As I’ve related previously on this blog, I first made the acquaintance of DC Comics’ Ghostly Guardian, the Spectre, in the pages of Justice League of America #46 (August, 1966), the first chapter of that year’s annual Justice League-Justice Society team-up. From there, I followed the character into his third solo tryout appearance in Showcase #64 — and by the time I finished reading that issue, I was a dedicated fan of the character (which I remain to this day, just so you know). After that, I picked up his next two appearances, in JLA #47 (naturally) and, some months later, Brave and the Bold #72, where he teamed up with the Flash. And when — almost two years after his first Showcase appearance, and more than a year after his last one — DC finally released the first issue of the Spectre in his own title, I happily put down my twelve cents for that book, as well.
Like his three Showcase tryouts, Spectre #1 was scripted by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Murphy Anderson. Also like them, it featured police detective Jim Corrigan’s ghostly other self in conflict with a similarly astral adversary — in this case, the wicked spirit of a long-dead pirate named Captain Skull. As I recall, my then nine-year-old self enjoyed the issue every bit as much as I’d enjoyed Showcase #64. I have little doubt that I would have gone on to purchase Spectre #2 — if I’d ever seen it in a spinner rack, that is.
Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I didn’t have a reliable means for getting to my local comics-selling emporia on any regular basis in 1967. I was dependent on my parents driving me to one of the three stores where I bought my books, and I had no guarantee of getting to any of them in any given week. For that reason, Spectre #2 may well have come and gone on the stands without my ever having the chance to see it. It’s also possible that, with the vagaries of comics distribution being what they were at the time, the book just didn’t make it to the racks in my home town of Jackson, MS, at least not in quantities sufficient for me to score a copy. I have no way of knowing which of these reasons is true, but whatever the case, the next issue of Spectre that I laid eyes on was the subject of today’s post: issue number three.
And upon picking up and perusing this issue, my (by now) ten-year-old self discovered that things had changed — a lot. Both Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson had departed, leaving the Spectre’s adventures to be chronicled by a couple of storytellers much less familiar to me — writer Mike Friedrich, and artist Neal Adams.
Mike Friedrich was in fact known to me at this time only as a fellow comics reader — a fan who’d had a goodly number of letters published in editor Julius Schwartz’s books, including a couple of examples we’ve looked at the past — in Batman #181 and Showcase #64, to be precise. In the latter missive, Friedrich had praised the quality of the Spectre’s initial Showcase outing in issue #60, but had argued (pretty ironically, as things turned out) against DC giving the Astral Avenger his own title, on the grounds that the hero was simply too powerful for there to be any suspense in his adventures. Since that letter had appeared, however, the eighteen-year-old Friedrich had managed to convince Schwartz to publish not only his letters, but his stories. His first sale was a Robin tale that would eventually appear in Batman #202 (June, 1968). Bought a bit later, but actually published a couple of months earlier, was the story in Spectre #3, “Menace of the Mystic Mastermind” — a story in which, whether at Schwartz’s request or by his own volition, he’d be challenged to prove his own letter of over a year earlier wrong.
Neal Adams was also a newcomer (to DC, anyway), though not quite as brand new as Friedrich. I’d already seen his work on a number of covers, including Brave and the Bold #76, as well as in one story, an Elongated Man backup tale in Detective Comics #369 — and I’d enjoyed it, without it really making a strong impression on me, either positive or negative. Still, I wasn’t entirely prepared for the “shock of the new” that greeted me on the splash page of Spectre #3 (actually Adams’ second issue of the book, though it was his first as far as my ten-year-old self was concerned):
I’m not sure that I can say that the two bizarre entities depicted by Adams on this page were the strangest looking aliens I’d yet seen in comics — but due to the artist’s detailed rendering style, they were probably the most “real”, and thus the eeriest. The effect was made even more unsettling by the figures’ placement in a cosmos I would likely have found reminiscent of the extradimensional environments in Steve Ditko’s “Doctor Strange” stories had I seen any of those yet — but given additional, un-Ditko-like texture by Adams’ liberal application of screentones.
On the next page, the story segues from the “mystic domain” of the story’s opening scene to the equally fictional, but much more familiar contemporary urban setting of “Knickerbocker City” (which, going by the name, ought to be some kind of analogue for New York City — but since DC’s Earth-Two, where the Spectre series is set, already has such an analogue in Gotham City, I don’t know what to tell you).
With that, we’re done with the Prologue, and, as Friedrich’s last caption notes, ready for the story to “begin” on the next page following the ads, which brings onto the stage our hero… WILDCAT!
Obviously, I already knew from the cover that Wildcat (with whom I’d first became acquainted in the 1966 JLA-JSA team-up that also introduced me to the Spectre) was featured in this story — and from his prominence on the cover, not to mention his being mentioned first in the caption in the last panel on page 2 that introduces the heroes, I could reasonably surmise that he would play a very important role in the story. Still, I’m sure I was startled when I turned to page 3 and saw that he’d even been given his own marquee-type logo — as though he, and not the Spectre, was the star of the book.
Regardless of his marquee status, however, as we readers first encounter Wildcat, the veteran hero is finding himself having trouble subduing a couple of common thugs — though, luckily for him, Knickerbocker City’s finest arrive on the scene in time to save him from being completely humiliated. We then follow the hero home, to meet the man behind the mask:
Neither the 1966 Justice League-Justice Society team-up, nor the 1967 one that ran in JLA #55 and #56 (in which Wildcat appeared as well), had given me much to go on regarding this revived Golden Age hero besides his surface similarities to Batman (i.e., no actual powers, superior fighting skills, pointy-eared blue cowl), so this was my ten-year-old self’s introduction to his secret identity of Ted Grant, former prizefighter. I’m pretty sure that it was also my introduction to the notion that the Justice Society heroes, all of whose careers had begun in the late Thirties and Forties, were getting on up there in years, and could reasonably be expected to start slowing down as the end of the Sixties approached. This was a theme that would grow more and more significant in how DC handled the Earth-Two characters as the years went on (and that would continue to be an issue affecting their use, or disuse, to this very day, in fact) — but in 1968, it hardly seemed to be on the radar of editor Schwartz (DC’s primary manager of the whole “multiple earths” concept), or any of the other creators in Schwartz’s stable besides Friedrich. Beyond a few early reference to the JSA having “gone into retirement” around the time DC had originally stopped publishing their adventures, and the gray in the Earth-Two Flash’s temples, the elder heroes’ age was a non-issue. It’s probably unsurprising, but still worth noting, I think, that it took a new writer under the age of twenty to pick up on something that Schwartz and DC’s other veteran talents — most of whom were of the same generation as the Justice Society guys and gals, after all — had thus far ignored.
Though he’s hardly been at home more than a few minutes, Ted finds himself growing anxious at the thought that his best years may be behind him, and decides to hit the streets again:
Ted’s spirits are lifted when he’s quickly able to take down the first two museum thieves, but then he encounters their accomplice — “Sad” Jack Dold, the unwitting recipient of mysterious extradimensional energies, as we saw in the Prologue:
Leaving Wildcat unconscious, “Sad” Jack retrieves his two confederates, and the three of them retreat to their hideout with their loot. There, Jack attempts to demonstrate to his skeptical fellows how he was able to floor the costumed crimefighter with a single punch:
Jack has no idea how he’s doing what he’s doing, but both he and his fellow hoods figure they can use his newfound power to pull off some big jobs — starting with the million-dollar gate at the heavyweight championship fight being held at Knickerbocker Stadium the following night. Of course, when the crooks show up at the venue, they have no idea that Wildcat is on the premises as well, in the guise of Ted Grant — whom we see reluctantly making a special celebrity appearance just before the match starts, after which he attempts to slip quietly away:
(That’s George Bellows, by the way, just in case that last caption had you wondering.)
Per Jack’s instructions, Al starts calling the “match” between Jack and Wildcat — though, of course, it’s hardly a fair fight:
Thirteen pages in on a 24-page story, and our titular star has yet to put in an appearance — but, as Friedrich’s last caption assures us, “Life continues on the next page”…
And here he is at last, making his belated entrance on page 14 — and, thanks largely to Adams’ use of a “negative image” technique, it’s almost certainly the most dramatic and visually arresting entrance made by the character since his 1965 revival.
I can recall being knocked out by this page back in 1968 — not only because of the power of the image, but because the idea of holding off on what appeared to be the “official” splash page of a book until the story was more than half-over was unheard of (at least to me) at this time. And the fact that we’d already had an “unofficial” splash on page 3, with a title-ish blurb (“Hang ‘Em Up, Wildcat — You’re Finished!”) and character logo (for Wildcat), gave Spectre #3 the feel of a “split” book, with separate features for the two superheroes.
As you can imagine, even after Jack’s power releases Harry and Al, they’re no match for the Spectre, who takes care of them handily within a few panels.
Both Friedrich and Adams are obviously invested in playing up the “human interest” angle of their story, and their interests and talents complement each other very well in this scene. The posture and facial expression of the Spectre in the first panel of page 18 (shown above) does a great deal to humanize our Discarnate Detective — even if he’s never going to be as down-to-Earth as the other ghostly hero whose strange adventures Adams was illustrating at the same time he was working on Spectre.
We don’t immediately learn what suggestion the Spectre makes to his old comrade, as the story now returns to the formerly “Sad”, now “Happy” Jack Dold, who’s hopped a plane back to his old, loathed home town of Gateway City (which he doesn’t realize is also the Spectre’s home base. Oops.). Jack is determined to “get revenge on this stinkin’ town”, and in a big way:
Dold is able to shunt the blast off into space before it can hurt him, and the Spectre turns to the tack of defeating his enemy by drawing the alien mystical energy out of his brain. But to accomplish that, he first has to make Jack use his power, so he scoops up a mess o’ water from the Mississippi River (Gateway City = St. Louis, MO, basically) and hurls it at the felon:
And that’s that for this issue’s mystical menace. No, the Spectre didn’t have much difficulty defeating him (the entire battle sequence lasts a mere four pages), which would seem to support Friedrich-the-letterhack’s contention that “Nobody can beat a perfect hero… No one can even come close”. But the superhuman conflict between the Spectre and Jack Dold hasn’t been the main focus of the story for Friedrich-the-pro-writer, anyway– rather, it’s been the all-too-human plight of the aging Ted Grant, as the story’s Epilogue amply demonstrates:
The Spectre would indeed return in the next issue, as promised in the final caption, though Mike Friedrich wouldn’t. He’d be off scripting stories for other DC titles, including Batman, Green Lantern, and many more (though he would return to the Astral Avenger for one more tale, in Spectre #8). Within a few years, he’d begin a run on Justice League of America that remains my favorite of his written work. Eventually, as the Seventies wore on, Friedrich would jump from DC to Marvel, and then from there to independent publishing with the launch of Star*Reach, which will probably stand as his most lasting contribution to the field.
Meanwhile, back in 1968, the next two issues of Spectre would be written by none other than Neal Adams, as well as pencilled and inked by him. After that, Adams, too, would be off to bigger and (arguably) better things. But in January of ’68, of course, all of that lay in the future. What, at that time, did my ten-year-old self make of my first full-length exposure to the art of soon-to-be-superstar Neal Adams? Well… while I’d like to tell you that I immediately recognized the excellence of Adams’ work, and instantly became a lifelong fan, the fact is that I missed Murphy Anderson. I loved the older artist’s slick, pristine version of the Spectre, which had defined the character for me. It’s not that I disliked Adams’ art, in general, or even his take on the Ghostly Guardian, in particular– but as a young reader, I was pretty attached to what I found familiar. Nevertheless, Neal Adams would grow on me, and quickly — so that by the time one of the most important books in his career appeared on the stands, just five months after the publication of Spectre #3 — I was, indeed, a fan.
But — that’s a post for another day. Check back with me around the middle of June, why don’t you?