Review: The Spectre: Tales of the Unexpected trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Collected Editions is celebrating Halloween with not one, but two scary reviews this week! If you want a gory, gruesome comic book for your Halloween celebration, The Spectre: Tales of the Unexpected is a trade paperback for you (if not for me).

I face a reviewer's dilemma in writing about Tales of the Unexpected. I didn't like this book and would likely never read it again, and yet I fully realize it's not the book, it's me. Writer David Lapham, known for his crime fiction, presents a blood-soaked story in the spirit of the old EC horror comics and the well-known Michael Fleisher/Jim Aparo depictions of the Spectre. To that end, trying to judge this book on its own merits, I would have to say yes, it accomplishes successfully the goals it sets for itself and had a place as thoughtfully-written comic book literature. But personally -- I was done even before the scene of the sobbing man being forced to kill himself by devouring his own intestines.

Fool me twice, I guess. I picked up this book even though I had a similar reaction to the first volume, Crisis Aftermath: The Spectre, mainly because this book promised to involve Batman -- significant because this iteration of the Spectre is former Gotham Central cop Crispus Allen. Be not misled, however -- Batman appears for one issue only, and he doesn't discern Allen's identity as predicted (though Lapham does deal with Allen's identity, and a number of Gotham Central guest stars, later in the book). I did enjoy, however, Lapham's perspective that Batman sees the Spectre not as a fellow hero, but as a serial killer, one that we know Batman would just as soon see in Arkham if only he was able.

But better than Batman's appearance is one by the Phantom Stranger, in a chapter illustrated by former Spectre artist Tom Mandrake (whose great run, with John Ostrander, begs for a full series of collections). Here, Lapham lets the Stranger allude to all sorts of things regarding the murky relationship between Allen and the Spectre entity -- that Allen can control the Spectre instead of just going along for the ride, that Allen can choose the Spectre's victims or temper the Spectre's anger, and that Allen and the Spectre may not be two entities, but rather that Allen's in control and just can't accept the horrors he's committing.

This suggested a deeper plot thread for Tales of the Unexpected, more than just the Spectre revealing who committed the murder at Gotham's Granville apartments, but rather some story about Crispus Allen and the nature of his new "life" as the Spectre. Unfortunately, I felt this was one area Lapham didn't quite finish what he started; we get an inkling that Allen can save a victim or slow the Spectre's vengeance when he tries, but this was not so clear as to give the reader a good sense of the "rules" of the post-Infinite Crisis Spectre. Perhaps it's that I hoped for some happy or hopeful ending to this story, but true to form, Lapham leaves us with a gritty of Allen essentially cursed to follow morbidly along behind the Spectre's mayhem.

If you did enjoy the first volume, you'll find that Lapham took good care with the hints he dropped about Granville along the way, and ties all the clues into the denouement. No doubt it's clear from the outset that more than just one tenant participated in the murder of Granville's seedy landlord, but who did what -- and in the end, to what additional lengths they go to hide their secrets -- is satisfactorily explained, if you have the stomach for it. Me, I'll take my Spectre a little more superhero-y and a little less bloody, thanks.

[Contains full covers.]

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1 comment:

  1. I think more mystery/suspense tales are needed in the DCU. I thought about picking this one up but the loose plots seem to be a theme for DC.
    Do we really need Batman in every dark/gritty book? Glad that they used Phantom Stranger. It sounds like it is a better tone than Shadow Pact which doesn't pack the right punch for me.

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