Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Wrath Of The Spectre

The Spectre has, of course, been around since the '40's, when he was first created by Jerry Siegel. ( I love the fact that Jerry Siegel created The Spectre after creating Superman. I mean, what was he thinking? ) But The Spectre's finest hour was probably this short run in the pages of Adventure Comics.
It was a brilliant, ghoulish series that raised a few eyebrows at the time for it's violence
and, so the story goes, was inspired by an incident that happened to editor Joe Orlando. According to Jim Aparo: Someone had told me that Joe had told him that he had been mugged in the city, and the mugger got away, and Joe was infuriated over it and was looking for revenge.
Over to Joe: I might have used it to justify why I was doing that. As a kid, I liked the Superman who took the criminal up really high and said, 'Listen, buster, you tell me what's going to happen or I'm going to drop you'. That's why I read Superman. I don't like any super-heroes who are wimps. Because that's not fulfilling the job they're supposed to be doing, which is, when you've lost all recourse through legal channels, to use force. That's what a super-hero's about.
And that's absolutely what The Spectre's about here.
Scripted by comics greatest misanthrope Michael Fleisher and with art at the peak of his game from Aparo, each issue is basically the same nasty morality play. The bad guys do something unspeakably rotten, and The Spectre finds them, and kills them in the most creatively baroque, gruesome way Fleisher & collaborator Russell Carley can come up with.
That's really it, and you can't read too many of them in one go, but taken individually each story is a perfect rancid little gem.
There is some attempt at continuity later on, in the form of a faintly ludicrous romance between The Spectre's earthbound alter-ego Jim Corrigan & sexy socialite Gwen Sterling, ( he's a ghost, darlin'! ) and a sub-plot where a Clark Kent-ish reporter tries to find out why all these criminals keep dying in bizarre ways. ( Nice touch when Corrigan actually calls the guy Clark Kent. Post-modernism will eat itself! ) But it's really the gruesome acts of vengeance that stick in the memory. And unlike the EC's which obviously inspired a lot of this, the death's aren't always simple poetic justice ( like the hairdresser cut in half by a pair of giant scissors ), but more often things that come completely out of left field. Like my all-time favourite, where The Spectre turns a bad guy into wood, then runs him through a saw mill!
And the art is some of the best of Jim Aparo's career. His work of this period always seemed to me to be so complete, and so perfect, it was like a machine did it. Absolutely nothing is wrong or out of place, and there isn't a weak panel in the whole series. His art also had the 'cool' factor, something indefinable that only Gil Kane's could match. Every one of his characters somehow just looked unspeakably cool, like the greatest Rat Pack movie never made.
There's no real depth to this series, it does exactly what it says on the tin, but it's got something better. A raw, nasty energy. As Fleisher said: You can't read it without being affected by it's power. It violated many of the conventions ( in comics ) that people accepted. And in violating those conventions, because I wasn't interested in them and hadn't been educated in them, I created something that I think had a very unusual bite and energy to it. But at the same time, it was like a work of primitive art. It lacked a certain refinement.
Of course, it's a series that's not as shocking as it once was, but there's still that pure, unbridled hatred to it...

The trade collects the whole series, including three scripts that were abandoned when the series was cancelled, that Aparo finally got to draw in the '80's. They're not as good as the first stories, but hey, any Jim Aparo is welcome.


  1. Yep, my all-time favourite scene from Wrath Of Spectre is also the one where The Spectre turns a bad guy into wood, then runs him through a saw mill!

    Did you know that these stories were collected in a baxter paper one-shot in the mid-eighties? That’s the format I have these stories in nowadays, and Aparo’s art sure does look nice with the better printing and paper.

    One unexpected side-effect of Fleisher’s Spectre stories was that in a 1979 Comics Journal interview Harlan Ellison said the Spectre series “…was "bugfuck"; you had to be crazy like Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft to write like that. Fleisher said he was "devastated and appalled" by Ellison's remarks, and decided to sue for libel…” The quoted bit comes from an article on the lawsuit at; just to make things worse, this apparently lead to a decades-long feud between Ellison and Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth. In 2006, Ellison sued Groth over comments the latter made about the former -- Ellison’s paperwork can be seen at from 2006 if anybody fancies wading through the legalese.

    David Simpson

  2. Absolutely. there's a great book I'd recommend to any Bronze Ager called The Comics Journal Library: The Writers which has interviews with (deep breath now): Chris Claremont, Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Archie Goodwin, Denny O'Neil, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and a young Alan Moore, all during, or just after, their most famous Bronze Age work. There's also that infamous interview with Ellison. Here's one of the less libellious quotes: "He really did The Spectre, man. For the first time since the '40's, that goddamn strip was dynamite. And the first time they looked at what they were publishing, they said, " My God, we have turned loose this lunatic on the world," and they ran him off. And that was a shame because Fleisher should have been kept on The Spectre forever."

  3. I remember buying this issue at the local drugstore when I was nine years old. My mother told that comics like this would warp my brain. She was right, thank goodness.

    One of my all-time favorite comic book series.

  4. Clearly this series pushed the limits under the revised COMIC CODE of the early 1970s!

  5. I don't get it. Why would Fleisher sue Ellison for a comments like that? I'd have taken it as a compliment if I'd been him.

    As for the Spectre; for me, along with Gene Colan's "Tomb of Dracula", it is indeed one of the most visually beauteous things ever to come out of the 1970s.