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Thursday, October 27, 2016

A comprehensive review of the 1987 Spectre v2 ongoing series

Our first article about the Spectre v2 ongoing series began with us telling you about the origin of the series and the Spectre's scaled-down powers, but quickly got side-tracked as we began outlining all the great artists who had collaborated on the series. In this second part we're striving to give you an overall summary of this 1987 ongoing series...

[I'm trying my best here to review this series as objectively as possible. It's been a while since I've read 1992's The Spectre v3 (aka: John Ostrander's Spectre) or any 1940s Golden Age stories from his More Fun Comics days. For all intents and purposes, I'm more or less going into this with a 'clean slate'. -J]


The Spectre v2 ongoing series ran for 31 issues and a single 1988 annual (all written by Doug Moench). This series was only offered via Direct Edition — it wasn't sold on newsstands — meaning you either had to have a home subscription or purchase it from your local comic book shop. Being a Direct Edition made it possible for Spectre v2 to bypass the Comics Code Authority (CCA) seal and contain content geared towards a 'mature audience'. This was very much in-step with what was happening with Swamp Thing v2 at the time, Despite being a 'no label' book, DC editorial opted not use profane words, show graphic sex or violence and only be as strong as 1988 prime time television.

This ongoing series also sported the NEW FORMAT seal on the cover — this meant that there were 24 pages of story instead of 22, all of the ads were at the back of the book, the paper stock was better than newsprint (but not as good as Baxter), and new 'computer coloring' was being used. Swamp Thing v2 would also move into this format with issue #60 and Doom Patrol v2 with issue #19.*

Under the editorial direction of Bob Greenberger, Moench initially sets up the Spectre v2 as a supernatural mystery comic; James Corrigan is no longer a cop, he's a private investigator with an office above Madame Xanadu's Greenwich Village parlor. The stories are mainly narrated from Corrigan's point of view and tend to involve a supernatural case/mystery that he's trying to crack (often involving a murder). The Spectre is a discarnate spirit which comes and goes as he pleases, but is usually working towards the same objective as Corrigan. The first three issues establish the tone of this series, and by issue #4 the series really starts to hit it's stride. Reader reaction to a new Spectre ongoing series consisted of a lot of hesitation — readers pointed out that the reason a Spectre series hadn't worked very well in the past is because the character was too powerful (on the verge of being God-like) and thus difficult for the reader to form a relation to. Moench effectively fixed this by scaling down the Spectre's powers and giving him a weakness.

Spectre v2 #3

I honestly don't think that Doug Moench is given enough credit as a writer of supernatural fiction. Moench is best known for co-creating Marvel's Moon Knight, his run on Marvel's Master of Kung-Fu with Paul Gulacy and, most notably, his 1983 to 1986 stint as a writer for Batman and Detective Comics. Most fans don't realize that Moench's 1970s writing resumé includes a huge catalog of work for Warren Publication's Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella horror magazines, as well as a variety of Marvel's black-and-white Curtis Magazine titles (i.e., Dracula Lives!, Haunt of Horror, Vampire Tales, Monsters Unleashed, Tales of the Zombie).

If I didn't know any better, it would seem like Moench's first major goals with this series were to try to conclude a few open-ended story lines. In a two-part story illustrated by Gene Colan and Steve Mitchell, Moench explains what happened to Jim Corrigan post-Crisis up until the beginning of Spectre v2. Moench masterfully sidesteps around the continuity nightmare that is Crisis on Infinite Earths by explaining it as a natural phenomena ["red rains"] that happened to be occurring during the course of the story:

Spectre v2 #5 - Ernie Colon and Steve Mitchell art

Issues #7 and 8 of the Spectre v2 reintroduces Golden Age mystical super-villain Wotan (last seen in 1981's All-Star Squadron) to a current audience in what may be the creepiest Zatanna story I've ever read. Moench keeps a tight continuity in these issues, as the remaining Demon Three members (Abnegazar and Ghast) are still looking for their missing brother and references to Justice League of America #256 - 257 are mentioned. (At this point, Zatanna was predominantly a Justice Leaguer, having last appeared during 1986's Justice League Detroit run.) Moench also resolves the lingering question of what happened to Zatara following the events of Swamp Thing v2 #50:


Spectre v2 #5 - illustrated by Cam Kennedy

Spectre v2 #9 is the first issue that Gray Morrow starts his six issue run (as penciller AND inker) on the series. Issue #9 incited a lot of controversy in the comic book fandom community at the time, not because the Spectre (a spirit) and Madame Xanadu (a human) 'consummate' their relationship [that idea has already 'been done', as seen in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing v2 #34], but because of all the nudity in the issue. (Fun Fact: Madame Xanadu sleeps totally in the nude while wearing ALL of her jewelry. Flaunt it if you've got it, is the message here.) Comic book stores owners were taken by surprise because there was no mention of adult content on the cover of the issue, and they had no forewarning of the nudity within the issue. One rumor is that DC editorial thought the dark green overlays printed over the image would conceal enough to not be an issue — but as evidenced by the finished product, this was not the case whatsoever.

Truth be told, the Morrow-illustrated issues were my favorite issues of the Spectre v2 to read. Morrow's art brings a sense of realism and fits the mood of the series — his Spectre is a very human-looking Spectre (which, y'know, adds to the creepiness factor). It feels a bit like a throw-back to the Golden Age version of the character when the writers were still trying to flesh out his powers.

Spectre v2 #12 - illustrated by Gray Morrow

As mentioned, Morrow's last issue was Spectre v2 #15, which is also the last issue Robert Greenberger is credited as editor. Starting from #16 (and until the last issue of the series) Andy Hefner would now be manning the editorial reins. Issue #15 concluded with the promise of 'A New Beginning' and issue #16 quickly wraps up the lingering Cult of the Blood Red Moon storyline (that's been running since issue #1) with Chris Wozniak and Mark Farmer on art. Corrigan also comes clean to his police department contact about who he really is (this is a bit of a change, since a previously recurring plot device was Corrigan going to great pains to conceal his association with the Spectre).

Issue #18 brings a BIG CHANGE to the character, as Jim Corrigan and the Spectre are no longer two separate entities, but one and the same person who switch back & forth (think: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde). I'm not 100% sure, but I think the Spectre's powers get augmented, too.
Spectre v2 #19 - Corrigan changing to the Spectre. Mark Badger art.

By issue #20, we're seeing a completely NEW direction in this series: Jim Corrigan decides to run a paranormal detective agency and begins hiring eccentric employees to fill the roster. For a few issues, Spectre v2 goes back to the whole 'detective agency/mystery' aspect, but ultimately gets derailed by a 6 issue story arc that, in my humble opinion, killed interest in this series.

Written by Moench and pencilled by Tom Artis (along with various inkers), the Ghost in the Machine story arc (Spectre v2 #24 - #29) involved the Spectre battling a new meta-human with the power to control... (wait for it)... computers! This was honestly one of those 'what were they thinking' moments that had me scratching my head. Considering issue #23 was an Invasion! tie-in and guest-starred Deadman, Dr Fate, Phantom Stranger and the Demon, it would seem like great things were in store for Spectre v2. Ghost in the Machine featured NO guest stars, didn't really add any new plot development, featured a throw-away villain and took half a year to tell. Depending on who was inking his pencils, I found Artis' art a little too exaggerated/comical for the story... which really gave the whole thing a light-hearted feel. The only noteworthy item about this story arc is that it's the first appearance of Jason Praxis — a character who would later become a member of Booster Gold's Conglomerate in the issues of Justice League Quarterly (circa early 90s). But really, that's not enough of a reason to track these issues down.



The final two issues of the series, #30 and #31, feature a two-part story that kind of just... ends the series. It was actually a very well-written story involving Corrigan's paranormal detective agency and a haunted house/demon possession. The art (Fred Butler and Gonzalo Mayo) was back to being shadowy and sinister, and the story itself was very suspenseful. Moench seems to have put a lot of heart into this 2-parter: a recently introduced character is given the spotlight in these issues and subsequently killed off. Part of me wonders if Moench was blindsided by the cancellation of this series, and was trying to give a new character he created a respectful send off.

The Spectre is (quite possibly) one of my favorite Golden Age comic book characters. Aesthetically speaking, he's easily recognizable in his green-and-white colors and possesses a disquieting demeanor that is just begging to have ghastly stories written about him. Doug Moench, under the guidance of Greenberger (I'm starting to assume), really wrote this character correctly by keeping him closely tied to the other mystical characters of the DCU — essentially continuing what Moore's Swamp Thing v2 had started. Appearances by Phantom Stranger, Madame Xanadu, Zatanna, Zatara, Deadman, Dr. Fate, The Enchantress, and Baron Winters really anchored this book as part of a separate universe within the DCU (which would somewhat end up being the foundation that is Vertigo). Everything from issue #1 to issue #16 was engaging and entertaining to read, and had me guessing which DC mystical character might appear next.



Keeping all this in mind, Spectre v2 felt like two different series' joined together (with the second series starting at issue #17). I'm assuming it was a change due to Helfer's editorial direction, but Spectre v2 #17 and beyond felt like the emphasis was mainly placed on Corrigan and his budding detective agency while the Spectre's involvement with the rest of the mystical DCU took a back seat. (The exception to this, of course, would be the Invasion! tie-in issue which had an ensemble cast of DC mystical characters.) In the letter column of issue #18, Greenberger directly states to a reader:  "Doug, Chris and Andy are moving the Spectre out of the mystical realm for a while, allowing the character to investigate the new changes that have wrought these last few issues".

To see a series change so drastically while written by the same writer always leaves me a little conflicted. I really enjoyed the first half, and the second half not so much. Moench did a great job of keeping the Spectre away from the rest of the mainstream DCU. Even with the mandatory Millennium and Invasion! cross-overs, he still manages to keep the presence of *other* DCU characters at a minimum (the exception being Batman, but it was for a crossover with Detective Comics #582). Moench inserts a lot of philosophical discussion into the story (this was something readers noticed he did with Master of Kung-Fu as well): Corrigan is often discussing moral issues with the Spectre regarding who deserves to be punished and how badly they should be punished. Is anyone really 'evil'? Or just a victim of circumstance? It's worth noting that nowhere in this series is 'The Voice' (the one that Spectre answers to) ever identified as 'God'. Most stories in this series take up two to three issues and there aren't many stand-alone issues.


Why was Spectre v2 cancelled after issue #31? I have no hard evidence or sales numbers, but I'm going to boldly guess that an editorial change, a new 'direction' halfway through the series, inconsistent art teams (Bart Sears was rumored to be next in line to illustrate the series, drew one issue and then left for something else), and shipping delays (the Invasion! tie-in issue was released 2 months after the event had ended) killed interest in this book.

While I just made this series sound like a dud, let's not forget that Spectre v2 had an incredibly strong opening with a terrific creative team (Moench/Colan/Mitchell/Greenberger) and some beautiful covers illustrated by A-level talent. Additionally, the Spectre is such an interesting character, Who doesn't like the Spectre? The book practically sells itself. At it's peak, this series inspired enough renewed interest in the Spectre to justify DC publishing the 1988 Wrath of the Spectre limited series (reprinting the Michael Fleisher/Jim Aparo Adventure Comics stories and a few brand-new stories originally written in 1974).


How does Spectre v2 hold up today? Well, there's a few moments in this series that, as you read them, really make you think "yep, this was definitely written for an 80s crowd in mind". A few notable examples include:

-a veiled rant about Ronald Reagan (exhibit 'F'):

Spectre v2 #12

-an issue all about crooked cops trafficking cocaine:




-the entire 6 issue Ghost in the Machine story arc is about a meta-human who is attacking humanity via arcades, computers and electronics. Remember when local arcades were still a "thing"? The meta-human's plot involved enslaving all 983, 523 computer users all across the country. Wow... that takes me back, Another cover has the Spectre being attacked by CDs. Remember when Compact Discs were the newfangled thing and your friends would show off their new CD-player and CD collection like it was the most glorious piece of hi-tech equipment to ever exist? Yeah, those were the eighties.




As of this writing, I do not believe that ANY of the Spectre v2 has been reprinted in a collected format by DC comics. Which is a shame — since those first sixteen are definitely worth reading. If nothing else, pick up those Gray Morrow issues (#9 to 15) which can probably still be found for under $4 a piece. Issue #11, which is a Suicide Squad tie-in, is especially worth the effort of seeking.


As we conclude this comprehensive review, I'd like to leave you with what the Spectre looks like under his cowl (courtesy of Gray Morrow):

Spectre v2 #15

-Justin


*Big thanks to Rob Perry for filling in the gaps about the NEW FORMAT edition, rumors about artists meant to draw the book and the shipping delays during the last half of the series.

1 comment:

  1. as an addendum to this post I would like to also add one more observation....

    Check out the annual that was released around issue 15-16 This was an amazing team-up with Deadman with a stunning cover by Art Adams. The art on the interior was by Moench collaborator Jim Baikie of Electric Warrior fame.

    Also of note the work of Moench is severely overlooked and this creator had many series at DC that were both squarely in the DCU as well as what would be termed creator owned nowadays. A quick rundown of his work include Lords of the Ultra Realm; Slash Maraud;and Electric Warrior as non DCU comics. His DCU work included Omega Men; Arion; Wanderers; Mr Miracle ;Xenobrood and Catwoman. He had a well-remebered run on both Batman and Detective during their bi-weekly phase which culminated in Batman 400. He returned to the title a few years later to have a lengthy run which included a creative partnership with Kelly Jones. Spectre is probably his longer run of work at DC outside of Batman.

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