December 5, 2009

, , ,   |  

Wrath of the Spectre

Written by Michael Fleisher
Illustrated by Jim Aparo, Russell Carley, Ernie Chua, Frank Thorne, Mike Decarlo, and Pablo Marcos
DC

Sorry, Pennsylvania residents and political junkies, this is not about Arlen's change in political parties. (Though I admit seeing him running through Congress in a green cape uttering words of vengeance would be pretty cool.) This is a collection of one of DC's oddest creations, a character who is literally the embodiment of Old Testament God's wrath, meting out justice to those who seek to escape the law.

It's a tough character to pull off because he's almost limitless in power. It also makes it hard to wonder why he doesn't just snuff the Joker once and for all, but if you think too hard about this, the whole premise falls apart. That's the trouble with characters who are willing to kill. Once you can do that, there's no sense in ever keeping repeat villains around.

In order not to think about it too hard, Fleisher keeps this version of the Spectre grounded in mortal affairs. Instead of going after cosmic threats or supervillains, his Spectre is quite content to use his mortal guise of Jim Corrigan, Detective, to find common criminals, be they bank robbers or deranged artists. If God is in the small things, his anger is getting back at the small time crook.

It's totally a cheat, in a way, but it works perfectly and allows Fleisher and Aparo to create a neo-EC horror comic, complete with as many on-screen terrors as they're allowed to portray. Though the stories are set in modern times, it's clear that both writer and artist were trying to hearken back to a time when comics were designed to be as scary as possible.

Though tame by today's standards of almost perpetual bloodbath and dripping wounds, I can see where an early 1970s audience might find this to be objectionable, especially in a comic that, at least in the Adventure Comics I own, had pretty pedestrian stories. (One problem with this collection is a lack of context--I can't tell what's appearing with the Spectre, except for a few vague cover references to Aquaman.) Aparo absolutely revels in his ability to cut loose (literally at times), creating giant scissors, multi-headed serpents, and melting people aplenty. Plus, he still throws in his patented tilted camera work, making this feel like the evil twin of Brave and the Bold.

As far as the stories go, they're fun cautionary tales about evil people getting their just desserts. There's a bit of "villain of the month" going on, with a litany of bad people marching past the Spectre and ending up dead either by their own design or at the Spectre's macabre imagination. When reading this collection, it's often best to only read a few at a time, to prevent them from feeling the same. The biggest variety comes from the couple of guest-pencils, both of which were inked by Aparo but have a different sense of layout, relying more on panel design than character placement.

Perhaps most interesting is Fleisher's attempt to give the Spectre a supporting cast and personal angst. He's quoted in the introduction as saying he liked what Marvel was doing (giving their superheroes very human problems) and wanted to bring it to Corrigan and his ghostly other self. So, in amongst the usual horror trappings and speeches about evil receiving its just due, we get scenes of the semi-human Corrigan lecturing Gwen Sterling (a ringer for Mary Jane Watson, though that might be coincidence) about how they can never be together. There's also a nosy reporter that Aparo (or breakdown artist Russell Carley) cleverly draws to look like a certain other reporter and naturally, a crusty police chief to round out the regular cast.

At times, these insertions are a bit forced, but they show that Fleisher was trying to give the Spectre a grounding that he previously lacked. It's a trick that J.M. Dematteis would also do when Hal Jordan was the Spectre and I think it helps to keep him in line. (I can't speak for Ostrander's Spectre, as I can't track down very many issues.) Otherwise, his desire for vengeance just get too far out of line and he loses sight of his purpose.

Just about the time that Fleisher got going and really had the angst level set about right, the Adventure comics feature was canned, leaving three unpublished scripts. They were finally given air when the rest of the series was republished, with Aparo penciling and others inking his work. Aparo's style is slicker in the modern issues, which hurts the creepy feel of the horror. He'd managed to round the edges of his style a bit for the 1970s issues, but here the artwork looks exactly like his Batman issues from the tail end of his run (Knightfall). The shift throws off what worked and makes it look less like an homage to older horror comics. Ironically, even the violence seems toned down (perhaps at the request of the original editor?). While they're nice to see for historical perspective, they create a less cohesive ending for the series and don't really add anything to the original run.

Wrath of the Spectre is an odd duck of a comic that was out of place at the time and probably could not be done at DC these days, with everything requiring infinite connections. As a look at an industry that had not shaken its horror comic roots and was trying post-code to capture the same magic, it's a great insight. For Aparo fans, it's a chance to see some of his best non-Batman work in one place and marvel at the tweak in style to fit the mood of the plot.

I liked Wrath of the Spectre enough to actually re-read it, something I don't often do with comics. If you can find a copy and like horror comics, you'll find it a perfect fit. Just don't shoplift it, or a green-caped ghost might turn you into a five-finger discount!