If Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo’s “The Spectre” tales are remembered for anything these days, it’s for the EC-macabre executions carried out by the title character at the close of every story. But there's a great deal more that's beguilingly odd, if not actually worryingly perverse, about Mr Fleisher's Spectre tales, though that's often quite understandably obscured by the flashbulb-memory-inspiring scenes of the likes of melting bank robbers and gorilla-slaughtered museum curators.
What's often overlooked is how very strange the universe, and particularly the afterlife, of these tales is. The frequent and portentous statements concerned with mission and vengeance and judgement which Mr Fleisher used to colour his adventures of the Spectre eventually piled up and coalesced into the most unsettling and yet absurd of comic-book cosmologies. Inspired in part by Jerry Siegel's original and bleakly dislocating Golden Age tales of the Spectre, Fleisher's stories suggested a far less sanitized, familiar and comforting four colour world and afterworld than is even now typical. For example, the Spectre refers several times to the afterlife as "the Valley Of Death", a spiritual realm which he describes as being "... long ... and wide ... so that good men who have perished need not suffer the stench arising from the souls that are evil". And this Valley is partitioned, it appears, so that morally contaminated souls can be sealed away in "Perdition", where an "eternity" of "boredom" awaits them, and where that 'stench' can't reach out from. Given that the Spectre's mission involves the gruesome dispatching of folks in the least humane fashion possible, we might be forgiven for presuming that a particularly daunting version of hell awaits his victims, but, as he declares to the terrorists he's having crushed to death by giant serpents in "Adventure Comics" # 439;
"It is ironic that although your lives are mockeries of the very meaning of humanity ... even you shall enjoy the eternal rest that has been denied to .. the Spectre."
Of the less-repellent soul's experience of this afterlife beyond the eternal peace-but-boredom of Perdition, we're told little. Yet disturbing nuggets of information emerge from Mr Fleisher's stories which make the life beyond this one appear to be anything other than entirely Arcadian. The souls of the recently dead, we discover, even have to queue up as part of some quasi-Biblical spectacle in order "to enter the Valley Of Death", and the processing system doesn't appear to be a speedy or welcoming one at all. The Spectre finds the innocent victims of a deliberately-set tenement fire from the day before standing way back in an apparently endless row of spirits, all bent-shouldered and characterless, all clothed in identi-kit grey monk's habits and cowls, all shuffling through a landscape of nothing but lemon-coloured smoke.Whoever's in charge of the afterlife, there's little apparent compassion on show for the newly-passed-over, as we can see from the fact that the most helpful of the victims found by The Spectre can hardly speak for the experience which killed him. "The fire ... was deliberately set. My death ... was murder!" he explains, and it's as if the suffering of his dying is afflicting him still. This clearly isn't a soul liberated from the suffering of the earthly plane. Rather, he's a traumatised and blameless ghost caught in a featureless "Spectral Netherworld", and one characterised by little evidence of love and mercy. At best, a great celestial indifference appears to be the rule.
Yet there's clear evidence of at least a touch of compassion in the heavenly order of Mr Fleisher's take on the DCU. We catch a glimpse of it, though it is just a glimpse, in "Adventure Comics" # 431, when the Spectre declares the following to the cornered "Fritz", just prior to stripping the armed robber of everything that's wrapped around his skeleton, from the skin inwards;
"I have come for you, villain ... because so long as you remain free, the souls of your victims must writhe in torment."
|B. From the moment gangster "Ducky" McClaren was introduced in his "sleazy waterfront hideout", that little plastic duck of his - "quak, quak" - was always going to end up as his very own ten foot tall head-chewing nemesis.|
Murdered human beings, it appears, continue to endure the rack for as long as their killers remain Earth-side, and one of the Ghostly Guardian's responsibilities is to limit that period of anguish by violently hurrying a killer's existence to a spectacular and painful close. It's a business which at first seems to speak well of those in charge of both the Earth and the Valley, but a little closer attention to the whole matter soon raises some fundamentally disturbing issues. Given how many tens if not hundreds of thousands of murders there are every year, why is there only one Spectre, and why is he spending time working as a NYPD Detective when he ought to be hewing down killers across the world in football-stadia filling numbers? The Valley Of Death must be packed with agonised spirits, and yet the Spectre's typical judgement-dealing day can only ever release a tiny number of them from their suffering. And then there's the question of quite why those pitiful souls who've ended up murdered through no fault of their own should have to experience such extra measures of misery simply because their murderers are still alive. It's a skin-blistering twist of fate which is never explained, and it's hard to escape a suspicion that Mr Fleisher simply hadn't thought through the consequences of a play-meaningful statement he'd placed into the Spectre's mouth.Yet in doing so, he created yet another aspect of an afterlife that carries something of the weight of myth, because it's both inexplicable and yet strangely consistent and convincing. For it's difficult to believe that any rational mind would care to invent something so patently unfair as an afterlife where victims are in effect punished for their killer's continued survival, let alone a Ghostly Guardian tasked with their relief who works with so little urgency to lift their burdens. Yet if no-one could possibly invent such a ridiculously cruel and inefficient afterlife, then, the suspicion lurks, as with even the silliest of myths, that afterlife's not been invented at all. Something as daft as this carries a token of the real simply because it can't, it just can't, have been imagined. And of course, in large part it wasn't. Mr Fleisher's world here emerges from the contents of a string of scripts often very much designed to work in isolation from each other as superhero-horror tales. It's the unplanned collision of a whole string of phrases designed for plot-convenience and effect over several years that eventually creates the real strangeness of the Spectre's universe.
|C. Though rarely mentioned in the blog-lists of the Fleischer era's most memorable kills, the dismemberment of Gwen's "body" by a flying meat cleaver shows us as nothing else how merciless the Spectre is. Good job it was only a mannequin after all!|
But in the end, we're assured, when the murderous likes of Zeke Borosovitch and Field Marshall Offal are dispatched by the Spectre, their dead victims will be waiting for their killer's souls to arrive in the Valley. But what happens then? Since hurting others is "evil", and since being "evil" results in a soul being sentenced to "Perdition", we can only assume that the slain meet their murderers, experience a measure of closure and a freedom from that writhing, before, perhaps, escorting their noxiously evil fellow spirits civilly down to an eternal damnation of endless boredom. Again, it's a picture of an afterlife which is utterly unlike that which anyone might be expected to devise, and it's one that's absolutely riddled with unanswered questions, and so, it's one which seems oddly convincing.
Of course, any version of an afterlife which did consist of little but white picket fences and an eternal comfortable reward would be of little use to the scripter of a comic such as the Spectre. Mr Fleisher needed his dead folks to behave according to rules which were, for all of their familiarity, strange and even somewhat challenging. In essence, there's little point to a tale of a dead superhero if the superhero and his fellows behave just as they would on the sunnier side of the great divide. One of the most interesting of Fleisher's innovations here is a repeated sense that the Spectre is physically sickened and repulsed by the presence of those he ought to be slaughtering. For it seems that to the souls of the dead who've avoided 'evil', and that includes of course the serial killer that is the Spectre, anyone tainted with ill-deeds quite literally stinks. (We've already touched upon how the Valley Of Death itself has been constructed so that the stink of the sinner can't be perceived by the more just of the spirits there.) And the Spectre does often refers to the "stench" of his opponents, which brings in a sense of taboo, of a moral contamination so fundamental that it overwhelms the physical as well as the ethical order. "Even the spirits of the long dead could not tolerate the stench of his evil." he explains of Smiley, a brute of a henchman buried alive by the ancient ghosts summoned up by the Spectre. When somehow given dispensation to spend time over here in the land of the living, the virtuous dead can't help themselves, it seems, but kill the worst of the folks they encounter.
It's an utter inability on the part of these uncontaminated spirits to control themselves which can be most tellingly witnessed when the Spectre is seemingly attacked by Gwen Sterling, a young and breath-takingly airheaded young woman who he seems to have fallen in love with. The fact of a supposedly fundamental if thwarted romantic attachment between the two of them doesn't cause The Spectre to hesitate for a necro-second once a pathetically unsuccessful attack upon him is began, even though, given the circumstances of his existence, there's surely every possibility that "Gwen" is under another's control as she attacks him. (She is at other times used against her will as a weapon of one kind or another.) Yet it's only after he's caused a meat cleaver to come "miraculously to life, whirling through the air with mighty blows, hacking off Gwen's arms, severing her legs from her body, smashing her skull in two ... until finally ... only a shattered corpse remains" that the Spectre discovers that "Gwen" is an 'ingenious' likeness of the young and profoundly dense multi-millionairess.
He just couldn't help himself, you see. It was that stench.
|D. The introduction to the collected "Wrath Of The Spectre" stories discusses how uncomfortable several of Fleischer's bosses at DC were with the violence and horror on display in his stories. This surely has to be one of the most challenging of any such sequences. Even today, it's impossible to avoid empathising with the vile Eric as he tries to avoid being sliced in two. Still, when he's cut in twain, there will at least be souls in the Valley released from their writhing.|
These are the rules of the Fleisher-verse, and it makes perfect sense that the creature which appears to rule over it, and who certainly commands the Spectre, is as ignorant and obtuse as his worlds are physically and morally nonsensical. For the godly but formless creature that the Spectre can find "heavenward ... in the most awesome destination of all", in a "domain of golden clouds and radiant light", is a wonderfully ignorant phenomena, unable to grasp that "evil" isn't so much an intrinsic personal quality rather than a judgement of another's action. Poor Jim Corrigan, a mob-executed Policeman raised by this celestial superpower of an idiot to eradicate all "evil" from the Earth. Compelled by his ghostly instincts, as we've seen, to pick off the monsters of the world one by one, the Spectre longs for the completion of his task so that he might enjoy the desperately longed-for "warmth of the grave". Yet to do away with "evil", the Spectre would have to be equipped not to transmute boats into man-eating giant Krakens, but to remove free will from human consciousness, so that no-one could ever again consider breaking those rules which divide "evil" from "good". Otherwise, even a Spectre who could murder tens of millions of sinners in a single day could pass another dawn and discover that "evil" had returned. In short, the Spectre's been ordered to fulfill a duty which can't ever be completed, although neither he nor even his woeful-minded creator appear to grasp the fact.
But then, the fact is that the Spectre really isn't actually making any substantial attempt to eradicate "all evil from the face of the Earth", although his "heavenward" boss seems not to have noticed the distance that exists between the Spectre's relatively few achievements and the impossible task before him. In truth, the Spectre rarely ever even operates beyond New York City. Worse yet, from what we're shown, he hardly ever pursues miscreants who've not first become his responsibility while working for the NYPD, meaning that he's not even making an effort to broaden his responsibilities beyond the problems which he runs into during his working day. But given that the "stench of evil" is something the Spectre can detect whenever he's close to a corrupted soul, his job would seem remarkably easy. There's alot of evil out there, so all he needs to do is to get traveling and sniffing. Even if the Spectre's working definition of "evil" is nothing more sophisticated than "murderer", which would be a remarkably narrow definition, he's still going to have to be killing off his prey at a ferocious rate. There were, after all, more than 18 000 recorded murders in the USA alone last year.
But nothing of any determined effort to complete his mission is on display in the Fleisher Spectre stories. The great Godly boss is a fool, the Spectre is patently if most probably unconsciously shirking his duties, and the Valley beyond just keeps filling up with more and more innocent souls.
|D. But if the page above was brutal, then the first panel of this following sequence surely caps it. I wonder if there's been a more chillingly suggestive image in a Comics Code Authority book?|
There's something that's almost touching in the profound and yet oddly compassionate stupidity displayed by the Spectre's not-quite-all-powerful Maker. "Perhaps the mission I gave (The Spectre) ... is indeed beyond the fulfillment of any one man!", it wonders aloud in the absence of any witnesses beyond the reader, before adding "Perhaps being alive again will bring (The Spectre) happiness! I hope so!". For it's that guileless "Perhaps" matched with that pathetic "I hope so!", which suggests some great dumb but well-meaning godly fool, grasping for a better understanding of how (1) being dead, while (2) being tasked with ridding the Earth of evil might somehow cause the Spectre to feel a touch disconcerted.
Poor, pitiful Spectre. In the end, he's reduced to both pleading with and raging against his creator. "What do I care about vengeance? It's eternal rest I want! Can't you understand that? Haven't I earned it? Haven't I?" he declaims, but his God can only declare that he's not actually responsible for the situation. "Destiny", it seems, which apparently "no man can escape", is the force to blame for both the Spectre's endless mission and his constant torment. Even God isn't responsible for the mess of the world, but the Spectre's still going to be compelled to try to right it.
But in the world which the Spectre is apparently fated to haunt, where there undoubtedly is a God of sorts, and a God who can raise the dead and turn them into impossibly powerful super-zombies too, all complete with green booties and matching green pants and cape and hood too, what does He need a Spectre for? Why can't "God" sort out the whole rotten foul-up in the first place?
Ah, that question again ...
|E. The sadism of the Spectre extends to some quite deliberate and protracted acts of torture. Here Zeke is punished for his murderous sins by being transmuted in a mannequin, and then, after the Spectre has taken the time to phone for removal men to come and destroy his creations, thrown into a fire. That's alot of work for a relatively insignificant measure of vengeance, especially given that there's folks whose writhing won't end until Zeke's murder arrives.|