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If you're starting out as a comic fan, you may not have heard of the Spectre. That's ok. As is repeatedly mentioned at the start of his issues:
No one knows that Jim Corrigan, hard-fisted detective, is in reality the earthbound SPECTRE, whose mission is to rid this world of crime. . . . .
So you're forgiven. The DCU has its share of iconic characters and it also has plenty of whats-his-names and also-rans who are generally unknown even to DC comic fans. There's a third category, though, of characters who might be considered cult classics – they're too strange or quirky to ever enjoy the kind of mainstream fame of the likes of Batman (yes, too strange compared to the guy dressed like a bat), but historians love them and the dedicated fans (including those who actually work in the industry) know how important they are to the ongoing mythology.
The Spectre is one of these heroes and this Archive collection is a testament to that. At its most basic level, it stands as a published reminder of the long life of the character. He was created by Jerry Siegel – yes, Superman's Siegel – early on in the Golden Age to fill an increasing demand for stranger heroes with fantastic powers. And powers he had! They were not explicitly stated, but as an otherworldly being he flew, became invisible, changed matter and influenced events at will. He was going through phone lines years before The Atom!
While the Spectre has never had an ongoing that reached startling heights of popularity, he's been a part of the DC Universe ever since his premier. He was quite possibly the most powerful member of its cast of characters! At least, the most powerful individual that started out as a human being. While this may not be true all through the DC timeline, at this point, here at the very start of the publication history, he was something special – the very first dead super hero.
The stories here, like most Golden Age stories, follow the general format you'd expect. They mostly deal with heists and murders, crooks and thieves. When they don't, there is still usually a clear definition of evil. The Spectre is the spirit of justice and vengeance, and his actions are those of a force of good. However, there is one big thing worth noting – he killed, and often in quite a grisly fashion. If his actions were illustrated in today's graphic styles, the blood and gore would be pretty startling. He seemingly rips the skin off people at least once.
However, the illustration style (by Bernard Baily, himself already pretty experienced in the industry) keeps it feeling light weight. I'm sure it was startling and titillating to the young 40s audience it was aimed at, but we've become a bit more jaded. Baily's work is worth talking about a bit more. You can tell that comics as we knew them were still finding their feet. Proportions and musculature are sometimes very off, and it's often hard to tell what the actual action is while inspecting a panel. However, his expressions are usually excellent and full of vigor – while not technically correct anatomically, they're probably more enjoyable this way. I really got into it as I read.
The writing style is similar to Siegel's work on Superman – lots of explanation for the build up and a healthy amount of "But Then…!" before a wordless action panel. To those entirely unacquainted with the Golden Age, it might seem a little stiff, but once you get into it, this book flows rather well. I found myself reading in my head as if the text was the script of an old radio drama. If you use that announcer voice, it might be easier to understand the context of the writing style. It's easy to see how there was so much interbreeding between the comic stories of the time and pulp radio.
Some of the stories, though, surprised me in their weirdness. Not in the format of set up/confusion-who-dun-it/starter-brawl/find-the-mastermind/final-epic-brawl kind of plot structure, but in the actual ideas presented within it. The Spectre investigates other worldly invaders from within paintings, plants bred to kill, and all kinds of spirits. I couldn't help feeling that his adventures are ripe for a modern revisit, much like the Golden Age Sandman or the current Madame Xanadu ongoing. Along with Dr. Fate, probably, the Spectre's Golden Age stories could be considered a very early precursor of the Vertigo Universe.
The format of the book is worth commenting on. This is the first DC Archive I've read all the way through. I was impressed with some things and concerned about others. First of all, the binding and construction is excellent – it feels solid and durable like any "archive" should. I've always had a bit of an odd thing against slip covers, but the book looks good with it on or off. The issues are included with full covers (even though many of them feature Dr. Fate more than our Spectre), a detailed table of contents, and an excellent introduction by Jerry Bails.
The reprints are in full vibrant color on high quality paper stock. This sounds great (and feels great in your hands) but actually has some small downsides. The coloring and linework has all had significant work done to it (in fact, the coloring is all entirely new!) This makes it pop and easy to read, but the linework sometimes seems like it was cleaned up a little too much – seeming thin in areas and overly sharpened in others. I do a lot of work digitally myself, so I may notice this more than most readers, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
The coloring, in particular, was something I kept coming back to as I read through. When there are flat colors, it is generally ok – it might be a little too vibrant to me because I'm used to old comics having that nostalgia inducing fade, but maybe that was how they looked when they were fresh off the presses. However, the gradient effects or shading is terrible! It looks like the colorist just set his brush on 80% softness and made a couple quick lines. It looks extremely digital, and often kind of amateurish as well. I can't help feeling like it must have looked a lot different in the original publications. I really wish I could see that!
I wish there was a little feature in the back showing an original page next to the restored one – if I at least satisfied my curiosity, it might be easier to deal with the way it was done, but since I can't easily find pictures of Golden Age Spectre material, I can't help feeling that the original coloring job fit the work much better. My imagination just kicks in.
Take a look at these two pictures I'm including – see the way the orange lines are clustered in the background of the first one? Or how the green lines are kind of haphazardly plopped across the second? If this was a webcomic or a community effort I might forgive it, but considering the high price tag and production values of the rest of the book, the coloring job seems pretty sloppy. I'm nitpicking here, but it took me out of the reading experience more than a few times so it's worth noting.
Good! I think that if you're interested in the Golden Age or the mystical side of the DCU, you should give it a shot. I paid 35 for it, making it one of the more expensive comic collections I own. However, I'm a pretty big Spectre fan, so I'm not sure if everyone will find it worth that price. It was originally more expensive. You may be able to find it for around 25 dollars, which I'd consider a steal.
Not really – like most Golden Age collections, a lot of the material isn't really essential for understanding ongoings, though it is fun to know the roots of your favorite characters. The fact that Spectre came into existence IS important. But you don't need to read this book in particular to understand that.
What Should You Read First:
This book serves as a pretty good introduction to the Golden Age, but you might enjoy reading some Golden Age Superman or Batman first.
What Should You Read Next:
The Spectre shows up next in the All Star volumes, so if you want more of his early action, try there. You may also be interested in Madame Xanadu Vol. 1, which retells some of this period. In addition, any of the main Spectre books on his reading order should be good. The Wrath Of The Spectre trade from the 70s is of particular note for Pre-Crisis goodness. Finally, I feel like I should mention Deadman, another dead super hero that I've got a spot for in my heart.
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