Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

His doom was sealed in his second issue: the Silver Age Spectre

As I blogged about several years ago, the Spectre’s 1966 Silver Age debut had an absolutely mesmerizing cover, all the more mesmerizing because I missed it on the spinner rack.

When I finally read the story years later, it was terrific, too. I can see why it led to a series while editor Julius Schwartz’s other JSA series attempts flopped. I would never have guessed the series would disappoint me so much. In hindsight, the second of Spectre’s Showcase tryout issues, #61, foreshadowed the end.

In #60 we learned the Spectre disappeared 20 years earlier when his player on the other side, the demon Azmodus, materialized on Earth, trapping them both in their host bodies. Chance frees the two spirits after which the Ghostly Guardian overwhelms Azmodus. But what sinister mission was the demon trying to accomplish? We learn in #61, in the Gardner Fox/Murphy Anderson tale “Beyond the Sinister Barrier.”

A mysterious figure contacts people on the brink of death and offers them salvation in return for their shadow. The figure is Satan — er no, wait, Shathan. I can’t imagine why I’d see a resemblance.
Shathan, lord of Dis, has enslaved the suckers who took his bargain, turning them into his worshippers. This will give him power enough to materialize on Earth and conquer it.
The Spectre ain’t having none of that and finally finds a doom even Satan can’t survive, throwing him into the Big Bang.Like I said, this shows the two problems that would sink the Spectre’s Silver Age run. First. as several letter writers pointed at the time, if the Spectre can take on Satan and kick his butt, who can possibly challenge him?

The second, which nobody pointed out at the time, is that this is cosmic stuff. Steve Ditko would have made an enthralling mystical struggle out of it; Steve Englehart a few years later could have given it the same trippy mysticism he brought to his run on Dr. Strange. Gardner Fox, however, treats it matter-of-factly, as captured by the issue’s ending.Beating up hoods, destroying Satan, is there really a difference? Not to Fox, whose Spectre was perfectly happy to jail common crooks in between defeating unspeakable evil. Don’t get me wrong, I find something oddly appealing in that approach. However it was never going to attain the power of Dr. Strange battling Dormammu or Shuma-Gorath. I think that hurt the series.The “who can beat the Spectre?” definitely hurt it, as I mentioned when looking at his third tryout issue. Gambler “Ace” Chance pays a fatal price for his unpaid gambling debts; not to worry, he hijacks Jim’s body while the Spectre is out fighting crime. He’s able to keep it because he’s traveled around the world sucking up evil from evil places (e.g., St. Secaire in France, once the site of a notorious black mass) to make himself a serious threat. Plus the Spectre’s shut out from Jim’s body, weakening him. Okay, I guess I can swallow that … once. Unfortunately it wasn’t just once. In the Spectre‘s first issue, the ghost of the pirate Captain Skull is drawn across time, charged up by “megacyclic” energy from the time stream so the Spectre daren’t touch him. Once again a spook who shouldn’t be a match for the Ghostly Guardian becomes a world-class threat.In #2 a stage magician/petty crook unwittingly frees his astral self, who then proceeds to loot at will while kicking Spectral butt.How does he do it? Like Ace Chance he’s been sucking up evil energy, in this case from Arkham, Massachusetts, a name that meant nothing to my pre-teen self. Even now, knowing it’s a reference to HP Lovecraft’s fiction, it doesn’t do the trick. I still don’t buy this mage is a match for the Spectre.

Another problem with this issue when I read it as a kid was the horrible art. In place of Murphy Anderson’s crisp delineation we have this Neal Adams guy (who got a profile text page — DC knew he was a keeper) whose art felt soooo wrong. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, the problem wasn’t Adams, it was my childhood taste; the art is the best thing about the Gardner Fox-written issue.

The following issue opens with Adams doing Ditko (or so I assume) and doing it well. Mike Friedrich’s story also finds a workaround to the Spectre’s power: the focus of the issue is on Wildcat. Even before he meets a petty hood turned petty god as a side-effect of that cosmic battle, he’s having a crappy day.

Sure, he’s the former heavyweight champ of the world. He’s also in his mid-forties and doesn’t have any of comics’ magic immortality treatments, so Friedrich wrote him as a guy aging out of the superhero game (something he also tried with Alan Scott). At the end of the book Ted Grant semi-retires Wildcat: he’ll be there if the Justice Society needs him, otherwise he’ll concentrate on working with kids at his gym.

Reading as a boy, Wildcat’s issues were an annoying distraction from the story. As an adult in his sixties, I appreciate it a lot more. Obviously, though, we can’t have a different JSA-er show up each issue as cannon fodder so what happens next?Neal Adams, writing as well as drawing, provides the answer in #4. This time the evil force has possessed a kid who proceeds to wreak havoc. While the kid is innocent, it seems the only way to stop the demon possessing him is to kill the boy. Ultimately the Spectre decides he can’t kill an innocent.Yep, it’s the same twist Elliott Maggin used in Miracle Monday — by refusing to kill the innocent, the hero wins.

The following issue, also by Adams, the Spectre takes on the Psycho-Pirate. That villain fills everyone the Spectre tries to help with terror; as the Ghostly Guardian doesn’t know the reason, he doesn’t know how to counter it. The Psycho-Pirate also uses a magical talisman from an earlier adventure to drain the Spectre’s magic, enhancing his own power. It’s not as clever as the previous two but it works.

Gardner Fox returns (with Jerry Grandenetti on art) for #6. A group of Pilgrim ghosts killed by Native Americans for their blasphemous evil magic (I do love the twist on the usual tropes where the indigenous people are the devil-worshippers) rise from the afterworld to resume blaspheming and evil-magicking.
No need to soak up demonic energy this time: the pilgrims’ master Nawor is a Shathan-class force of evil.That makes for a stronger story except, you know, Spectre has to find a way to win. Fox, apparently stumped for anything better, reveals Nawor picked a name that hides (not very well) his secret weakness, rowan wood (which in folklore is indeed potent against magic). Overall it’s a good story.

Less so the following issue, in which a bank robber’s ghost is so obsessed with the money he died stealing that not even the Spectre can banish him.By #8, DC had kicked Fox to the curb (a topic I will get to in a later post). Steve Skeates (with Grandenetti on the art) takes the alternative approach of weakening the invincible protagonist. After the Spectre’s recklessness almost kills an innocent bystander, God decrees he will be stricken with a weakness — blindness in this issue’s adventure — every time he’s under pressure. Yes, that will teach him a lesson and certainly won’t endanger more innocents, right?

I don’t think that offered much of a way forward but the point is moot. Next issue Dick Giordano took over as editor and apparently figured if Cain could host an anthology book, why not the Spectre? In the opening story (Friedrich and Grandenetti) the Spectre kills a crook. God informs the Spectre nobody at his paygrade has the authority to judge and execute bad people, a hilarious moment given how homicidal the Spectre would become a few years later. God strips the Spectre of his power and assigned him to read a book recounting the deeds of mortals: observe them and judge them until your judgment becomes wiser.

Issues 9 and 10 fail to make the anthology set-up work. Part of the problem is that most of the stories are straight crime thrillers with the Spectre showing up to mete out justice at the end, In others he pops up mid-story making ominous warnings. It’s not a superhero book, it’s not a Crime Does Not Pay and it isn’t House of Mystery either—it falls between all the stools.

I enjoy the Silver Age run despite its flaws. That said, it’s easy to see why the Fleischer Bronze Age Spectre is the one everyone remembers.

#SFWApro. Art by Murphy Anderson (top eight), Neal Adams (next seven), Jerry Grandenetti (next two), Nick Cardy (final two).

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