The Golden Age of Comics was a very creative time; the new comic book medium had few “rules” and the writers and artists were making up the conventions as they went. The result was an odd and colorful assortment of characters, quite a few of which are still with us in comics published today. Of course, not everyone who picks up a pencil is a creative genius, and a fair bit of idea swiping occurred in the 1940’s. Occasionally while reading a period comic you’ll come across a character who seems familiar – and I’m being generous here; what I’m saying is that some character ideas were simply stolen from a competitor’s comic.

The “spirit of vengeance” was once such character idea which made the rounds through the 1940’s. Although there were variations and twists between the origins of these characters, all of these characters were ghosts who returned from the beyond to fight against injustices in the realm of the living. Where the real swiping occurred was in the visual appearance of these characters on the comic book page: three of them were virtually identical.

The earliest example I’m able to locate is that of The Spectre, who made his debut in More Fun Comics #52 and #53 (a rare two-parter) published by Detective Comics (later DC Comics) in early 1940. Copyright restrictions don’t allow us to present the whole tale in this blog, but (as we did with Batman’s first appearance) we can summarize it and provide key panels.

More Fun Comics #52, February 1940

It’s not hard to fathom why The Spectre’s appearance was swiped by other comic book artists; he just looks cool. He’s a bone white ghost whose dark green cape, trunks, and boots are nicely offset. You can already imagine him stepping from the shadows (or materializing), unfurling his cape, and scaring the living bejeezus out of a bunch of crooks.

“Hard boiled detective” Jim Corrigan, while on his way to a fancy dinner party, stops off to break up the theft of valuable furs. Later that evening, he and his girlfriend Clarice Winston are spotted by gangster “Gat” Benson; the crook decides to get a little payback for all of the times Corrigan has thwarted his plans. Benson and his men kidnap Corrigan and Clarice at gunpoint.

More Fun Comics #52, February 1940

There’s a first time for everything and you can tell that Benson’s never done this before. Everyone knows you first mix the water and cement in a wheelbarrow, dump it in the barrel, and then shove a guy into it. You’re supposed to learn that in Crime 101.

Benson’s men roll the barrel off of a wharf into the ocean, where it sinks to the bottom. Corrigan dies and has the classic “go toward the light” experience.

More Fun Comics #52, February 1940

If you’re already familiar with The Spectre’s lore, the central panel of the second row is pretty significant: Corrigan’s soul isn’t allowed to rest until crime is eradicated, and Corrigan doesn’t really want the job. Some of my friends have asked me why The Spectre is so angry all the time, and how his frequent killing of wrongdoers (often in creative and ironic ways) can be justified. I’m not saying that this panel justifies it, but it sure does explain it. Now that he’s dead, all Corrigan wants is his eternal reward – and the existence of every murderer, chiseler, racketeer, and two-bit punk puts him just that much farther away from everlasting peace. I think that would hack pretty much anyone off.

Corrigan spends two pages learning that he can fly and become invisible. Then he hears Clarice’s scream, and he’s off to the rescue. Part one of the tale ends with that classic cliffhanger and readers had to come back in a month for issue #53 to find out what happens.

As the next issue begins, the gangsters are about to murder Clarice. Corrigan arrives in the nick of time, and we’re treated to the most visually memorable Spectre trope of all: the skull-like pupils of The Spectre’s eyes.

More Fun Comics #53, March 1940

The “Spectre stare” kills one of the hoods right away. Then Corrigan starts getting creative with his disposal of the criminals:

More Fun Comics #53, March 1940

The crook runs off and is dispatched by Corrigan, but not before he shoots Clarice. Corrigan discovers he has the power to heal, as well as to kill:

More Fun Comics #53, March 1940

Clarice revives and throws herself into Corrigan’s arms, happy that the crooks haven’t killed him. Corrigan resolves that he must keep the truth from her, lest the shock kill her. This becomes another regular Spectre trope: the woman who is in love with a dead man. It was used to some great (albeit unintentionally comedic) effect in the 1970’s Wrath of the Spectre series. I’ll need to blog about the 1970’s Spectre stories one day; for my money it’s some of the greatest work to ever appear in the comics medium. The stories were highly controversial, mindblowingly cool, and are still pretty shocking even for today’s jaded audience. Fondly remembered by most of the folks who read them (that is, the people who weren’t trying to get them banned), the stories were the basis for The Spectre short which appears on a couple of the DC animated movie DVDs.

The story takes a hard left turn. Corrigan calls the police, then revives the dead gangsters (which, I’ll admit, is pretty much a gyp, although the crooks are discovered in a presumably permanent catatonic state). Upon driving Clarice home, he ends their relationship callously, then moves out on his roommate. After cutting all of his mortal ties, Corrigan creates a costume and, with it, the identity of The Spectre.

More Fun Comics #53, March 1940

The “costume” idea was, thankfully, eventually dropped and he was able to switch his appearance back and forth between Corrigan and The Spectre at will. The inference was that The Spectre was his true appearance but he could assume the form of Corrigan to better interact with the mortal world; this made for a much cooler character.

The writers and editors eventually lost their seeming squeamishness regarding The Spectre’s killing of wrongdoers; here again, it made for a much better character, being as The Spectre was created as a supernatural agent of justice and vengeance. In an early Justice Society of America appearance, The Spectre encounters a hood about to blow up a dam. The Spectre causes the TNT plunger to grow to the size of a telephone pole, then makes it take off like a rocket with the crook clinging to the crosspiece for dear life. The Spectre flies alongside, grilling the crook for information. After The Spectre gets the tip he needs, he flies off, leaving the crook presumably on a one-way journey to the stratosphere and eventual death in space. Although the scene is still a bit shocking today, The Spectre’s actions are completely in keeping with the character’s fundamental concept. He’s an agent of justice who can’t rest until all crime is eradicated, so why would he not make sure that the crook is out of action permanently?

The Spectre was a very unique character, quite unlike anything else which had been presented in comic books up to the point of his introduction. While not a top-seller, More Fun Comics sold a respectable number of copies each month. It’s not surprising that other comic book publishers would crib a bit to try to develop their own Spectre-like characters. We’ll look at one such character in our next post. Until then…

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.