This ongoing series of mine has focused largely on forgotten or little-used heroes. Today’s entry is nothing like that, since the Spectre has been a DC staple since his creation in 1940.
He’s just been a markedly different sort of character any time he appears anywhere. At least with someone like Superman, you know what the guy is and where he stands. With the Spectre, he’s more or less what the story needs. He really is a deus ex machina, sometimes rather literally.
The Spectre made his first appearance in More Fun Comics in February of 1940 in a story written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, presumably because Less Fun Comics was booked solid with the adventures of Starving Jimmy The Poorest Boy In The World. Tough guy cop Jim Corrigan was killed by mobsters. Most stories would make that the end, but not here. Corrigan gets to the other side and he’s mad. So, he gets to go back as the Spectre, a nearly-omnipotent being who, well, does violent things to criminals. Or battles cosmic fiends and demons that would allow him to go into space and toss stars at giant bad things.
The Spectre soon joined the Justice Society, which was where DC shoved all their lesser heroes to gain them more exposure while pretending Superman or Batman might show up to help out at any minute.
Tracking the Spectre is where things get screwy. Like many Golden Age heroes, he disappeared for a while only to be revived in the Silver Age. Corrigan seemed to be alive again, and the Spectre would emerge from his body to go off and independently fight crime. Some of those stories are a bit of a trip. The Spectre might be riding shotgun in Corrigan’s car, or even hanging out in Corrigan’s apartment. Heck, one of those stories had a panel of the two of them getting into bed together, the Spectre merging with Corrigan under the sheets in a panel I really, really wish was on Google Images right now.
As time passed and standards got looser, the Spectre became more of what he originally was, Corrigan as a ghost, and the Guy in Green decided to go for lethal ironic punishments. This is the incarnation people remember best. The Spectre really didn’t have any limits. He just did stuff.
Or, sometimes he’d just skip the ironic part.
But really, if the Spectre was appearing anywhere, he filled the role the story needed. Many times that was the big gun who showed up and delivered the coup de grace, like how he wrestled the Anti-Monitor into temporary submission during the Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Or he was the big guy who got beaten badly to show how formidable a threat was if need be, which is how Alan Moore used him in Swamp Thing when a dark pillar he was trying to wrestle into submission turned out to be just a thumb of a much, much larger force that beat him rather easily until Swamp Thing stepped into the game.
Really, the Spectre didn’t seem to have a consistent character…until the 90s.
One of my favorite series from that time was The Spectre as written by John Ostrander and with most issues drawn by Tom Mandrake. They decided to really get into the character, showing him in situations that were often far from black and white and questioning what exactly was the Spectre’s mission. The series was not Comics Code approved, so there was some rather strong violence and imagery going without going full-on Vertigo, and it was still set in the regular DC superhero universe, with the occasional guest shot by a Vertigo character (mostly Sandman-related characters, and once Lucifer himself). Ostrander treated the character like a hard-nosed 1930s cop, which is what Corrigan was, and really went into both Corrigan’s and the Spectre’s backstory, since it turned out Corrigan was not the first angry soul to be connected to the Spectre. The Spectre was, it turns out, the Wrath of God, and Ostrander went so far as to show God was God for every faith. The faith of the human host would shape the Spectre’s appearance and how he or she interacted with the rest of the world. There was a Hindu Spectre, a Celtic Spectre, a Native American Spectre, etc. Corrigan was just the most recent. All Spectres are given the same mission, to confront evil so they might understand it. Most take a while just to get past the “confront evil” part.
Also, potentially iconic character Madam Xanadu was a frequent supporting character.
Mostly, the series was used as a means to discuss the nature of things like mercy, justice, and morality. Essentially, the series ended with Corrigan giving up the Spectre because he finally learned mercy and was allowed to go to heaven. The Spectre would then later be attached to another lost soul. And after all that…DC went ahead and screwed up the character all over again.
See, the next soul to be attached to the Spectre was former Green Lantern, former Paralax, and former a lot of things Hal Jordan. This idea was doomed from the start. Green Lantern fans would have never sat for Jordan killing people like the Spectre does on a regular basis, and Spectre fans would have never gone along with him not doing that. DC then gave the new Spectre a solo series written by J. M. Dematteis, who can be a bit new-agey when he isn’t doing the Justice League with Keith Giffen. He changed the character some more. No longer was the Spectre the Spirit of Vengeance. Now he was the Spirit of Redemption. He wasn’t the Wrath of God. He was the Logos of God. The people he violently killed…actually got to go to heaven or something. In the first issue, Hal/Spectre confronts an old lady who was murdering people while also working as a church organist. After violently killing her, he sees her soul ascend into heaven. Because that’s where all murderers go.
How this series got much further than that I don’t know, but it’s the only explanation possible for panels like this one:
Yeah, obviously this didn’t last. And this was the character who almost stopped Hal-as-Paralax during Zero Hour single-handedly.
Of course, after being the guy who only the Archangel Michael could beat in a straight fight, the Spectre became someone who could be taken down a couple pegs by various Green Lantern-related entities like Paralax the fear entity, or Black Lantern Nekron. There was some promise when the Spectre was merged with murdered Gotham City cop Crispus Allen, but not much came of that. These days it looks like the Spectre might be back to his original deal in the New 52, but whatever they do with him there will probably be altered to fit the next incarnation as needed.