For a couple of months in the autumn of 1965, readers of most DC comics were confronted with this enigmatic message, which appeared in the borders of pages, and even within the panels of stories, all through the publisher’s line:
It was an unusual marketing campaign — although my eight-year-old self didn’t know that at the time, since I’d only been reading comics for a few months. Nevertheless, I can recall being vaguely curious about this “Spectre”, the eerie green lettering of whose name suggested that he might not be the warmest and friendliest of characters. I had no idea whatsoever who he actually was, however — nor would most of the rest of DC’s readership at that time.
Only the relatively small number of adult fans, and younger fans who’d happened to acquire or otherwise peruse a copy of Jules Feiffer‘s The Great Comic Book Heroes (published earlier that year), would be likely to be familiar with the Spectre. The character had made his debut in More Fun Comics #52 (February, 1940) in a tale written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Bernard Bailey. Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, in some ways one-upped himself with the introduction of the Spectre — a character even closer to omnipotence than the Man of Steel, who, though incredibly powerful, was still a physical, mortal being. The Spectre, on the other hand, was quite literally what his name implied — a ghost, who came into being after a police detective named Jim Corrigan was murdered by gangsters. Upon his arrival in the afterlife, Corrigan’s shade was charged by a celestial “Voice” (the Judeo-Christian God, to all intents and purposes) to return to Earth and fight evil. To expedite this, the Voice would allow the ghost to resume his existence as Jim Corrigan (though as an incorporeal spirit, rather than a flesh-and-blood man), and would also give him the power to do — well, pretty much anything that he needed (or wanted) to do. As some guy named Alan Stewart wrote twenty-nine years ago, in the 112th issue of the fanzine Amazing Heroes:
Unbound by mortal restraints, the Spectre’s powers proved to be virtually limitless. He could expand his discarnate body to planet-dwarfing proportions, journey into space and into mystical dimensions, and command supernatural energies. No physical force could harm him. Last but not least, evildoers would look into his skull-pupiled eyes and drop dead of fright.
This last, ruthless aspect of the character, though not overplayed in the 1940s, played a significant role in the Spectre’s impact. Though clearly on the side of law and order, the early Spectre was hardly a compassionate or personable hero. He represented the awesome justice of God, striking from the world beyond. As such, he might frighten those he helped as much as his enemies.
From 1940 until 1945, the Spectre crusaded against wickedness in fifty consecutive issues of More Fun stories; he also appeared in the first twenty-three issues of All-Star Comics, becoming a charter member of the Justice Society of America in the third issue of that magazine. During that time, there were some tweaks to his modus operandi, as well as to the format of his adventures. In More Fun #75 (January, 1942), Jim Corrigan’s deceased physical body was restored to life, with the Spectre henceforth emanating from his body as a discrete, autonomous entity — beginning what Stewart, in his Amazing Heroes article, called “perhaps the strangest alter-ego relationship in comics”. But just before that change had come another, one that more drastically altered the tone of the strip, as the Spectre gained a comic-relief sidekick in the form of would-be detective Percival Popp, the self-styled “Super Cop”, in More Fun #74. Popp (pictured at left), a bungling nuisance who eventually even received co-billing with the Spectre, would somehow manage to hang around for years — until the very end, in fact. Both he and the Spectre made their last appearances in More Fun with the 101st issue (Jan.-Feb., 1945); and with the Spectre’s final adventure with the JSA having been published approximately just one week earlier, in All-Star #23, the Ghostly Guardian thus departed from the pages of DC’s comics, not to be seen again for twenty years.
By 1965, of course, DC had been reviving moribund Golden Age superheroes for the better part of a decade, under the auspices of editor Julius Schwartz. Beginning in the late Fifties with new versions of characters like the Flash and Green Lantern that shared the powers of the originals, but had different origins, costumes, and identities, Schwartz had moved on to resuscitate the actual Forties-era heroes intact — including not only the original Flash, GL, and others who’d since been reinvented, but virtually the entire membership of the Justice Society of America. The development of the Earth-Two concept, which allowed the Golden Age versions of characters to co-exist with the current ones in their own, separate universe, meant that Schwartz and his stable of writers and artists could revive those JSA members who didn’t already have modern counterparts and feature them in new stories without having to worry about coming up with different origins for them, or otherwise integrating them into the continuity of the current crop of Justice League heroes.
And so they did. Following the publication of the first two JLA-JSA team-ups in 1963 and 1964, Doctor Fate and Hourman got a tryout in two issues of Showcase in early 1965, followed by a similar joint appearance in Brave and the Bold by Starman and Black Canary. Apparently, the original idea was to follow these with a third double tryout, this time teaming the Spectre and Doctor Mid-Nite — but, for whatever reason, when the project went forward, it would be as a solo outing for the long-gone Disembodied Detective.*
Of course, my eight-year old self didn’t know a bit of that in fall, 1965, when those “The Spectre Is Coming!” ads began to appear. My first real glimpse of the character came as the first full-fledged house ads for Showcase #60 showed up, probably around the middle of November:
The Spectre wasn’t just coming any more — he was here! But — I didn’t bite. Why not? Well, it’s quite possible that I never actually saw this issue on the stands — but honestly, I expect that I would have passed on buying it, whether I saw it or not. As I’ve already noted, I’d only been reading comics for a few months at that point, and I was staying pretty conservative with my buying. I was picking up books featuring Superman, Batman, and their teammates in the Justice League — and that was pretty much it.
I took a similar pass when the ads for the following issue turned up — although I’m sure that by now I was getting at least a little intrigued by the character. Who was this guy, who fought bad guys that threw comets his way, or tried to clobber him with what looked like the planet Earth itself?
And speaking of bad guys — this “Shathan” character sure sounded (and looked) a lot like Satan — not only the original “bad guy”, but an entity that my Southern Baptist tradition asserted to be an actual being that literally existed in the real world. It’s just possible, therefore, that I had an uneasy feeling that my comic-book fantasies were treading just a little too close to my inherited religious belief system here — and that that factored in to my decision not to buy this book. Or, again, it may just be that I still wasn’t ready to buy a comic that didn’t have a Justice League member in it.
The Spectre didn’t appear in the next two issues of Showcase, which featured the Inferior Five. (I didn’t buy those books, either, and since they were simple super-team parodies with no Satanic analogues in sight, maybe I should stick to the “no Justice Leaguer” theory of my non-purchase decision-making.) And by the time the ads appeared for his third solo appearance, in Showcase #64, something had changed. In the interim, I had read Justice League of America #46 — the first half of 1965’s Justice League-Justice Society team-up adventure. It was the fourth such annual summer team-up that DC had published, but it was the first such story that I had read; and it was also the first to feature the Spectre. His appearance there gave nary a clue as to who he was, or how he’d come by his awesome powers, but it did de-mystify him a bit by presenting him as one superhero among many, “one of the gang”, so to speak — and, as I just noted, his powers were awesome. By the conclusion of JLA #46, which found the Spectre keeping Earth-One and Earth-Two from colliding with each other by holding them apart with his own body, I was fascinated by the character, and eager to see more of him.
Which brings us at long last to the the purported subject of this blog post — Showcase #64, and the book-length tale contained within its pages — “The Ghost of Ace Chance!”, written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Murphy Anderson. Fox and Anderson had been the creative team for the Spectre’s previous two outings, as well, and Fox had been no stranger to the character before that, having scripted the character’s appearances with the JSA in All-Star Comics.
The story begins by introducing us to the man who’ll eventually become the villain of the tale, a gambler and con man named Ace Chance:
Unfortunately for Ace, not only does the roulette wheel not go his way, but Booth Cody is tired of waiting for his money. As soon as Ace returns to shore, he’s jumped by a couple of Cody’s henchmen. Coincidentally, Police Captain Jim Corrigan also happens to on the waterfront, checking out a tip about a robbery at the marine museum.
(When I originally read this story, of course, my nine-year-old self still had no idea who Corrigan was at this point. The red-headed detective had appeared on the cover, but was unnamed, and the memorable line “Out of my body… you squatter!” didn’t quite manage to get the idea across to my young mind.)
Corrigan hears Chance’s cries for help. He rushes towards a docked ship where the two thugs are preparing to dump the gambler in a tank of liquid gas, but…
(Thankfully, the mysterious forces that control the afterlife immediately garb Chance’s ghost in a scarlet costume, complete with cape and hood, so Anderson won’t have to draw him in street clothes for the remainder of the issue.)
Jim Corrigan arrives too late to keep the unlucky gambler from going into the tank, but makes quick work of his two would-be murderers. And then comes the scene where, in July 1965, I finally did get to learn who Jim Corrigan was — more or less:
(Eventually, over the next year or so, I’d learn the back-story of the Spectre, including the fact that he actually was Jim Corrigan. But, as far as this story went, Corrigan simply appeared to be the Discarnate Detective’s “host body” — and the Spectre and Jim Corrigan seemed to be two entirely different people.)
The Spectre goes into the tank, and enters into the gambler’s frozen body. He discovers that although Chance’s body does still have a little life left in it, his spirit has already departed. Unfortunately, the Spectre’s actions have unintended consequences for the red-garbed shade — for while the superhero’s efforts are successful in calling Chance’s spirit back from its journey into the hereafter, the returned ghost is unable to re-possess his mortal shape due to the Spectre’s residence within:
And, of course, Chance is in luck, because there is a body nearby that’s currently unoccupied by a human spirit:
(Interestingly, apparently everyone on Earth-Two — or at least, everyone living in the Spectre’s home base of Gateway City — knows all about the Ghostly Guardian having a “host body”.)
Having levitated Chance’s body out of the tank, the Spectre makes his exit from it just in time to see Jim drive away. He’s puzzled, but before he can investigate, he has other business to take care of — starting with the two hoodlums who tried to kill Chance earlier:
(The matter-of-fact attitude of the cops suggests that this sort of thing happens all the time in Gateway City. As portrayed by Fox and Anderson, the Spectre comes across as a pretty friendly ghost — to the law-abiding, anyway.)
After dropping off the not-quite-dead-yet body of Chance at the hospital, the Spectre heads back to the waterfront to round up the Marine Museum thieves (the reason Jim Corrigan was there in the first place). As soon as he’s done with that chore, however, he’s called on to prevent an earthquake that’s about to destroy the city. But no sooner has he averted that disaster than another one rears its head:
By the time he’s attacked by a suddenly animated stand of trees, our hero knows that something is terribly wrong. He heads back into the city, hoping to get a quick spectral recharge from Jim’s body, but arrives at the police headquarters only to find the detective turning in his badge:
The Spectre immediately deduces that another spirit has replaced his in Jim’s body — but that’s not all:
(Whooo… spooky eyes for such a friendly ghost!)
Unable to confront his host’s ghostly usurper in his weakened state, the Spectre flies off to get a recharge from the good deeds being done all over the world — because, you see, good deeds emit “good radiation”. (In DC comics of the mid-Sixties, everything was about radiation — even magic.)
(And, yes, an American soldier fighting in Viet Nam is presented as an example of pure, unambiguous “good”, without nuance or irony.)
Meanwhile — though the ghost of Ace Chance has drawn on the evil energies of the whole world to bolster himself against the Spectre, he’s still sticking to his original plan to gain wealth and power:
(How does an unemployed police detective manage to even meet the fabulously wealthy Mona Marcy, let alone woo her? Fox doesn’t tell us — and since he also never gives Mona even a single line of dialogue, I guess it doesn’t matter very much.)
Finally fully recharged, the Spectre is ready to take on Ace Chance in the spirit realm, bringing us at last to our cover scene:
As Chance calls on all the evil mystical power he’s amassed, we readers are given a brief tour through the history of the occult (at least as Gardner Fox understood it) which helps highlight some of the differences between DC’s mid-Sixties Spectre feature and its nearest equivalent, Marvel’s Doctor Strange. For, while Stange’s primary scripter Stan Lee was content to come up with authentic-sounding (but wholly imaginary) names like Dormammu and Agamotto for his and artist Steve Ditko‘s magical entities, Fox liked to draw on history and folklore for his material.
We begin our tour on Gold Alley, also known as the Golden Lane, legendarily (but not historically) home to the alchemists of Prague:
The Spectre overcomes the basilisks, of course, and so we move on to “the chapel of Secaire” — the site of “black masses and demon worship in the past!”, according to Fox, and a place where “members of certain secret cults” still congregate to work black magic. (Fox appears to have based this imaginary chapel on the quasi-historical accounts of the Mass of Saint-Sécaire in Gascony, France.)
Again, the Spectre manages to triumph over his foes, despite their use of an “unholy” sistrum, a “ritual lunar sword”, Paracelsus’ trident, and the Ring of Gyges. Next, the ghost of Ace Chance calls upon the might of all the witches and warlocks currently active on Earth:
(My nine-year-old self was well familiar with the traditional visual depiction of witches, but it’s doubtful I had ever even heard of warlocks, let alone imagined what they looked like. Anderson’s conception of a guy with horned headgear and pointy shoulder pieces would be my default mental image for the word “warlock” for years to come.)
The Spectre quenches the flames of evil with “good” rain (seriously), and then it’s off into the cosmic gulf on a solar boat, and the Spectre’s confrontation with the elemental being Soraboru:
(Yes, it’s the terrible dragon Soraboru, whom Fox based on… er… well, actually I have no idea. I’ve had no luck coming up with a mythical or occult figure with a name bearing any resemblance to “Soraboru” — nevertheless, based on Fox’s normal methodology, I think it’s highly unlikely he made the beast up out of whole cloth. Any ideas from you readers out there? If so, please share them in the comments.)
After vanquishing the dragon, the Spectre is finally able to seize Chance’s astral form and drag it back to Earth, and to the hospital bed where its rightful body lies. It seems the con man is finally out of tricks — or is he?
Unfortunately for Ace, the Spectre catches on to his ruse just in time, by means of an observation which could also have been made by the any of the story’s readers who were sufficiently eagle-eyed (a group in which I’m pretty sure my nine-year-old self would not have been included). He removes the illusion from Jim’s body and hauls Chance’s ghost back to the grounds of Mona Marcy’s estate, where the detective’s abandoned form has been replaced by that of Chance:
Ha, ha! Too bad that you were possessed against your will by an evil ghost, Jim! You’ll get no help from your nearly omnipotent partner! Still — there’s nothing that sums up Schwartz, Fox, and Anderson’s approach to the Spectre quite like that last panel, which shows the Astral Avenger leaning back in a comfortable chair, chillaxing with his alter ego in the latter’s apartment.
The Spectre’s three tryout issues of Showcase appear to have sold reasonably well, as the hero would eventually be given his own comic magazine, for the first time in his career — though not right away. The first issue, by the same team of Fox and Anderson, wouldn’t hit the stands for more than a year, in September, 1967. Nevertheless, I’d be there ready and waiting when it finally came out.
In 1966, however, not everyone was certain that the Spectre could sustain an ongoing series, at least not for long. The letters column of Showcase #64 included letters on the character’s two previous tryouts, and while all were generally laudatory of the stories and art, a couple of Julius Schwartz’s regular correspondents were skeptical that entertaining, suspenseful stories could be regularly produced with such a powerful, virtually divine protagonist at their center. One of them was Mike Friedrich — a name which you may remember from our review of Batman #181’s lettercol a few months ago. Friedrich had this to say about Showcase #60:
Needless to say, DC didn’t heed Friedrich’s “nay” vote. And it’s quite likely that the young writer ultimately found himself glad that the Spectre did in fact “go on” — as, with the third issue of the hero’s titular series, the scripting assignment for it would pass from Gardner Fox to one — Mike Friedrich.
But — that’s a post for another day.
My source for this particular factoid concerning the Spectre and Dr. Mid-Nite is an interview with Michael Uslan, in which the long-time comics fan, writer, and film producer provides an amusing anecdote about how the Spectre’s 1965 revival owes something to a very different comic-book spook, namely Casper the Friendly Ghost — a tale well worth checking out. I’m indebted to the 483rd installment of Brian Cronin’s “Comic Book Legends Revealed” at “Comics Should Be Good!” for steering me to this source, as the only other information I’ve been able to locate online is a reference in the “Spectre” article at Wikipedia, which as of this writing cites as its sole source that Amazing Heroes article I quoted from earlier:
… and wouldn’t you know it, that putz Stewart didn’t cite his own source for the information:
… and almost three decades after writing the article, he has no idea where he got the information from in the first place.
(True story, I swear.)