Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
The Spectre by John Ostrander (writer), Tom Mandrake (artist, issues #0-13, 15, 17-19, 21-23, 25, 27-31, 35-44, 46-62), Joe Phillips (artist, issue #14), Jim Aparo (penciller, issue #16), John Ridgway (artist, issues #20, 26, 34, 45), Mike Dutkiewicz (penciller, issue #24), A. J. Kent (penciller, issue #24), Dave Chlystek (penciller, issue #31), Steve Pugh (artist, issue #32), Hugh Haynes (penciller, issue #33), Bill Sienkiewicz (inker, issue #16), Adam McDaniel (inker, issue #24), Dennis Kramer (inker, issue #31), Tim Roddick (inker, issue #33), Klaus Janson (inker, issue #53), Digital Chameleon (colorist, issues #1-12; color separations, issues 15-62), Carla Feeny (colorist, issues #11-62), Todd Klein (letterer, issues #1-55, 57-62), and Clem Robins (letterer, issue #56).
Published by DC, 63 issues (#0-62, with the zero issue coming after issue #22), cover dated October 1992 – February 1998.
(You can’t see the price increases on the covers unless you click on them, which you totally can do, but I’d like to make a note of them. Issue #1 was $1.95, but then it settled into the standard price point of $1.75. DC raised the price a mere 20 cents with issue #21, and it was $1.95 through issue #29. Issue #30 saw another price increase, to $2.25, and the book remained there until issue #48. The price went up to $2.50 on issue #49 and stayed there for the rest of the run. The point is not that comics back then were cheaper and wah wah wah, but that there was a time, not so long ago, when a price increase didn’t mean $2.99 to $3.99. There are a lot of prices in between those two that DC and Marvel could use!)
Some SPOILERS ahead, because that’s just the way it is!
A few years ago, when I wrote about Dr. Fate, I noted that mainstream superhero comics tend to ignore religion, and one of the things that was refreshing about Dr. Fate was that it didn’t. The Spectre is even more steeped in religion, and it’s not the only reason why it’s such a gripping read, but it’s a major factor. Obviously, John Ostrander’s brilliant handling of the many religious issues that he tackles in this series is one reason why it works so well, but it does show that you can still write a superhero comic set in a well-defined universe but still deal with spiritual issues. Of course, it helps when the book is as action-packed and bloody as this one, but still.
This iteration of The Spectre succeeds from a writing standpoint because Ostrander figures out some crucial stuff about the character. In most of the other versions of the character’s adventures, the writer focused mainly on the ground-level punishment the Spectre meted out. While that made for some good stories, there wasn’t very far one could take the character. Ostrander took the idea of the Spectre being the “Wrath of God” and went to its logical extreme, which tied the Spectre into a Judeo-Christian framework far more than he had ever been before. Whether Ostrander’s idea had never occurred to anyone before or whether previous writers had been discouraged from exploring that area because the comics culture wasn’t ready for that kind of depth, I don’t know, but by the early 1990s, the comics audience was mature enough to handle Ostrander bringing in deeper concepts than just the Spectre killing bad guys in inventive ways. The other thing Ostrander figured out was that the Spectre wasn’t a terribly interesting character because of its nature – it could never really change, because it’s an aspect of God that serves a specific purpose. Ostrander decided instead to focus on Jim Corrigan, because Corrigan, as the human part of the Spectre, could change – even though he was dead. By focusing on Corrigan, Ostrander could bring far more nuance to the adventures of the Spectre than most writers could prior to this series. Ostrander certainly didn’t neglect the Spectre, but he was much more concerned with showing how a man can become sanctified, as Corrigan has to understand what evil is before he can enter heaven. Ostrander was able to blend the idea of accepting God’s forgiveness with the idea of achieving grace through good works, a dichotomy in Christian thinking that has never quite been resolved (and isn’t really here – we don’t want to give Ostrander credit for resolving a 2000-year-old conflict, after all), so that Corrigan is able to leave this mortal coil behind, finally, and move on. The Spectre can’t, because that’s not what it’s made for. So Ostrander can indulge in the extreme justice that the Spectre enjoys employing (presumably this was done partly because Mandrake draws it so well), but he can also make the book about far more than that.
The crucial component of Ostrander’s run is, as I mentioned, making Corrigan understand the nature of evil. This is really the entire focus of the book, even when Ostrander writes stories that don’t specifically revolve around that theme. Early on, of course, Corrigan is just as he’s always been – a tough guy completely out of place in the world, an honest cop who nevertheless brutalized criminals, and someone who remains static because he’s dead and sees no reason to change. There’s not even really a sense of frustration about his mission – the Spectre always gets angry at the perpetrators of crimes, he always rails against them, but that’s just part of his schtick, and it seems stale even in the first issue. There’s a chance for change, though, as Corrigan metes out justice to the snitch who helped get him killed fifty years earlier, but he’s still unsatisfied. “I’m tired, Snipe,” he tells the snitch. “The world has only become more perverse in its choice of evils, and I don’t even know why.” Ostrander gives us a typical Corrigan, but one who at last realizes that “confronting evil” isn’t enough. By the end of issue #4, Corrigan, with the help of Amy Beitermann, whom he meets in issue #1, has seen that his mission isn’t quite what he thought it was, and he needs to comprehend as well as confront. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t know how to do this.
What makes it difficult, of course, is both Corrigan’s personality and the nature of the world in which he finds himself. Corrigan is a stereotypical tough guy from the 1930s. He’s an honest cop, but he’s also willing to skirt the law when he knows someone is guilty. It’s this personality that made him a prime candidate for the Spectre – he doesn’t need a court to punish the guilty, because as the Wrath of God he can see into their souls and know their guilt. He’s also selfish and arrogant, as we see very early on in the book, when he and Amy revisit his murder and rebirth. He tries to take down Gat Benson by himself, and gets himself killed. Then, when he comes back as the Spectre, he’s so sure nothing can hurt him that he ignores his fiancée, Clarice, whom Gat had planned to kill, and she gets hit in the crossfire of bullets as the gangsters try to shoot Corrigan. Then he drags Clarice back to her body even though she was about to enter Heaven, and then he breaks off the engagement because he couldn’t devote his life to Clarice. The entire sequence of events shows how Corrigan thinks only of himself and believes himself invulnerable. Once he became the Spectre, he became even more invulnerable, which is one of the reasons he hasn’t changed much in five decades. Ostrander set out to change that.
One thing Ostrander isn’t afraid to do is make Corrigan a product of his times. Corrigan doesn’t treat women particularly well; he’s certainly not a bad guy, but he is somewhat condescending toward them, even as he comes to realize that Amy Beitermann is a complex human being. For a man born in the early part of the 20th century, he’s more racially aware than we might think, but Ostrander explains that away as a function of Corrigan’s upbringing – his father was a traveling preacher, so young Jim never made friends for very long. The only friend he had was the son of the family’s black housekeeper, and when his father disapproved, Jim showed his stubbornness by becoming even closer to Rafe. We find out that Corrigan’s father disapproved because Rafe was also his son, and his presence in the house reminded the elder Corrigan of his rape of Rafe’s mother, but it makes sense that Corrigan would harbor no racial animosity even during a time when many in white America were blatantly racist. Ostrander, however, shows us that Corrigan is anti-gay when he almost mildly punishes an group of men who beat one gay man and kill his lover. By the time this subject comes up, though, in issue #45, Corrigan has begun to question the values by which he lives, and he doesn’t freak out, but instead questions the Archangel Michael about the presence of homosexuals in Heaven. Ostrander gives Michael a great answer, first saying that the question is irrelevant because sexuality is not a spiritual matter, and then explaining to the Spectre about the souls in Heaven when the Spectre asks if there are those in Heaven who have committed “unnatural” acts: “What soul enters heaven without some stain of sin upon it? It is not the individual acts that bring or bar a soul here but the balance of one’s life. I should warn you — it is not what humanity considers good or evil. Humanity should not presume to judge for God. They invariably get it wrong.” Throughout the series, Ostrander does this: The Spectre or some other character thinks what they’re doing is right, but Michael or another character points out that maybe they shouldn’t be so sure about that. Hubris, which is a dominating Corrigan character trait, is a central theme of the book. In this issue, Corrigan continues to realize that even he, an aspect of God, doesn’t know everything about humanity, and this realization is why he is able to grow throughout the course of the series. He’s a product of his times, but he’s able to change, too.
Ostrander also wisely contrasts Corrigan with others. The secondary main character of the book is Nate Kane, a New York detective (with, I might add, a super-duper tough guy name), who pursues the Spectre originally before ending up Corrigan’s partner when Corrigan decides he needs to do something with his time. Kane is a modern version of Jim Corrigan, a tough guy who plays by his own rules but is also just the slightest bit more enlightened than Corrigan is. He understands Corrigan’s penchant for violence but is able to corral his more than Corrigan is, and he’s fairly immune to Corrigan’s mind tricks because he’s so self-assured and able to face his fears directly (Corrigan does find his weak spot, but I’ll get to that later). Unlike Corrigan, he’s already able to put aside his prejudices to do his job as well as he can. In the issue where Corrigan’s homophobia comes to light, Kane is just a bit more enlightened than his partner: When Corrigan asks him if he likes “queers,” Kane responds:
Personally? No. Watching guys holding hands with other guys in public or kissing each other makes me queasy. Don’t like to look at ‘em, don’t like to be near ‘em. Don’t like to think about ‘em, don’t want to touch or be touched by ‘em. But … no matter how I feel about ‘em personally they’re entitled to the same rights under the law! The law has to be the same for everybody or it’s no good! And listen — the same better go double for you! I’m not sure what moral basis you got for what you do in the first place, but if you start picking and choosing who gets justice based on your prejudices then you ain’t got any moral authority! Don’t try passing off your vices as virtues with me, pal. I ain’t buying.
As anti-gay as Kane is, he’s able to see past his prejudices and get that he has to follow the law or it’s invalid for everyone. Corrigan has never had a problem dispensing justice, and in this case, he needs to figure out why he didn’t. Kane is speaking from a dark place when he talks about not being “touched” by homosexuals, as I’ll note below. But he, unlike Corrigan, is able to move past that. Kane provides an interesting foil to Corrigan, because he’s so like him but he’s grown up in a world that is far more tolerant and less violent. He might not be a role model, but Kane at least shows Corrigan that there’s a way to be a tough guy without being utterly devoid of human emotion.
The other foil for Corrigan is Father Richard Craemer, whom Ostrander imports from his run on Suicide Squad, which ended a few months before Ostrander began this series. He brings in Craemer in issue #13, after the first main story arc is done, and Craemer acts as Corrigan’s spiritual advisor from then on. Craemer immediately gets in trouble with the Spectre when he accidentally tells our hero to visit Vlatava, where thousands of innocents have been killed in a civil war (this was at the height of the Balkan wars; Ostrander always tries to work real-world events into his stories). The Spectre finds that no one is innocent, and he kills everyone in the country except for the two leaders of the warring sides and Count Vertigo. Unfortunately, Vertigo puts the idea in his head that no one on Earth is innocent, and the Spectre begins to wonder if maybe the entire world needs to be cleansed. This leads to a storyline where Ostrander links the Spectre to Eclipso (Ostrander, like so many great comic book writers of the 1980s and 1990s, used decades of continuity very well, a skill that is no longer terribly necessary in mainstream comics) and in which Craemer, Madame Xanadu, and Ramban (another Ostrander creation from Suicide Squad; he’s an Israeli superhero) manage to separate Corrigan from the Spectre and reach his human side, which allows him to begin his true mission of understanding evil in the world so he can understand it in himself. Craemer is crucial in getting Corrigan to that point, as it’s his compassion that brings Corrigan back from despair. He continues to act as Corrigan’s advisor and friend, explaining to him that he doesn’t need to avenge every murder (Corrigan is upset because he didn’t notice the obliteration of Coast City, an event that occurred in the Superman books) and trying to get him to figure out his true mission. Craemer is a wise man, almost too perfect, in fact, but he’s the kind of person you would want as a priest. Even when the Church decides that he must no longer be a priest because he teaches things contrary to the Church’s laws, he handles it with grace and humility (and joins the Episcopalians). Craemer always knows the correct thing to say to Corrigan – he points out that a person’s sexuality doesn’t define them in any way when Corrigan seeks advice about his own issues with homosexuals, and he explains that “murder” can mean the death of justice itself as Corrigan struggles with the “National Interest” in the big story arc that runs from issues #37-50. Corrigan lives a life of self-denial – he blames his problems on his upbringing, on his relationships with evil women, or on the bad guys he fought, but Craemer gets him to dig inside himself and see that he has to stop lying to himself, and only then can he move on. When he finally does that, he goes to search for God and doesn’t find him in Heaven. The Spectre does confront God, but Craemer helps him make sense of what happened, and that finally allows Corrigan to move on past his time as the Spectre and enter Heaven. Both Kane and Craemer are crucial to forcing Corrigan to grow up and leave the past behind.
The theme of forgiveness and redemption and moving on is the main one in this series, as Ostrander uses the idea of Corrigan wanting justice on his own terms, not God’s, and expands on that. Corrigan’s origin, with him shouting to the heavens about the lack of justice on Earth, is set in stone, but Ostrander takes that and uses it to delve into the origin of the Spectre, not just the Corrigan-Spectre. I’m not sure if the idea of “comprehending” evil is new or part of the original story (I’m going to guess it’s a retcon), but when we first see it, in issue #4, Amy Beitermann, who’s witnessing it, makes the point that Corrigan didn’t hear that part because he was so focused on vengeance. His journey to forgive both others and himself is why the book exists, and Ostrander uses plenty of other characters to bring home this theme. Amy Beitermann herself is the first one. Amy is HIV-positive, and when she tells the story of her life to Jim, it’s clear she hasn’t forgiven herself for what has happened to her. She believes that it’s her fault that her father went away to war and never came back; she believes she wished her mother dead after her mother sought solace in a succession of men; she kicks out her husband when she finds out he’s cheating on her and then engages in a string of affairs; she finds out that her husband had gotten AIDS while they were married and passed it on to her, and she proceeded to pass the virus on to all the men she slept with. Even though she tells Corrigan to forgive himself, it’s clear she hasn’t forgiven herself. Over the course of the first 12 issues (until Amy’s murder), she gradually does what Corrigan can’t and accept that these things aren’t her fault. Her journey is the template for many other characters in the book.
Nate Kane, as Corrigan’s more modern mirror, is one such character. He loves Amy, but he can’t bring himself to touch her because so many people in his life have died from various diseases, and he fears dying such a slow, painful death. When Amy is brutally attacked, Nate and Corrigan both find her, and while she pleads with both of them to stay with her as she dies, neither of them do. Corrigan is compelled to punish the man who killed her, and Nate can’t bring himself to hold her because he’s terrified he’ll be infected by her blood. Nate is ashamed of himself, and it takes him most of the series to get over that shame. Azmodus, the Spectre’s arch-enemy, is another such character. In issue #0, Ostrander retells the origin of the Spectre as the Wrath of God, and how it needed to be bonded with a human host after the birth of Jesus. The first Spectre was in a different belief system, that of Hinduism, with a man named Caraka, who was killed, along with his family, by a woman named Beltane who was collecting souls. He demanded justice much like Corrigan and became the Spectre. In a later issue, Caraka believed that his mission was fruitless and rebelled against the gods, so Kali punished him by stripping away his powers and joining him with a demon who was tempting Caraka, creating Azmodus. The Spectre can’t defeat Azmodus, and the only way he wins is because Azmodus realizes that he has been harming the soul of his dead wife, whom he greatly loved. He renounces evil and is allowed to move on in his journey. His story gets wrapped up in the story of Clarice Winston, the woman who Corrigan loved before he was killed. In issue #23, Corrigan discovers that Clarice is still alive, but she’s obviously very old and in a coma. Clarice has had a horrible life, stemming from Corrigan’s rejection of her, and at the end of it, her granddaughter is trying to kill her. Corrigan gives her a reprieve by putting her soul into her granddaughter’s body and vice versa, allowing Clarice to live a new life. Azmodus uses that and brings the old body, now with Clarissa’s soul in it, back to full life, and of course she accuses the young body, with Clarice’s soul, of attempted murder. Clarice had no respest for her son, but he redeems himself when Clarissa tries to kill Clarice, and then Clarissa herself rejects Azmodus. Clarice sacrifices herself so that Clarissa can return to her original body, and this is crucial in allowing the Spectre to defeat Azmodus. None of it would have been possible if Clarice had not forgiven Corrigan for the way he treated her and if her family hadn’t been able to forgive each other. Finally, in “The Haunting of America” story arc that runs in issues #37-50, Ostrander explores the many ways the United States has betrayed its founding principles and how the people of the country must accept that and also how the victims must often forgive their oppressors before a “more perfect union” is forged.
This theme makes the book, while wildly blood-soaked (and it’s extremely violent – let’s not forget that), a far more uplifting comic than we might expect. Corrigan experiences a lot of tragedy, but Ostrander makes the point that for every tragedy, there’s a ray of hope. Even as Amy Beitermann bleeds out and both Nate and Corrigan leave her, Madame Xanadu arrives and holds her as she dies. In a DCU where many different levels of reality exist, Ostrander can offer the living some comfort that the noble dead get a reward, as Amy clearly goes to Heaven, and she even intercedes to allow Percival Popp, the old comedic relief character from the Spectre’s 1940s adventures, into Heaven. Corrigan might live but a harsh code, but he is compassionate within that code – while the other cops insult Percival Popp, Corrigan stands by him because Percival stood by Corrigan and because he’s honest. Ostrander is always writing stories that offer the characters a chance to live a better life, and usually, they take it. Nate Kane finds love at the end of the book and teaches the Spectre a bit about justice as opposed to rigid law. The secret weapon of the National Interest turns against his masters when he realizes they’re perverting the concept of America, and he helps forge a new American identity, a more inclusive one. Ostrander even holds out the possibility of redemption for the Joker, as the Spectre gives him a conscience for an instant, allowing him to recognize all the evil he’s done and how horrible he is. The Joker, according to Ostrander, has no understanding of his crimes and therefore the Spectre cannot judge him, but he still shows how, for one brief moment, even the Joker could be redeemed if he understood the extent of his evil. In the final storyline, Jim Corrigan is able to forgive his own father and then himself so that he can enter Heaven. Ostrander never loses sight of the fact that anyone can be redeemed if they want to be, and that makes the book an impressive declaration about the power of love, one that is either missing or forced in far too many mainstream comics.
Ostrander’s elevated aspirations wouldn’t be as effective without an artist like Mandrake working with him, however. Mandrake’s fluid, dynamic style is perfect for a comic like The Spectre and other epic type adventures (his work with Ostrander on both Firestorm and Martian Manhunter are other highlights). Mandrake’s biggest weakness – he’s not great at facial expressions that aren’t anger – don’t come into play as much in this comic, but his strengths are at the forefront. His sinewy lines with his harsh inks imposed on them (Mandrake inks himself for almost the entire run) help create characters who move easily around the pages but look solid and serious. The dark humor of the book is heightened by Mandrake’s imaginative yet deadly serious drawings of the Spectre dispensing his unique brand of justice. The justice the Spectre dispenses is wonderfully imaginative, too – creators going back to Fleisher and Aparo, at least, have had a lot of fun with the way the Spectre wipes out bad guys, and in the new, more “mature” world of the 1990s, Mandrake could go even further. But even more than just coming up with ways to kill bad guys, Mandrake expands the page, obliterating panel borders, using double-page spreads to maximum effect, and devising some dazzling page layouts. His visions of Hell are terrifying, perhaps more than any other depiction of Hell in mainstream comics, and that includes the Vertigo books (and The Spectre is essentially a Vertigo book set firmly in the DCU, anyway). Mandrake wisely leaves Heaven alone, but even the fact that he draws the Gates of Heaven and the Archangel Michael with a looser, more airy line is a good contrast to the horrifying precision of Hell. The greatness of Mandrake on the book is even more pronounced when a guest artist shows up. There’s nothing really wrong with the fill-in artists – some are better than others, of course – but they lack the unfettered craziness of Mandrake, and it’s interesting that Ostrander seems to rein in the Spectre’s tendencies to go wild when he’s writing a story he knows Mandrake won’t illustrate. Only Steve Pugh, who’s quite good at horror, comes close to the vibe that Mandrake gives to the book, but even he isn’t as expansive and dynamic as Mandrake is. Plus, Mandrake drew 53½ of 62 issues of a book that was rarely, if ever, delayed (I bought it when it was coming out, and I don’t remember any significant breaks in the schedule). He was not only superb, but he was able to keep up with the pace of the book, which allowed it to remain a consistent artistic marvel for its entire run. Here are just some of his greatest hits:
The Spectre really is an amazing combination of the right writer and the right artist on the right character. Ostrander went to seminary for a year and was interested in becoming a priest, so he knows a bit more about the actual workings of religious sects than a lot of other writers, and that informs not only his writing of Richard Craemer but helps when he starts treading more into the theology of the Spectre. Mandrake’s flowing art creates an epic feel to the book, full of melodrama and adventure and horror, and I don’t think Mandrake has ever been better (and I like Mandrake quite a bit). The Spectre, with his foundation in a Judeo-Christian world and his awesome power and his ability to be anything he wants, suits both Ostrander’s sensibilities and Mandrake’s style. It’s a bit surprising that DC approved this book, even in the more mature atmosphere of the 1990s, but it’s cool that they did. There’s a reason that I’ve listed it as #4 and then #3 on the Top Comic Book Runs thing Brian does every four years. It’s just that good. I could write even more about it, but I think I’ve gone on long enough!
The Spectre #1-4 has been collected in a trade, but I’m sure it’s long out of print. Nothing else has been collected yet, but according to the latest issue of Previews, in May we’ll get a trade of the first 12 issues, which form pretty much a complete story (with some side journeys here and there). I would love it if that means we’re getting a bunch of big trades – 5 or 6 should be enough for the whole run, depending on how many issues each collects. I encourage you all to get the trade when it comes out, or just go hunting through the back issues!
I apologize for taking so long with this. It’s a big run, and it’s pretty meaty, and I’ve been trying to get ahead with the “Year of the Artist” posts, so I’ve been taking a while to write this. I don’t know how long it will be before I post another one, because these confonded “S” titles are so plentiful and so many are nice long runs. But I’m sure I’ll get another one up soon enough! Of course, you can always check out the archives!
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