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coverWrath of the Spectre 2005 (SC TPB) 200 pages

Written by Michael Fleisher, with Russell Carly. Art by Jim Aparo, in collaboration with Ernie Chua, Frank Thorne, Mike DeCarlo.
Colours/Letters: various. Editors: Joe Orlando.

Reprinting: Adventure Comics #431-440, Wrath of the Spectre #4

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: various

Published by DC Comics

In the mid-1970s, DC's perennial spook hero -- the Spectre -- was revived once again in the pages of Adventure Comics (from #431-440). An earlier, 1960s revival had presented him more as a cosmic super hero, battling otherworldly beings, often with his fists. As such, this interpretation of the character may've come as a bit of a shock to readers, supposedly returning him to his 1940s roots as a grim, Wrath of God avenger. Taking advantage of newly revamped Comics Code guidelines that gave birth to a slew of horror-themed series, The Spectre now tackled sadistic, homicidal villains whom he dispatched with his almost limitless powers in various grisly ways (pushing the boundaries of what the Comics Code Authority would permit) and actually achieved a certain notoriety because of that. When the series was cancelled prematurely, writer Michael Fleisher had already written three more scripts. A decade and some later, DC reprinted the entirety of the Michael Fleisher-Jim Aparo Spectre stories in four, 48 page issues in the prestige format mini-series, Wrath of the Spectre -- prior to the rise of TPB collections, deluxe format comics were often the venue of choice for "classic" reprints. And the fourth and final issue even presented, for the first time, those three unused -- "lost" -- scripts, newly drawn by Aparo. And then in 2005, all of those were published, yet again, in this TPB collection

I only had read one of the Adventure Comics issues from back then (#434), but I always liked it for its grim, spooky ambience. Strikingly illustrated by the unusual, moody combo of Frank Thorne and Jim Aparo. And it was an effectively dark story of supernatural shenanigans involving murderous mannequins coming to life, building to the villain's suitably ironic demise at the Spectre's instigation.

Years later I managed to track down most of the other stories. And you know what? For the most part, they just aren't that good.

The 1988 Wrath of Spectre mini-series included editorials extolling the brilliance, the "sophistication", of the series, and hammering home the theme that it was the protests from comics folks (fans and pros alike) that did it in. And yet, no one can point to any proof that the series' premature cancellation wasn't due to the official reason -- slumping sales. To his credit, at least scripter Michael Fleisher seems to accept that explanation. Reading these issues again, one can easily imagine that, after the initial novelty wore off, the audience lost interest.

To be fair, the Spectre often shared the comic with a back up feature, meaning the Spectre stories were often a meagre 10 or 12 pages ("The Nightmare Dummies and...the Spectre", the one that I liked, was the full 18 pages). And when viewed as EC-style horror stories, as opposed to super hero adventures, I can view them slightly more kindly. But the fact of the matter is, these weren't great literature. Basically the stories were some nasty, sadistic villain (often with little if any motive) would kill some people, The Spectre's alter ego of cop Jim Corrigan would be called in to investigate; he would promptly switch to the Spectre and track down and dispatch the villain with alacrity -- given that he's a ghost with God-like powers, it's not like there was any suspense or obstacles for him to overcome. One can't even say he killed the villains in an ironic way that suited their crimes (the traditional notion behind stories of villains meeting their just desserts). Case in point, a villain's henchmen rob an auto show, killing spectators with poison the Spectre kills him by having a sea monster attack him. Uh....what? What's ironic about that? Irony is, I dunno, villain robs auto show, then is run over by a car while trying to escape. Or since the murder weapon was gas, maybe he is suffocated to death.

The reason the one about the mannequins worked reasonably well was because, A, Corrigan actually had to investigate, B, the villain was using supernatural powers so we could at least imagine he was a worthy foe and, C, his end was, at least nominally, ironic.

So if the stories were simplistic, and the endings rather arbitrary, that only left characterization. To be fair, Fleisher tried a little, throwing in an on again/off again romance with Gwen Sterling, and suggesting Corrigan was bitter over not being granted eternal rest. But, really, I can't say the characters were well defined or interesting, nor do I think they were intended to be. It's pretty obvious the main point was to tell gruesome stories of villains being killed by the Spectre.

Ironically, the "lost" stories published for the first time in 1988 are actually a little stronger. There's a two-parter that actually has a plot that moves away from the EC rut. Throughout these issues, Fleisher had threaded a subplot about a reporter investigating the Spectre, though no one believed that the Spectre existed. It might seem heretical to modern readers, but at the time DC published comics like this where it was unclear whether it was supposed to be set in the proper "DC Universe" -- there are no references to other super heroes, and the notion of a supernatural avenger is treated by other characters as though unbelievable. Anyway, what Fleisher's intent was with the reporter is unclear. The reporter character -- being a Liberal, critical of the Spectre's brutality -- threatened to add an extra level of philosophical discourse to the proceedings...but since no one working on the comic seemed to have any objections to the Spectre's methods, I'm not sure that was the intention. Anyway, in this two-parter, the reporter takes centre stage and, by focusing neither on a one-dimensional villain, nor the Spectre/Corrigan, we actually have a protagonist we can be interested in (perhaps other stories should've done the same, treating the Spectre more as an enigmatic background character in his own series). The reporter is wrongly accused of one of the Spectre's murders, needing to prove his innocence, resulting in a story that is a little more unexpected than the rest. The final story is more like the Mannequin story I mentioned, in that the foe is supernatural, and there's a (bit) of a mystery. It's still not great, but it's O.K. The gruesomeness is also less pronounced, as if Fleisher was starting to reign himself in (though, ironically, Aparo's wrap around cover for the 1988 comic is particularly bloody).

Of course, the Spectre was intended to be on going, so it's not like these final stories resolve anything with the reporter, or Gwen, or anything.

The art varies throughout. Aparo is involved all the way, but sometimes paired with others (whether they're inking him, or he's inking them, isn't always clear). The final "new" stories have Aparo inked by his frequent late 1980s collaborator, Mike DeCarlo -- who, with his solid line work, might not the best choice for a spooky horror comic. Still, throughout the art is decent enough (though none matched the Aparo-Thorne collaboration on the Mannequin story).

In the end, these Spectre stories don't really justify the acclaim -- regardless of whether they were as controversial as they are claimed to be. Though one might wonder whether they influenced the later Crow series.

This review is based on the stories as they appeared in Adventure Comics and 1988's Wrath of the Spectre.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.99 USA

cover by Bob LaytonX-O Manowar: Retribution 1993 (SC TPB) 108 pages

Written by Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, Bob Layton. Pencils Barry Windsor-Smith, Sal Velluto, Mike Manely. Inks by various.
Colours: Jorge Gonzalez, Paul Autio, etc. Letters: Jade Moede, Ken Lopez. Editors: Jim Shooter, Don Perlin.

Reprinting: X-O: Manowar #1-4 (1992)

Additional notes: intro by Bob Layton; covers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Valiant Comics

When new comicbook companies start up, they're often quick to create "new" characters that are suspiciously reminiscent of existing ones owned by the two main companies -- Marvel and DC. In his introduction, co-creator Bob Layton makes no bones about the fact that X-O Manowar -- a series about an industrialist with a super-powered suit of armour -- owes a lot to Marvel's Iron Man (a character Layton had a long association with as an inker and co-plotter with writer David Michelinie). But before the character seems too much like just a pale retread, there's an added quirk in that the "industrialist" is actually a dim-witted, time lost barbarian who maybe can be likened to another Marvel character, the myth-inspired Hercules (for whom Layton wrote and drew a couple of mini-series).

The story begins with a two-part tale, showing Aric escape from his suspended animation captivity where he has been a prisoner of humanoid-like Spider Aliens covertly seeking to subjugate earth. He gets ahold of the aliens' own super-powered X-O Manowar class battle suit and finds himself on modern earth...completely befuddled by the world around him. A running battle with the spiders ensues, the end of which leaves Aric, and a contemporary human sidekick, the defacto owners of the spiders' multinational conglomerate with which they had hoped to subjugate the earth. The next two issues more fully establish the premise and the relationships, and further integrate Aric into the "Valiant Universe" as he crosses paths with the Harada Corporation, and ends up tussling with the super-powered Harbinger kids (stars of their own comic).

Often with TPB collections I can find myself starting out enjoying the book, but finding my interest waning as the pages flip by. Here, my reaction was quite the opposite.

The opening story is certainly O.K., but it's not really till we get past the premise-establishing spider stuff that the series really starts to establish itself. Overall, there's a briskness to the pacing, an easiness to the dialogue, that keeps you flipping the pages. The humour of the barbarian trying to make sense of the modern world -- nicely captured by Aric's voice over narration, allowing us to view his perceptions (and mis-perceptions) -- is effective. And the character dynamics between Aric and his more canny sidekick work well.

The (early) Valiant line seemed intended to be the flip-side to Image Comics' Big Panels/Big Muscles/Few Words style. Oh, stories like these are chock full of mindless action, but inbetween there's a lot of writing, a lot of story and character and dialogue and, yes, even smarts. Valiant seemed a writer driven company in contrast to Image's artist driven company. As such, the art is often unspectacular, even with fan favourite Barry Windsor-Smith drawing the first issue. But it's good art nonetheless...telling the story, serving the action. There is a clarity to the pictures, a readability to the panels, that's undeniable.

There's an aspect of nihilism to the series that can be a bit off-putting. Aric is, after all, a barbarian. And though he can be well meaning and heroic, he also views the world very much with a might-makes-right philosophy. But this can be tempered a bit with the addition of sidekick Ken -- not that Ken doesn't have his own moral grey areas. And Aric's world view is also used for humour -- we aren't necessarily expected to condone his views. In one sequence Ken, his newfound friend, is kidnapped by the spiders as bait to lure Aric to them...with no one realizing that the pragmatic Aric has phlegmatically written Ken off and has no intention of trying to rescue him. He only rescues him accidentally.

There are some interesting aspects to the series throughout, like having Ken be gay -- albeit it's only mentioned in the first issue.

Read years after the Valiant line has folded, this collection of early issues holds together well enough on its own. Sure, there are things that are only vaguely explained (like the Harbinger kids) and other aspects that are clearly laying the groundwork for future stories, but there's nothing blatantly to be continued about it. Quirky, well-paced, with sturdy art and decent writing throughout, there's nothing earth shattering hero, but once you get into it, it's an enjoyable romp.

Reading some of these old Valiant TPBs (including Magnus: Invasion) one is a little curious about the behind-the-scenes struggles. Former Marvel headman, Jim Shooter, was one of the founders of Valiant and is both editor and co-writer of most of these issues. By the time of this TPB, though, Shooter had been booted from his own company and there almost seems to be a rewriting of history at work. Though Shooter is still credited in the credits, in Layton's introduction he credits co-scripter Englehart, and the various artists, inkers, and bullpen team -- and, of course, himself -- yet makes no reference to Shooter. Now maybe Shooter was seen as a credit-hogger and Layton didn't feel he deserved the credit he got...or maybe as part of the regime change it was policy to diminish Shooter's early contributions. It seems a tad...odd, whatever the reason.

The TPB was originally sold bagged, with the addition of a thin comic called X-0 Database, giving you the up-to-date skinny on the suit, and the characters (since the TPB was released a couple of years after these issues were first published). Years later, with the comic long since cancelled, the Database is hardly essential reading and if you find the TPB without it, it's not important.

Cover price: $12.95 CDN./ $9.95 USA

Zorro: The Dailies: The First Year
is reviewed here

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