Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Uncollected (For Now): Ostrander and Mandrake's The Spectre #'s 1-12

As reported Friday on the Collected Editions blog, next year will see the release of another trade paperback collection, The Spectre Vol. 1: Crimes and Judgments, collecting the first twelve issue story line from writer John Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake's phenomenal 64 issue (counting #0 and an Annual) run on The Spectre, that I'm very glad is going to exist even though I don't actually need to buy it.  You see, I was one of those lucky readers who snapped up each and every issue as soon as they hit the shelves twenty years ago.  Still, I highly and enthusiastically recommend that those of you who missed out on this series the first time around and haven't yet sought out the series in back issues latch on to this collection as soon as copies become available. I only hope that the release of this volume signals that DC has finally come to their senses and plans to publish further volumes collecting the rest of the series. 
It has, after all, been, as I just stated above, more than twenty years since I picked up The Spectre #1 in October of 1992.  I kind of have a hard time grasping the concept that it has taken DC two entire decades to decide to put back in print one of the finest tales it, or any other comics publisher for that matter, has ever published.  This is especially egregious in light of the company's latter day practice of releasing instant trade or hardcover collections of the latest mediocre story lines from even the weakest of their New 52 line before the ink is even dry on the concluding chapter. True, DC did put out a similarly titled TPB, Crimes and Punishments,  in 1993, but that volume contained only the first four issues and was never followed up with further collections until now.
I will try, in the next few paragraphs, to convey just what it is about this series, and this initial story in particular, that has me gushing about it like a little girl.  I will likely fail, but don't let that deter you from checking the comic out.
The story in issues #1-12 reintroduces the Spectre in a way that is accessible to readers who, like me, were not all that terribly familiar with the character's previous adventures, wraps up a few loose ends from the previous Spectre series written by Doug Moench which had ended just over a year earlier, and weaves various elements from even further back in the Spectre's five decade history into a moving and exciting tale of vengeance and horror.  The plot involves the Spectre becoming involved in the life of Amy Beiterman, a social worker infected with the HIV virus who has become the target of the Reaver, a serial killer targeting women with AIDS.  His efforts to protect Amy are hindered by the appearance of a threat of a more cosmic nature.  Spectre's old enemy Azmodus, who first appeared in a series of Spectre issues of Showcase back in the mid-60's, appears on Earth seeking revenge on behalf of his master, the demon Shaithan.  Further complicating matters are the efforts of Spectre's erstwhile ally Madame Xanadu to usurp his power. 
The inclusion of Azmodus and Xanadu in the story is an example of something that Ostrander would continue to do throughout the series.   He seamlessly incorporated such elements from past stories, blending them with his own inventions to give the tales a sense of history that almost made it feel as if all the previous Spectre stories over the years were part of one grand narrative to which Ostrander was providing merely the latest chapter.  A  wonderful example of this is issue #24's tale, "A Small Boldness."  Here Ostrander tells the story of the Spectre's indescribably silly 1940's sidekick, known as Percival Popp the Super-Cop.  Ostrander makes the character "realistic", not by making him a "grim and gritty" overly violent stereotype, but by treating him with respect, transforming him from a cartoon into a fully rounded and sympathetic character. 
Anyway, to get back to the initial storyline, I won't give any spoilers here (well, maybe one very minor one), but I want to say that the ending of #12 affected me in a way that no other comic book story ever had up to that point in time.  Having read comics for a couple of decades up to that point, I'd seen many characters die.  But The Spectre #12 was the first time a comic book character's death had ever moved me to tears.  That, by the way, is the minor spoiler. I'm not saying who dies, although its probably obvious from my description of the plot who it is, so maybe its not such a minor spoiler.  Actually, however, this character's death is telegraphed pretty early on in the story.  It is a testament to the power of Ostrander's writing on this series  that despite knowing it was coming, I was still shocked and saddened and, as I said, moved to tears when the death actually occurred in the story.  Even more of a testimony to that power is the fact that despite the untold times that I have reread this story over the past two decades, up to and including my latest reread of #12 just a couple of days ago, those final pages never fail to have the same effect on me.
Tears may seem a pretty incongruos reaction to what could be classified as a "horror" comic.  Certainly, supernatural and horrific elements are a big part of this series and a huge factor in its appeal to some readers.  Unfettered by the approval of the Comics Code, although shunning the "For Mature Readers" label, the book certainly had its share of blood and gore.  If you're a fan of that type of thing, you will absolutely love the "Desecration" story line that commenced in #27.  For me, though, what made The Spectre so compelling was not the blood and guts, but the souls of the characters and the emotional journeys that Ostrander took every member of the book's core cast on.
That cast included not only the Spectre and Amy Beiterman, but Amy's friend police detective Nate Kane.  Nate starts out hostile to the Spectre, but that attitude thawed as the series progressed, especially after Spectre, in his human guise of Jim Corrigan, becomes Nate's partner.  In #13, Ostrander introduced into this book a character who is in my opinion the finest he has ever created, Father Richard Craemer.  Craemer was created by Ostrander for Suicide Squad, but its only once that book had been cancelled and the good Father transferred over to The Spectre that he was really given a chance to shine.
While I applaud DC for its decision to finally collect this excellent series and I think that every serious comics fan should read it, there is a reason that I'm glad that I have those original monthly issues.  The Spectre had one of the greatest letters columns ever.  Ostrander dealt with several serious and weighty topics in his stories, from relatationships to religion to politics to race, and his intelligent and thoughtful scripts inspired equally intelligent and thoughtful responses from many of his readers.  Rather than fanboy gushing about how great it was to see Azmodus appear again after nearly three decades, the letters were more likely to be about the moral and theological implications of the conflict between the Spectre and Azmodus.  Reading the letters was almost always as entertaining as reading the story that preceded them.  The excellence of The Spectre's letters column was one of the reason I missed letters columns after DC banished them in the early 2000's, although by that time The Spectre had long since finished its run.
Of course, the letters did contain a certain amount of what I termed above "fanboy gushing."  A lot of that was in praise of the art of Tom Mandrake, which I cannot conclude this post without mentioning.  Quite a few of the correspondants remarked that Mandrake seemed born to draw this series, and I have to agree.  His style was perfectly suited to the character and to Ostrander's stories, and he turned in his best art to that point throughout the run of the book. 
To be honest, when I first saw Mandrake's art on Batman back in the 80's, I didn't really like it.  I admitted as much to writer Dan Mishkin, who was at the time collaborating with Mandrake on a book called Creeps, at Mid-Ohio Con a few years ago.  He said that Mandrake really wasn't happy working on that title for a number of reasons and really wasn't putting his heart into it.  It's obvious, however, that he really enjoyed drawing  The Spectre.  
Mandrake drew nearly every issue of the series, but when there were guest artists, they were uniformly excellent.  To me, the standout was Jim Aparo's return to the character in issue #16, after illustrating the Spectre stories by Michael Fleischer in Adventure Comics in the 70's.  That issue also featured an appearance by the Phantom Stranger, another character Aparo had drawn during his early days at DC.  Its almost too bad that Ostrander couldn't have figured out a way to squeeze Batman into the story.  Aparo's pencils in that issue were inked by Kelly Jones, which at first seems an odd pairing but which, in practice, struck just the right tone for this incarnation of the Spectre.
I hope that the trade paperback collection, or, if all goes well, collections, include a gallery of the original series covers, as they were some of the best on the racks at the time, not to mention before or since.  Most every issue featured on its cover a fully painted image by one of the best artists in comics.  
I'm almost ashamed to admit that I nearly didn't collect this series.  While I enjoyed the story in issue #1, I didn't feel afterwards especially compelled to pick up the next one.  However, it was the cover of #2 that made me buy it.  It didn't glow in the dark like the first issue's cover did, nor was it chromium or 3-D or any of the other so-called "enhancements" that were all the rage at the time.  It was simply an arresting and hauntingly beautiful painting by Glenn Fabry, who was also providing cover art for Hellblazer at the time, that I simply could not walk away from after I saw it on the rack of new comics. By the time I got to the end of that issue, which concluded with police pulling the Reaver's latest victim out of a river where they also discovered the barrel in which police detective Jim Corrigan had been sealed in cement by mobsters five decades earlier, which led to his death and rebirth as the Spectre, I was hooked.  I came back for the next issue and the next sixty. The editors of The Spectre knew what many editors today have yet to discover, that the best cover enhancement was simply great art. Of course, having a great story behind that cover doesn't hurt.
I hope that, in the preceding paragraphs, I have managed to convey some sense of what made The Spectre one of the best series DC has ever published and one of my all time favorites.  If so, I hope you'll do yourself a big favor and check it out, either in trade paperback or by seeking out the back issues.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Gutter Talk readers,

    Ray, this page's humble host, turned me on to this series about three years ago. He knew I was a fan of John Ostrander (back in high school, I couldn't shut up about how much I loved Suicide Squad) and loaned me his back issues to read, starting with the first 12.

    I wasn't quite as visibly affected as he, but I was floored nevertheless. Like Ray, it was issue #2 that had me hooked. The series played out like the best of horror movies, where one almost wants to hide his or her eyes away when the scary parts happen.

    Ray will forgive me, but there were many of his issues that I actually hurled away from me, so strong was my reaction. I never expected a printed horror story to scare me so much that my primal animal instincts caused a fight-or-flight response to it, but The Spectre did just that.

    Here's hoping that DC reprints the whole run in collected volumes and that the sales of it are good enough to encourage DC to both reprint more neglected classics in its cannon and to make more current comics of this quality level.

    Like Ray, dear readers, I can't recommend this series highly enough. Besides the first 12 issues, which make one story-line, my favorites include "Desecration" (issues 0, 27-31), "The Haunting of Jim Corrigan" (issues 52-56) and the conclusion (issues 57-62) It was during those final issues that the tears I denied myself while reading the first 12 finally came.