Review: Spectre: Crimes and Punishments trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 31, 2011

It should be enough simply to say that The Spectre: Crimes and Punishments, a collection of just the first four issues of writer John Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake's 1990s Spectre series, has a glow-in-the-dark cover. I have owned a copy for almost twenty years, and the front cover still reveals a spooky second image when you turn out the lights. To my knowledge, this is the only DC Comics collection with a glow-in-the-dark cover; that alone would seem to me to make it worth picking up this book if you can find it for a good price.

... Need more than that to go on? OK, fine.

Spectre: Crimes and Punishments is the lead-off of a brilliant and, dare I say, definitive depiction of this character by Ostrander and Mandrake. In the annals of comics, among instances where the writing adds as much to the art as the art does to the writing, Ostrander and Mandrake's Spectre is a foremost example.

[Contains spoilers]

Let's look at the first couple pages of the trade, page by page:

PAGE 1: Splash page of troubled-looking street. This is Siegel-Bailey Hospital (after the Spectre's creators), but even the hospital sign is cracked. Note downtrodden-looking people behind Jim Corrigan, knocked-over garbage can, man with scull shaved into his head in the foreground -- even the kids playing have an element of violence to them. Incongruous is Corrigan, in a clean, pressed, old-fashioned suit. You can look at just this one page and learn volumes about Corrigan, his personality, and how he'll interact with his surroundings, letting alone that this is not a throwaway page but rather the details are important just a few pages later.

PAGE 2: If page one didn't set the book's tone well enough without even any story, these first two panels do the job. Panel one is somewhat routine comedy of Corrigan dealing with an overworked nurse; in the second panel, much to the nurse's surprise, Corrigan disappears. Again, we immediately understand Corrigan to be a man out of step with his surroundings; we also get a bit of his sense of humor. The third panel introduces supporting cast member Amy Beitermann in an instant; in the fourth, very subtly, the shadow of the Spectre is superimposed on a dark curtain.

This is perfectly scary -- the Spectre simply looms, still, against an otherwise normal backdrop, and you can just imagine the audience gasping at the same reveal in a movie.

PAGE 3: The first two panels, almost identical, except the first is the Spectre and the second is Corrigan. If a reader didn't know the relationship between the two, they know now, with barely a hint of exposition. Corrigan continues to question the hospital patient Louis Snipe in a manner than cements him as a hard-nosed detective.

PAGE 4: We now understand the overriding conflict of the Spectre series, that Corrigan is tired and worn out from "confront[ing] evil" but constantly failing. The shadow of his elongating fingers over Snipe's face is a spooky hint of the Spectre's ghostly power, to be revealed later.

PAGE 5: The perfect conclusion to this sequence and set up for later stories. Beitermann tries to offer Corrigan counseling but he rebuffs her, with the Spectre in his eyes for just the reader to see. Corrigan is there one minute and outside the next, just the same as he did to the nurse, but this time Beitermann sees, and the story's off and running.

Later in the first chapter, Ostrander does actually re-tell the Spectre's origin, and fleshes out Corrigan's transformation to the Spectre in the last chapter. I venture, however, that the reader knows more than enough about the Spectre to enjoy these stories just from the first five pages. It's a great example of writer and artist working together to provide visual clues, not just exposition, to make meaning and move the action forward in a story.

Each of the four issues collected in Crimes and Punishments is relatively self-contained, with the most connection between the third and fourth. In the first, Corrigan tries to end his time as the Spectre by taking vengeance on Snipe, but re-lives his own death instead; in the second, the Spectre does more harm than good trying to solve a murder, and we learn the Spectre's failings; and in the third and fourth, we learn more about Corrigan and his transformation to the Spectre as he draws Beitermann into his own soul and ventures into hers. A four-issue trade is about unheard of now (and at $9.95!), but it functions as a successful primer to this series; the only downside is that no additional collections followed.

Though there is no "mature readers" label on Spectre, Ostrander and Mandrake certainly toe the line of what was allowable in DC Comics in the 1990s (a line now unfortunately almost too far past to see). There are the Spectre's gruesome punishments, of course -- people set on fire, shot to death, and withered to rotting corpses. There's at least one female demon presented bare-breasted (maybe it passes the censors because it's a demon) and a number of semi-nude figures more akin to Mike Grell's Green Arrow than the Superman titles of the time. I'm also not sure that Ostrander gets enough credit for including a regular supporting character with AIDS in the series, something which was at that point often reserved for DC's "mature" Vertigo line. All of this makes Spectre something different not only in terms of storytelling but also content -- this is far from "just" a horror book.

I re-read Crimes and Punishments on occasion, and what I'd forgotten from my last visit to this most recent is how flawed Ostrander presents Corrigan. Far from a valiant cop murdered by thugs, Ostrander's Corrigan dealt his own brand of justice even before he became the Spectre, massacring two sets of gangsters without remorse. Ostrander also portrays Ostrander as an honest product of his times (circa World War II), ordering his wife around with equal hubris. When Snipe and others murder Corrigan, it's due as much to Corrigan's own pridefulness as the bad guys themselves. I think I tend to imagine Jim Corrigan and the Spectre much like Jason Blood and the Demon, a type of Jekyll and Hyde, but in fact Ostrander's Corrigan is more like the Spectre than he wants to admit.

I haven't heard hide nor ghostly hair of the Spectre in the new DC Universe, possibly because Spectre is most associated with the Justice Society. On one hand, a Spectre series would fit well with the modern horror titles in the new DC Universe; on the other, I frankly just can't envision anyone presenting the Spectre better than John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. Another thing I've heard lately is talks of a Spectre TV series; my hope is the writers would not go the Quantum Leap route where Corrigan inhabits bodies a la Deadman, but instead follow Jim Corrigan solving mysteries with the help of the Spectre's powers, like Crimes and Punishments second issue.

Certainly, I hope the writers use this book as source material, because they couldn't do much better -- and if a new Spectre series or television show finds its way to life, that it brings with it more collections of Ostrander and Mandrake's Spectre -- an omnibus, even? -- along with it.

[Contains original covers. Introduction by John Ostrander. And it glows in the dark.]

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6 comments:

  1. It's so much a crime the remainder of this series hasn't been collected, I expect to read one day that the Spectre himself visited the DC Offices to bring down the wrath of God.

    Much like Green Lantern: Mosaic, it was an excellent title bridging the gap between the DCU and a Vertigo sensibility.

    I don't believe there was a clunker in the run.

    Greg A

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  2. An omnibus of the entire series would be nice.

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  3. Though I loved the Ostrander/Mandrake series, another overlooked gem is the Moench/Colan series (just prior to this one) featuring excellent Detective style mysterie and eerie weirdness oozing all over. Too classy to forget!

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  4. Much like they did with Ed Brubaker's Catwoman, DC is now going to start collecting this run in trade paperbacks (the first one - Crimes and Judgements - is actually larger, with more than 300 pages). Hopefully enough pre-orders are brought in to ensure that the series gets its due attention.

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    1. Yes; check out our post last month where we broke the news about this and a number of other collections. I'm super-excited for this collection and hope it's the start of collecting Ostrander's full Spectre run.

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    2. I do hope the series gets enough attention to warrant publishing the full run. Unfortunately we've already seen how DC considers pre-orders before publishing; the Starman omnibus paperbacks have been (so far) discontinued due to the lack of pre-orders. This time I made sure to do my part and have already put in my pre-orders for Ostrander's 'Deadshot: Beginnings' and the first volume of 'The Spectre' (amongst other new releases of pre-New 52 books).

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