinking so hard about this, but where's the fun in that?

Anyway -- these first half dozen stories are pretty much just what I expected/was hoping for. I love a good revenge exploitation story, and these tales are certainly that. They're just about the right length, too. As one installment in an anthology series, each tale is twelve to thirteen pages -- and drawing most of these stories out any longer than that would be too much.

The artwork is astounding as well. I've had little association the work of Jim Aparo over the years. I've read a handful of his Batman stories from the seventies, but nothing more. His main association with the Caped Crusader back then was in the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, a series which has never really interested me. But the dark moodiness I associate with those few Batman stories I have read is on full display here, and the style fits the Spectre's world perfectly.

Next: Seven more Spectre-iffic stories!


  1. As much as I've long appreciated Jim Aparo's art, I didn't read more than one or two of these shorts until they were collected in that 1988 Baxter mostly-reprint mini. Their initial publication came just as I began to get comics and horror (even comics horror) wasn't my bag at that young age. When I finally did read them, I thought Fleisher went a little overboard at times with the winky macabre stuff, but overall I liked them a lot, and I have often thought that a Wrath of The Spectre semi-anthology TV series in this vein would be a lot of fun, almost certainly with the Spectre himself staying largely off-screen and most decidedly not appearing as a man with powder-white skin in a green cloak, gloves, trunks, and booties. The fact that the stories might've taken place in an out-of-continuity universe never occurred to me, although I do recall finding the Clark Kent doppelganger strange (less in the resemblance than the remarks on it; there have been good-natured knocks on Aparo for how his leading men and women tend to look alike even in the world of shorthand cartooning where that tends to be a thing).

    1. Man, a SPECTRE TV series would be great. Especially on cable, where it could have more of a PG-13 rating. I'm sure some might advocate for an HBO version, but I tend to believe characters created for kids should not wind up in adults-only vehicles.

      At any rate, I'd rather watch the Spectre on TV than the upcoming GOTHAM!