In May, 1968, I was a regular buyer and reader of The Spectre — or at least as regular as I could be, short of shelling out for a year’s subscription by mail, considering the state of comic book distribution at the time (as well as my ten-year-old self’s lack of reliable weekly transportation to a comics-selling outlet). I had first come on board in 1966, with the Ghostly Guardian’s third and final tryout appearance in Showcase, and had bought the first issue of his own self-titled series when it finally appeared over a year later. I’d failed to score issue #2 (the first drawn by new regular artist Neal Adams), but otherwise, I had ’em all.
But since I’d begun with the third of the Spirit Sleuth’s Showcase tryouts, I’d missed the text page explaining the hero’s macabre origins that editor Julius Schwartz had provided in the first of those, Showcase #60. The most detail I’d gotten regarding the Spectre’s beginnings came by way of this single panel (written by Gardner Fox and rendered by Murphy Anderson) from Spectre #1, as shown at left. In other words, I knew that Detective Jim Corrigan had died at some point, somehow, and that his spirit had returned to Earth as the Spectre; and then, some time after that, the Spectre had resurrected Jim Corrigan’s physical body, somehow, so that now they co-existed as two separate persons, more or less. That was it.
But I was about to get a bit more information, courtesy of issue #5’s “The Spectre Means Death?”, written, as well as penciled and inked, by Neal Adams.
This was the second issue Adams had scripted (he was also writing as well as drawing “Deadman” in Strange Adventures at this time, as discussed on the blog a couple of months ago), but unlike in issue #4‘s “”Stop That Kid.. Before He Wrecks the World!” — a tale which could probably have been told anytime, and set anywhere, within DC’s fictional milieu — in this story Adams leaned hard into the lead character’s history, as well as the “Earth-Two” setting and background he shared with his fellow members of the Justice Society of America. And since that’s not the kind of thing Adams generally gravitated to as a writer — at least not in the Sixties — I’m inclined to see here the influence of editor Schwartz, who of course had overseen the whole establishment of the “multiverse” concept, and the concurrent revival of the JSA members as active superheroes, earlier in the decade. But, that’s really just speculation on my part.
The story opens, not with the Spectre or Jim Corrigan, or even in the usual locale of Gateway City, but with a mysterious masked figure scaling a mountain in India. He’s the first of the story’s several connections with past comics, though that won’t be evident until much later in the story:
The “Faceless Man” has no sooner been shown the treasure he’s come to find — a mysterious, glowing green orb — than he violently attacks its owner. He then flees with his prize, narrowly escaping from the enraged mountain-dwellers:
The drifter and the bullet are two more links to the past, though, just as with the Faceless Man, they’ll remain mysteries through much of the story.
Now, three pages in, Adams finally provides us with a “proper” full-page splash page with the title and credits of the story:
Still no Spectre, of course, outside of the story’s title (which efficiently incorporates the series’ logo) and its accompanying caption — but that’s about to change:
Like his much more famous fellow crimefighter, Batman, the Spectre is cool with having his appearance strike fear in the hearts of criminals, but is dismayed for it to have the same effect on law-abiding citizens:
The unsettling implications of the Spectre’s inadvertent terrorizing of ordinary folks are offset somewhat — intentionally, I believe — by Adams’ depiction in the page’s last panel of the character swathing himself in his cape in an almost sulky fashion. The humor is enhanced in the first panel on the next page, as Adams contrasts the Ghostly Guardian’s sour expression with the wry demeanor of his human host:
The battle is interrupted, however, when “Bright Eyes” calls his foe’s attention to the fact that his time-suspension of the crowd has suddenly and inexplicably failed, and they’re once again fleeing in terror. The transformed drifter further distracts the Spectre by hurling a building at the panicking civilians:
Uh oh! Three of the folks the Spectre time-displaced haven’t made it back. Slipping into the timestream, our hero locates one who’s landed in colonial America; Spec manages to rescue the man just before he’s ridden down by some unfriendly native American horsemen, but then he finds that the other two have been flung much, much further back in time:
Yow! Adams really cuts loose with a double-page spread here in the middle of the book — it’s a little bit of a cheat, however, in that the Spectre-T. rex throwdown the reader anticipates is over before the end of the next page, as the Disembodied Detective quickly shrinks the mighty thunder lizard down to iguana size.
Finding that he is once again terrifying the city’s populace as much as the Tyrannosaurus itself, the power-drained Spectre is reduced to hiding in an alley next to some garbage cans, while waiting for Jim Corrigan to show up. He’s desperate for a quick, refreshing dip in Jim’s body (hmm, maybe I should rephrase that) — but his host has an unpleasant surprise in store for him:
The Spectre has had enough. He flies off in pursuit of “Bright Eyes”, leaving Jim to follow along as best he can. Following the behemoth’s trail of devastation, Spec easily locates him, and once again the fight is on:
Adams is about to reveal the identity of the villain behind all these shenanigans — whose evil lair, as best as I can tell, is (rather refreshingly) a patio-equipped ranch-style house in a nice residential neighborhood — bur first, we’re going to see Spec finally cut “Bright Eyes” down to a more manageable (and human-scale) size:
Yes, it’s the Psycho-Pirate — whom many readers would likely recognize from his appearance in Showcase #56 (May-June, 1965) when he’d gone up against Spec’s Justice Society buddies Doctor Fate and Hourman in a tale written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Murphy Anderson, Julius Schwartz’s go-to guys for Showcase stories about JSAers. I wasn’t one of those readers, though, as I didn’t actually begin buying and reading comics until a few months later.
What I also didn’t know at the time, and wouldn’t learn until years later, was that the colorfully-garbed Psycho-Pirate of Showcase #56 (as well as Spectre #5) wasn’t the original model. The first villain to bear the name had been Charles Halstead, a sinister mastermind who based his crimes on human emotions, but had no real super-powers (or costume) to speak of. He’d first appeared in All-Star Comics #23 (Winter, 1944), battling the Justice Society of America in a story scripted by Fox and drawn by Joe Gallagher, and then once more in All Star #32. As depicted in Showcase #56, Hallstead would end up sharing a prison cell with one Roger Hayden, to whom he passed on the Psych-Pirate mantle before expiring. Upon his release from prison, Hayden promptly set about taking the franchise upscale, not only donning a nifty new super-villain outfit, but also scoring a set of archaeological relics, the Medusa Masks — which, after Hayden had flooded them with a “special type of irradiating gases”, allowed him to artificially instill emotions in others via exhibiting them on his own face. It all came to naught, however, as Doctor Fate and Hourman cleaned his clock by issue’s end (sorry), and Fate fixed him up with the same creepy-looking full-face mask we saw in the opening scenes of our current Spectre tale. Sometime between the two stories, Hayden managed to break out of prison (we’re not told how), and headed for India to acquire the mystical artifact he needed to rid himself of the power-inhibiting mask.
The “pulsating bullet” is the second of the story’s callbacks to past history, although it doesn’t hearken quite as far back into DC Comics lore as does the inclusion of the Psycho-Pirate. Showcase #60, the first of the Spectre’s three tryouts in the title, had endeavored to explain his twenty-year absence from the Earth-Two evil-fighting scene by establishing that a mysterious mystical force had caused Spec to be trapped in Jim Corrigan’s body for two decades. The Spectre was able to trace the energy to a small-time crook called Paul Nevers operating out of Mountain City, and so Corrigan traveled there to investigate — but in attempting to apprehend Nevers, he was forced to give armed pursuit:
Azmodus explained that he attempted to enter a human host, but became trapped there, just as the Spectre became trapped within Corrigan. The two astral entities were essentially cancelling out each other’s powers:
As shown above, the gun with the evil silver bullet that Jim managed to throw away on the previous page ended back up in his hand, anyway — but since he began engaging in fisticuffs with Nevers immediately afterwards, it’s reasonable to assume that he could have dropped it once again. Once he and the Spectre had triumphed over their respective foes, however (c’mon, you already knew they had to have won), it seems like he would have gone to the trouble to retrieve it. As a police officer, wouldn’t he have gotten in trouble for losing a service weapon? And even if that wasn’t the case, it seems pretty careless and irresponsible to forget about or simply abandon a loaded revolver — especially a revolver loaded with a silver bullet from “the Temple of the Black Gardens” in “Tholagga, land of astral evil!”
Oh well, enough ranting. We’ll just have to let it go, or we’ll never get to our third historical connection, let alone the end of the story:
Gat Benson! Now, we’re talking some deep history — all the way back to the Spectre’s origin tale, as originally chronicled in 1940’s More Fun Comics #52 and #53. And even though I wouldn’t get to read the full account until 1973, when DC reprinted it in Secret Origins #5, at least I knew now that Jim Corrigan hadn’t just “died”, but had been killed, and I even knew who’d killed ‘im.
The first half of that two-part story, written by Jerry Siegel with art by Bernard Bailey, described how Det. Jim Corrigan and his fiancé, Clarice Sterling, fell afoul of mobster “Gat” Benson and his gang. The hoods knocked Jim unconscious, cemented him inside a barrel, and rolled the barrel into a river. Jim died, of course, but then “got better” — thanks to a mysterious celestial Voice which told him: “Your mission on Earth is not yet finished… You shall remain earthbound battling crime on your world with supernatural powers, until all vestiges of it are gone!!” (A forever kind of gig, obviously.)
In part two, after being sent back to the earthly plane, Jim — now a super-powered ghost — rescued the still-captive Clarice from Benson and his henchmen before making short work of the crooks. He dispatched Benson himself by splitting into duplicates and rushing the mobster, who collapsed the moment he’s touched by them.
When police reinforcements arrived, Jim brought the surviving criminals back to consciousness — and it became evident that they’d lost their minds. (Right after that, in case you’re curious, Jim abruptly broke off his engagement with Clarice, unavoidably breaking her heart in the process — it was never going to work out, what with him being dead and all — and then sewed himself a green-and-white superhero costume. Yes, the near-omnipotent Spectre could split into duplicates, turn invisible at will, fly, etc., but couldn’t figure out how to magically change his clothes. But I digress.)
We can assume that the permanently-addled Benson went to prison (or a mental institution) for years, but he eventually ended up back on the streets, a vagrant, where he just happened to come across Corrigan’s lost gun with its magic silver bullet. It’s quite the coincidence, of course, that Corrigan’s killer winds up in the possession of a gun previously belonging to the detective, but that’s the kind of thing that comic book creators didn’t worry about so much in the Silver Age. Today, of course, a writer would probably add some brief statement about how the Spectre’s mystical energy, still clinging to Benson after all these years as well as to the gun, drew the two together — and we contemporary readers are of course free to provide such an explanation for ourselves, if it makes our heads hurt less.
What’s a bit harder to explain is how the gun, which Jim lost “in the scuffle” with Paul Nevers in Mountain City (which, according to Showcase #60, was far enough away from Gateway City that Jim needed to take a plane to get there) ended up back in Gateway City, lying in an alley where Gat Benson could stumble upon it. But, hey, we’ve only got one page left in our story, so we’re just going to roll with it:
Whew! All’s well that ends well (if a little abruptly) — the Psycho-Pirate has been defeated; Gat Benson has been subdued (and presumably, the power of the evil magic silver bullet that transformed him has been completely dissipated); and the Spectre, no longer a public menace, has been reconciled with his alter ego — for now, anyway. Spec and Jim’s relationship would take another turn for the worse, just four issues later — but that’s a post for another day.
As noted earlier, “The Spectre Means Death?” was the fourth story of the Ghostly Guardian that Neal Adams had drawn, and the second that he’d written. It was also the last story he’d work on for The Spectre, as either writer or artist. As was discussed in my World’s Finest #176 post three weeks ago, Adams had been juggling multiple assignments at DC for a while — regularly writing and drawing “Deadman” as well as Spectre, plus drawing the Superman and Batman feature in World’s Finest while contributing covers the rest of the Superman family of titles, too. Something had to give, it seems.
Adams dropped World’s Finest after drawing only two issues, but that wasn’t enough, it seems. In later years, Adams would recall that it came down to a choice between “Deadman” in Strange Adventures and The Spectre, and he appears to have felt more in tune, or at least more invested, in the former of the two ghostly-hero features. Supposedly, Julius Schwartz was so annoyed by this that he refused to give Adams a shot illustrating Batman or Detective — which is how the artist ended up drawing the Caped Crusader in editor Murray Boltinoff’s Brave and the Bold quite a few months before getting a shot at either one of the character’s primary titles. But that, too, is a post for another day (one that’ll come around just next month, as it happens).
As for The Spectre, beginning with the following issue, #6, the art chores would be handled by Jerry Grandenetti (pencils) and Murphy Anderson (inks), and my younger self was actually pretty happy about that. I was warming to Neal Adams’ art style, startlingly different from what I’d grown used to, by now — but I still preferred Murphy Anderson’s version of the Spirit Sleuth, and while the Grandinetti-Anderson pairing wasn’t quite the same thing, it was a lot closer.
Which do I prefer today? Hey, I love ’em all.
I can’t conclude this post about Spectre #5 without devoting at least a little space to the later career of the Psycho-Pirate, who’s had one of the most unusual and interesting post-Golden Age histories of any Earth-Two bad guy this side of the Shade.
Probably the best-known use of the character came some seventeen years following his Spectre appearance, in Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s classic 1985-86 Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries. By this time, Roger Hayden had figured out a way to combine all the single varied Medusa Mask into a single golden mask that he could wear — featureless, like the magic mask Doctor Fate conjured up to inhibit his powers, it made for a much more striking visual.
As an underling of Crisis‘ main bad guy, the Anti-Monitor, the Psycho-Pirate played a significant supporting role throughout the epic, continuity-redefining tale — but he’s probably best remembered as the single DC Comics character who, when it’s all over, remembers that there ever was such a thing as the Multiverse — though that knowledge has driven him mad, as seen in this concluding sequence of panels from the last page of the final issue:
The scene makes for an epilogue to what is still probably DC’s single most momentous line-wide event that is somehow both creepy and reassuring at the same time — encouraging readers to look forward to the possibilities of the brand-new unified DC universe while also reminding them that yes, all those old stories they cherish still really “happened” — they must have, if Roger Hayden still remembers them, right?
Soon afterwards, the Psycho-Pirate’s status as the only character who knows what the reader does about DC’s past made him a natural for Grant Morrison’s gloriously metafictional take on comics continuity in Animal Man, where the villain began pulling now-retconned characters like Streaky the Super-Cat and the pre-Crisis Ultraman back into existence via the power of the Medusa Mask — threatening the whole fabric of reality before Animal Man and his allies ultimately managed to avert this “Second Crisis”.
Roger Hayden supposedly faded out of existence at the end of that 1990 storyline, but he “got better” (no one actually knows how, but the money is on the timeline shuffle occasioned by 1994’s Zero Hour: Crisis in Time) and was thus able to figure into yet another Crisis — 2005-06’s Infinite Crisis, this time — in which he joined with several other survivors of the old pre-Crisis multiverse who were attempting to “fix” everything that had gone wrong in 1986. Hayden didn’t manage to survive this particular crossover event, however, getting himself killed by the super-villain/antihero Black Adam in the sixth issue. Of course, like almost every other deceased DC character, he was then briefly resurrected as a Black Lantern in the Blackest Night event of 2009-10. And then, of course, 2011’s Flashpoint happened; and then the once-again rebooted continuity of the “New 52” introduced a new version of Roger Hayden, who subsequently became the Psycho-Pirate; and then, in the wake of 2016’s “Rebirth”, the Medusa Mask of this same Psycho-Pirate (at least I think he’s supposed to be the same guy) appeared to have an energizing effect on the mysterious smiley-face button from the Watchmen universe in the key “Rebirth” Batman-Flash crossover “The Button”…. and now, well… does anybody want to lay money on the Psycho-Pirate not showing up in Doomsday Clock before it’s over?
Through all the crises and convergences of the last several decades, the Psycho-Pirate has hung on as a unique figure — and so, in considering how malleable, unsettled, and confusing as the DC Multiverse has become in just these past few years, I’m inclined to think that if anyone really knows what’s going on now, it’s probably him.
I’d take his word over Dan DiDio’s, at any rate. Y’know what I’m sayin’?