Spectre #9 (Mar.-Apr., 1969)

As of January, 1969, The Spectre was one of only two DC Comics titles I was still buying regularly (the other one was Justice League of America) — or maybe I should say I was trying to buy them regularly.  Somehow, I managed to miss Spectre #8 on the stands — and since the book only came out bi-monthly, that meant that I hadn’t spent any real quality time with the Ghostly Guardian since the previous September.  Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem in terms of picking up where I’d left off, storywise (though it was always irksome to miss an issue, of course), because Spectre — like most other DC titles of this era — had very little in the way of issue-to-issue continuity.  That wasn’t entirely the case with this issue, however, as we’ll see in a bit. 

First, however, we have some catching up to do.  The last issue of Spectre that I blogged about (back in May, 2018) was #5 — the final of four issues drawn by Neal Adams, who also wrote the last two.  The future artistic superstar was still new to the comic book field when he began his stint on The Spectre, and as I’ve written in previous posts, my younger self wasn’t entirely sure what to make of his revolutionary style at first.*  By issue #5, I’d pretty much come around — but I was still pleased with the following issue’s changes, which brought back both the series’ original writer. Gardner Fox, and its original artist, Murphy Anderson — though the latter’s return was only as an inker this time around, providing finishes over the pencilled art of Jerry Grandenetti.

Grandenetti had been working at DC for well over a decade, mostly on the publisher’s war books, and mostly in a conventional style,  But he’d gotten his start back in the late Forties working with the brilliantly innovative Will Eisner on The Spirit, and of late, he himself had returned to producing more graphically inventive and expressive work, primarily for the Warren line of black-and-white magazine-format comics, including Creepy and Eerie.  His art for Spectre was in this vein — but the refined, detailed inking of Anderson helped smooth over the rough edges, and provided a “look” consistent with Anderson’s full art jobs on the earliest Silver Age “Spectre” stories — those stories that had made him, for my younger self as well as for a lot of other fans, the “definitive” Spectre artist.

I missed my opportunity to devote a whole post to the Fox/Grandenetti/Anderson Spectre last year — but I can’t pass up sharing at least a taste of their work together on the book.  The page below is from their initial collaboration, “Pilgrims of Peril!” in Spectre #6:

The basic story elements seen on this page –including the bizarre, extra-dimensional setting, and the inhuman, super-powerful mystical menace — were very much in line with Fox and Anderson’s previous “Spectre” work.  However, the unconventional page layout, the grotesque character design, and the sheer weirdness of the dimensional landscape were all new — and suggested that Grandenetti had been paying attention to the recent innovations of fellow artists like Adams and Jim Steranko, as well as to Steve Ditko’s work both on Marvel Comics’ “Doctor Strange” and in the Warren horror magazines.

Fox, Grandenetti, and Anderson all returned two months later for Spectre #7.  This issue was a departure from previous ones, as it featured two shorter stories rather than one long one, with the Spectre himself only appearing in the first story.  “The Ghost That Haunted Money!” pitted the Disembodied Detective against an earthbound ghost rather than an unworldly eldritch menace, and was, perhaps inevitably, less compelling than the new creative team’s previous outing.  But the back-up story, featuring the Spectre’s Justice Society of America teammate Hourman, was a welcome novelty — suggesting (as had Wildcat’s guest appearance in Spectre #3, eight months earlier) that editor Schwartz really liked using this book to showcase DC’s other “Earth-Two” heroes, who otherwise were unlikely to be seen outside of the annual JLA-JSA team-ups in Justice League of America.  Appropriately enough, the story was written by Fox (who, with Schwartz, had devised the whole “multiple Earths” concept for DC) and illustrated by Dick Dillin and Sid Greene — Fox’s collaborators on the latest Justice League-Justice Society extravaganza, which had finished up just two months previously.

But after issue #7, Gardner Fox was gone from The Spectre (and, for all intents and purposes, from DC as well) — and Julius Schwartz, who’d helmed virtually all of of DC’s revivals and revamps of Golden Age heroes since the re-introduction of the Flash in 1956, would soon be leaving the book also.  Things were changing quickly at DC, now under the direction of former freelance artist Carmine Infantino, and Schwartz would be replaced as editor by Dick Giordano as of Spectre #9.  Perhaps Schwartz was already aware of this when he wrote the following reply to a fan wishing the Ghostly Guardian “a long second life”, as printed in issue #7’s letters column:

…or maybe he was simply referring to the fact that the sales on Spectre weren’t all that great, and the book was living on borrowed time.  In any case, issue #8 would be Julius Schwartz’s last.

But since my younger self never actually saw that issue on the racks back in 1968, we’re going to jump ahead now to January, 1969, and issue number 9 — just as I had to do fifty years ago:

No creator credits appear anywhere within the pages of Spectre #9 (the book doesn’t even have a letters column, in which the editor might have divulged such info) — but the generally reliable Grand Comics Database tells us that the pencils were once again by Grandenetti, but with inks by Bill Draut this go-around.  Draut, a journeyman artist who’d been around since the Forties, would become quite familiar to me in a couple of years due to his regular appearances in DC’s horror titles (House of Secrets, etc.) — though I have to say I never found him more than a competent illustrator, whose pedestrian style rarely did much to evoke the eerie mood generally called for by the material.  Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the case here as well — Draut’s finishes don’t necessarily detract from Grandenetti’s pencils, but unlike those of Murphy Anderson (who, like Julius Schwartz, left the series with issue #8), they don’t really enhance them, either.

The script of the untitled tale (again according to the GCD) was by Mike Friedrich — a young writer whose one previous Spectre story had fallen in-between Fox’s initial run and Adam’s brief stint as the book’s writer.

Most readers of these first three pages shown above would likely assume that the “cursed book” that the Spectre is carrying is that same “Journal of Judgment” over which he’s stretching his hand on artist Nick Cardy’s ominous cover — and as the first panel of the next page reveals, they would be absolutely correct:

And here’s where that unexpected bit if issue-to-issue continuity I mentioned before comes in.  In the second (or is it the third?) panel above, the Spectre’s alter ego and “host body” Jim Corrigan refers to a disturbing “dream” the Astral Avenger had some nights previously, which seems to have set off an inner struggle.  An editorial footnote refers the reader to “the previous issue of this magazine” — but since my eleven-year-old self had missed that issue, I was left completely in the dark, darn the luck.  And I would stay that way, until I finally picked up issue #8 as a back issue, several years later.

But just because I suffered such a misfortune back in 1969, that’s no reason for you, the readers of this blog, to be forced to dwell in ignorance in 2019.  And so, here are the pertinent details from Spectre #8’s “The Parchment of Power Perilous”, illustrated by Grandenetti and Anderson, and scripted by Steve Skeates**

Exhausted after a strenuous mission in some distant dimension, the Spectre attempted to enter Jim Corrigan’s body to rest and replenish his energies — but the police detective, hard beset by a gang of armed thugs at that very moment, wasn’t having it, and refused to allow Spec access until his ghostly other-self got him out of his predicament.  And so…

Unfortunately, that solitary, silhouetted figure seen strolling along the right side of the panel above — an innocent passerby — was inadvertently struck by the Spectre’s energy blast, and knocked unconscious.

That night, as Corrigan slept, the Spectre found himself pulled out of the detective’s body, and transported to… well, Heaven, basically.  There, an unseen Voice chastised the Ghostly Guardian for abusing his power —  “Because of your rash act, an innocent man was almost killed!” — and then proceeded to pass judgment:

The Spectre was then returned to Jim Corrigan’s slumbering form, and the next morning, he decided it had all been a dream.  But then, not long afterwards, while locked in deadly battle with a powerful sorcerer, our ghostly hero found his vision growing blurry:

Using his wits, the Spectre was ultimately able to vanquish his foe despite his blindness.  His sight was then restored to him — but our hero realized that he would inevitably face a similar situation the next time he was under severe stress (i.e., fighting a bad guy) — and what form would his weakness take that next time?

And that would have seemed to have been that — a significant change in the Spectre’s longtime status quo, apparently dreamed up by Skeates (or perhaps by Schwartz, or even Giordano) in response to a longstanding criticism of the hero; namely, that he was just too damn powerful for his stories to have much, if any, suspense.  By giving the Ghostly Guardian a rotating, unpredictable “weakness”, the folks at DC may have hoped to appease such critics — and perhaps improve the sales on his book.

At the conclusion of issue #8, the Spectre seemed appropriately chastened and humbled by his near-brush with disaster — and resigned to his ongoing punishment, if not what you’d call exactly happy about it.  But by the time issue #9 begins — or, if you care to look at it another way, by the time a new writer and/or editor have come on board — his state of mind seems to have grown more troubled; i.e., he’s experiencing that “struggle going on within himself” referred to by Jim.

The deleterious effects of this struggle on the Spectre’s psyche become evident after the detective and his partner close in on their criminal targets — and one of the hoods decides he’s not going to go down easy:

“To kill is nobody’s job!”  The unequivocal condemnation of the Spectre’s execution of a criminal — by Jim Corrigan, and by implication, the story’s creators — might come as a surprise to fans who first encountered the Astral Avenger some time later (say, in 1974), or, for that matter, very much earlier (try 1940).  But in the Silver Age, a penchant for cold-bloodedly killing criminals was considered a bug in the Spectre’s makeup, rather than a feature.  (Which is one reason why some of us old geezer fans could never quite warm up to the 1970s “Spectre” series in Adventure Comics, no matter how good Jim Aparo’s art was.)

Seeing the awesome figure of the Spectre — who, around the time I first made his acquaintance, had been able to keep two Earths from colliding in inter-dimensional space by stretching his ectoplasmic body between them — here reduced to grabbing his mortal host by the lapels and pleading, “Lemme in!” was dismaying, even shocking, to my eleven-year-old self.

The Spectre attempts to use his powers to force entry into Jim’s body, but only succeeds in rendering the resolute police detective unconscious:

Once again, the Spectre finds himself hauled Upstairs to meet his Maker.

It’s worth noting here, I think, that although the Spectre’s having been created by (and, by implication, thereafter answering to) a quite literal Higher Power had been part of his origin ever since his introduction back in More Fun Comics #52 (Feb., 1940), that aspect of the character had been all but ignored since his revival in 1965.  Perhaps it’s a sign of the changing times — in society as a whole, as well as in comics in general, and at DC Comics specifically — that by late 1968, young writers like Steve Skeates and Mike Friedrich were at last ready and willing to “go there”.

Once again, the Big Kahuna Upstairs dishes out some tough love to Their errant servant — but as the offense this time is much more serious than simply accidentally knocking someone out, the punishment is also, appropriately, more severe — and the Spectre’s road to redemption seems likely to be long and difficult:

And with this story’s conclusion, the Spectre’s status quo has been changed again — this time, even more drastically than in issue #8.  One has to wonder about the timing of this second change, and the fact that the newly “weakened” Spectre never really got a chance to show if he could successfully carry the series.  Was it (as I suggested earlier) simply a matter of a new editor coming in and wanting to put his own stamp on the book?  Or did another issue’s worth of sales numbers come in after the production of issue #8, and they were so bad that DC decided that even more drastic surgery was required if the title was going to survive?

Regardless of how the decision was made, however, the effects were immediate.  As would become evident with the very next story, The Spectre would henceforth be a sort-of anthology title — something in-between a standard superhero series and DC’s recently revamped “mystery” (i.e., horror) books, with the titular star now playing more of a supporting or “host” role.  With this new anthology format would also arrive a number of new writers and artists who hadn’t written or drawn for the series before.

And just how different those new creators’ approaches might be to what my eleven-year-old self was accustomed to became immediately apparent when I turned the page to the second story in Spectre #9:

What in the heck was this?  I might have been startled by Neal Adams’ work when I first saw it in 1967, but this stuff was even more confounding.  If I’d known anything at all then about EC Comics’ horror titles of the Fifites and their artists, such as Graham Ingels, or if I’d had any familiarity with the work of popular fantasy illustrators like Frank Frazetta, I might have had something to compare this artwork to.  But in January, 1969, I didn’t.

Like everything else in Spectre #9, “Abraca-Doom!” was devoid of credits; but the invaluable GCD comes through once again to tell us that the artist was one Bernie Wrightson — not that I imagine for a moment that most of you reading this blog needed me to tell you that.  For more than one generation of comics fans, Wrightson’s art is unmistakable.

But even if Bernie Wrightson’s style might have seemed more familiar to older and/or more experienced comics fans than it was to my younger self, the artist himself was likely to be just as unknown to them as he was to me.  The 20-year-old Wrightson was at the beginning of his career when Spectre #9 came out; indeed, this was only his second professional job to see print, the first (“The Man Who Murdered Himself” in House of Mystery #179) having been released just a couple of weeks earlier.

Like Adams’, Wrightson’s style was more textured and illustrative than what I was generally accustomed to in comics — but unlike Adams, who generally worked in a photorealistic mode (with occasional distortion or exaggeration used for effect), Wrightson’s art was more subjective and expressionistic in its approach — a quality which could lend itself well either to horrific or humorous effect; or, as in this story, something of both.  This atmosphere of macabre humor was very much in sync of the tale’s script, which (per the GCD) was by Denny O’Neil.

Something I’m fairly sure my eleven-year-old self never seen before in comics, but which appears consistently throughout this story — and is especially evident in the next-to-last panel on page 4, above — is human saliva, drawn here in the form of white threads visible against the darkness of a character’s open mouth.  It’s fair to assume that Wrightson picked up this effect from “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, who made it a signature part of his style at EC Comics; though I’ve recently learned (thanks to an article in Alter Ego #17 [Sept., 2002]) that Ingels was preceded in its use by the decidedly less ghastly Lou Fine, famous for his work on such Golden Age superheroes as Doll Man and the Ray.

One of the things I found most startling about Wrightson’s art for “Abra-Doom!” was how he drew the Spectre himself.  My Spectre was the handsome one Murphy Anderson had visualized in 1966, with a square jaw and cleft chin.  And I had always taken the black area beneath his hood, with the two white eyes peering through, to be an actual mask, a la Batman’s, rather than simply an area of shadow.  With that image as my standard, Wrightson’s Spectre seemed to me to be decidedly off-model, at least from the neck up.  Of course, when DC got around to reprinting the Spectre’s origin story some four years later, in Secret Origins #5, I’d discover that, in terms of the “mask”, if nothing else, Wrightson had actually hewed more closely than either Anderson or any of his successors on Spectre had to the vision of the Ghostly Guardian’s original artist, Bernard Bailey (see right).

Of course, the tale ultimately ends badly for Freddy Foost — I think I knew it had to, even back in January, 1969, when I’d probably never read a “deal with the Devil” story before this one.  But the reappearance of Willard, the assistant, was a twist I didn’t see coming then, and still seems pretty clever.  Though, obviously, if Willie knew before taking the meeting that the new ruler of Marlovia was really “the majestic Foost”, as he appears to have, he should have been able to work out how his old boss came to power and managed to steer clear of him.

Aside from that bit of sloppy writing, however, it’s a fun story — and, in 1969, a memorable introduction to a new young artist who’d give me many hours of enjoyment in the years to come.  I probably didn’t know exactly what to make of Bernie Wrightson’s art fifty years ago — but I knew for sure that it wasn’t boring.

The third and last story of the issue, “Shadow Show”, was written by Mark Hanerfeld — a fan whom DC had recently brought in to contribute text pages and generally help out in the office — and drawn by Jack Sparling.

Sparling is one of those artists whose work I’ve always been generally lukewarm to, but this is one of his more effective jobs.  His depiction of the protagonist Hickey somehow makes the thief seem like both a scuzzy, no-good creep and a hapless, vaguely sympathetic schmuck, all at the same time.

By the third page, Hickey has become thoroughly freaked out by the formerly friendly shadows:

It’s a tidy little tale, which at 4 1/2 pages doesn’t hang around long enough to wear out its welcome.  Interestingly, there’s no “Journal of Judgment” anywhere in sight, and the Spectre’s crook-catching behavior here is consistent with his modus operandi in earlier issues — which makes me wonder if this story might have been stockpiled in inventory prior to the “new direction” introduced in #9.  But, whatever the case might be, the story serves to cap off the first issue of that new direction.

As I recall, my younger self finished this issue feeling not necessarily enthused about the drastic change in the Spectre’s status quo — but I don’t believe I had a strong negative opinion towards it, either.  I had been following the character since his third tryout issue of Showcase, after all, and I saw no reason to stop now.  I would have been prepared to buy the tenth issue, when I saw it on the racks.

Which I’m pretty sure I never did.

In fact, I’m not sure I even realized that there had been a tenth issue of The Spectre, until some years later, when I finally made the acquaintance of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide.  And when I eventually got around to completing my Spectre collection, and read issue #10 — well, it was hard to make a strong case that the series’ demise had been an untimely one.

Spectre #10 featured four stories, produced by a varied roster of writers (Mike Friedrich, Steve Skeates, and Jack Miller) and artists (Jerry Grandenetti, George Roussos, José Delbo, and Jack Sparling) — all uncredited.  And while none of the stories were irredeemably awful, none of them were very good, either.  Most problematically, they were all over the map in terms of how the Spectre’s new “mission” was interpreted and executed.  In one, Spec misjudged a criminal as being all bad when he actually had some good in him — but the guy died anyway.  In another Spec was correct in his suspicion that an individual was a murderer but had a helluva hard time proving it, resulting in at least one innocent person’s death.  And in yet another, he let a man off the hook in spite of the fact that said man was about to shoot somebody — then turned around and condemned the man’s intended victim to death for “mercilessly taunting” the would-be murderer.  Besides seeming extremely arbitrary, that action appeared uncomfortably close to the lethal behavior that had gotten the Spectre into this mess in the first place, back in isssue #9.  What was it that the Ghostly Guardian was supposed to be learning through this “Journal of Judgment” gig, again?

The overall impression one gets is of a lack of clear understanding of the book’s new direction on the part of the creators — perhaps due to a lack of commitment on the editorial level.  This is underscored by the issue’s “Fact File” text page, probably written by Mark Hanerfeld (the scripter of #9’s “Shadow Show”).  The “Fact Files” were all one-page recaps of the careers of DC heroes; issue #9 had featured the Vigilante, while issue #10’s was all about… the Spectre.  After first relating the hero’s Golden Age origins and early success, “Fact File #8” went on to describe his eventual decline and cancellation, following the introduction of a new, comical character (Percival Popp, the Super Cop) into the series; it then finished up with this:

It’s a rather remarkable postmortem for The Spectre, delivered as it was in the book’s own final issue (pretty meta for 1969), and making (if only by implication) a fairly blunt critique of the last two issues’ course change.  Though I doubt that the page’s writer (Hanerfeld, or whoever) got in much, if any, trouble over that bit — if only because no one really cared that much about the book by that time.

But, as I’ve already said, I didn’t learn all of this until years later.  As far as my eleven-year-old self knew in 1969, the Spectre was just gone.  Not only had his book vanished off the stands, but he didn’t even show up for the Justice League-Justice Society team-up that summer.

So I was pleased when, a year later, he was cover-featured in the 1970 iteration of that annual event.  Of course, I might have been a little less stoked on seeing that cover had I already known that, behind it, DC was giving the Silver Age Spectre his final send-off.

But, of course, that’s a topic for another post, at another time.  See you in July, 2020, OK?

 

 

 

*I was totally ga-ga over Adams, however, compared to some of the fans whose critiques editor Julius Schwartz printed in the book’s “Spectre-Graphs” letters column — such as one Kendall Sutton of Hartford City, IN, who asserted in issue #6 that “Neal Adams’ artwork is terrible, disgusting, idiotic, rotten, stinking, and downright horrible.”

**Steve Skeates’ turning up just long enough to write this single Spectre story is intriguing, and even a little puzzling — since, during this period, Skeates wrote almost exclusively for editor Dick Giordano (who, like Skeates, had recently migrated to DC from Charlton Comics); and although Giordano was taking over editorial duties on the book, his first issue wouldn’t be until the next one, #9.  That suggests (to me, anyway) that Giordano might have getting involved with the book prior to his “official” takeover.

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4 comments

  1. Ira Henkin · January 27

    Great article, as ever

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never been a fan of Jerry Grandenetti since I’ve always found his work a bit too weird & grotesque, but I agree that it seems a good fit for the Spectre.

    I had a bought of deja vu when I came to your summary of the second story, with Bernie Wrightson artwork. I knew I’d seen it before, but at first I couldn’t remember where. Checking on the GCD, I found it was reprinted in House of Mystery #224, which I read in one of the Showcase Presents black & white collections.

    Anyway, I agree that the Spectre is a good character who can nevertheless be difficult to write. I think one of the best takes on the character was John Ostrander’s in the 1990s. Maybe you can talk about that on this blog when the year 2043 AD rolls around 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · January 27

      Sure, Ben, why not? I’ll only be 86!

      Seriously, though — I agree that the Ostrander/Mandrake run was a superior take — my favorite, post-1969.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Beware the Creeper #6 (Mar.-Apr., 1969) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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