1987 And All That: The Spectre #1-9

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

The Spectre #1-9 (DC) by Doug Moench, Gene Colan (#1-6), Cam Kennedy (#7-8), Gray Morrow (#9), Steve Mitchell (#1-6), Adrienne Roy (#1-6, 9), Michele Wolfman (#7-8), John Costanza (1-5), Agustin Mas (#6-9), Robert Greenberger

The Spectre is kind of a jerk, but that's ok, because so is Jim Corrigan, the man who serves as the his human host. They're jerky in different ways, which causes a lot of friction between them, and also makes them quite the entertaining pair to follow as a reader. Their relationship is kind of a mixed-up buddy cop thing; the Spectre is in some ways the loose cannon character, because Corrigan never knows what he'll do next and can't really trust him not to overreact to any given situation. Yet the Spectre is also the more serious of the pair, and all of his actions are motivated by the demands of a higher authority. Meanwhile, Corrigan is a wise-cracking rogue and anti-authority in general, yet wants to reign in the Spectre and stop him from always being so severe in his treatment of the various villains they face. So neither one of them fits neatly into a recognizable character mold, yet as a duo, they have a very familiar dynamic, one partner trying to keep the other in check as they work toward common goals with very different methods. And all the while, they are both largely unlikable as people, yet interesting as characters, and because they're always fighting against much worse people than themselves, I'm on their side even when they're being aggressively pigheaded and annoying. The Spectre does a fantastic job of making compelling figures out of its two miserable leads by pitting them against each other morally despite the fact that they are ostensibly on the same side. They're both good guys, technically, but neither of them are necessarily all that good at being good. Instead, they make each other better, while simultaneously making one another feel worse, a conflicted team bound together against their wills who only barely make their partnership work.

The beginning of the series sees both Corrigan and the Spectre dead, though what exactly it means for the Spectre to be dead is not entirely clear. He's always "dead" insofar as he is a spirit, but in the debut issue of this series he is fully lifeless, suspended in a void, unable to act or even think. The "higher authority" that acts as his boss speaks to him in this state and tells him he is going to return to Earth, but with his power significantly decreased and with a new mission assigned to him. He is to serve as a spirit of vengeance for the victims of murder, killing their killers in the name of cosmic justice. Corrigan, meanwhile, is trapped in a vase in a locker, his corpse being magically preserved until he can be brought back to life, which he is at the same time as the Spectre, the two of them returning together, their connection already established. Corrigan and the Spectre have a history together, the exact details of which I am not overly familiar with, but basically Corrigan has served as a host body for the Spectre in the past, and it happens again now, just with more rules and restrictions than before. The Spectre can leave Corrigan's body and act on his own whenever he wants, but it causes them both pain every time he enters or exits, and he can only be gone for up to 48 hours before both he and Corrigan die. So there are some very strict things put in place to keep them together, and while the reasons for that are vague, narratively it adds some nice tension to their shared adventures. They have more than one close call, including, in issue #9, Corrigan actually attempting to elude the Spectre long enough for both of them to die, and anytime they are separated for a significant amount of time, there's a built-in urgency added to whatever else is going on.

Part of the trouble between the Spectre and Corrigan is simply that they both resent being stuck with each other. And who can blame them? Neither chose to be bound to the other, yet there's nothing they can do about it, their connection formed and maintained through forces that are far more powerful than they. So there's a baseline aggravation on both their parts, just because they've been forced into a situation they didn't ask for. On top of that, Corrigan takes real issue with the way Spectre carries out his duty of getting justice for the recently murdered. Corrigan has no problem with the general concept of punishing killers, of course, but he finds the Spectre's methods too intense or extreme for his taste. The Spectre is an agent of vengeance, not merely bringing death to his targets but other torments as well, ensuring that what they experience is at least as bad as what they put their victims through. He messes with them psychologically and tortures them physically before finally ending their lives, and Corrigan's just not comfortable with that approach. He'd rather see things handled more swiftly and humanely, but the Spectre and his unseen master demand that the punishment match the crime. The Spectre even goes a step further at one point, preemptively killing people who he knows through his powers intend to kill others, which flips Corrigan out completely. Essentially, the Spectre feels no sympathy toward murderers and does not believe they deserve any respect or consideration at all, while Corrigan thinks all people ought to be treated with some basic decency, and that even the worst criminals have reasons for what they do. People, says Corrigan, are more complicated than their last bad act, but to the Spectre it's not nearly so nuanced. The two of them argue this point many times from many angles, and neither of them ever changes his mind in any significant way. Their stubbornness is one trait they have in common, making their interactions all the more heated, amusing, and futile.

Both Corrigan and the Spectre also think pretty highly of themselves, which contributes to their unbending attitudes and makes them a little less likable overall. The Spectre believes he's doing the right thing, but from an outside perspective, he does seem overly harsh, and his ego fuels his unwillingness to even consider that he may be crossing moral or ethical lines in his pursuit of vengeance. Yet as much as I support Corrigan for taking the Spectre to task, he's also a bit too sure of himself, his arrogance and obstinance getting in the way of many of the points he's trying to make. Both he and the Spectre are too self-important to hear what the other has to say, which is never an attractive trait. It does, however, add to the drama of the comic, so even if I find them equally frustrating as individuals, as a duo and as the stars of this title, they work wonderfully.

Taking some of the edge off of my dislike of the protagonists is Kim Liang, a marvelous character who never fails to improve any scene she's a part of. Kim is brought in to be Corrigan's assistant and to guard his body when he and the Spectre are apart, making sure nothing happens to Corrigan before the Spectre can return "home." It's not her role that makes Kim so great, though, it's her personal take on that role. Kim is able to handle all the craziness of her new job without being phased or thrown or otherwise overwhelmed by it. She's an expert at going with the flow, never questioning too strenuously what's going on or letting it bother her all that much. She does, at times, have her emotional breaks, like when Corrigan tries to kill himself and she immediately rushes to do anything she can to stop him. She's still human, after all, and still cares what happens to the people around her. For the most part, though, Kim is content just to be along for the ride, adding much-needed levity and calm to everything that happens in this book. It does bother me that Corrigan treats her as a sex object half the time and as a child the rest, but on the other hand, she takes his sexism and condescension in such stride that it only serves to make me like her even more. She and Corrigan develop a romance almost right away, which feels like an easy, almost inevitable choice, but Kim doesn't throw herself into it blindly. She makes sure that their relationship progresses slowly, she distances herself from him whenever he's acting foolishly, and she maintains her own identity throughout, never becoming Corrigan's Girlfriend first and Kim Liang second. All of that plus her impeccable good humor makes Kim easily the most enjoyable aspect of the series, an ideal counterbalance to all the seriousness and self-importance of the titular hero and his pain-in-the-ass host.

Madame Xanadu also plays an important role in the book, bringing Corrigan and the Spectre back together, adding Kim to the mix, and offering many explanations and insights throughout the series that no other character could provide. She's a bit of a background player, which is not unusual for her, but she's significant in that she is the only member of the cast to truly understand where everyone else is coming from. To a certain extent, this makes her a POV character for the reader, but she also possesses a lot of knowledge we don't have, and at times appears to have hidden motives of her own, so she's both the closest to us and the furthest from us at once. She's probably the most uninteresting character, at least in these initial 9 issues, but that mostly comes from her having the least to do. Primarily, she's there to talk, whereas everyone else gets to also act, but she plays her part well and does, little by little, add some fascinating wrinkles to overarching story.

Off-putting lead characters, ongoing arguments over the best way to mete out justice to murderers, an unusual supporting cast that borders on being out of place but is instead somehow perfectly suited to this series...The Spectre is not an easy comic to sum up. Because Corrigan and the Spectre can each be so obnoxious, there are moments in every issue that I had a hard time enjoying, yet on the whole I was very much invested and ended up a definite fan. Doug Moench is quite good at starting his narratives confusingly to draw the audience in, and then clearly explaining what's happening in the late game without pulling focus from the action. We are carried along by our questions until we're ready to hear the answers, at which time they are delivered in the most entertaining/exciting way possible. All of Moench's artistic collaborators maintain a certain visual tone for the book that is key to its quality as well. It doesn't look or move like a classic superhero comic, because it's dark and unnerving enough to have more of a horror feel. Yet even that's not quite accurate, because there's a heavy amount of mythology, magic, and other bits of fantasy mixed in, so it ends up being a genre all its own with a unique aesthetic to match. Also, the Spectre gets to do a lot of stuff that looks very cool, like stretching his arms in weird ways or turning into green mist or possessing inanimate objects and giving them terrifying, warped, monstrous appearances as he brings them to life temporarily. There's always a lot to look at in this book, some of it awe-inspiring and some of it legitimately frightening, but all of it captivating. Even though each of these issues had at least one moment that rubbed me the wrong way, I was very much into the series from the start, and that never changed, no matter how much Corrigan and/or the Spectre got on my nerves. Ultimately, it may even be better to have a book like this, with flaws it regularly overcomes, than to simply love everything about it. It's certainly more engaging that way, which is as good a metric as any by which to judge it.

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