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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
The Spectre ran in More Fun Comics, from #52 (February 1940) to #101 (January-February 1945). During most of this time he was also an active member of the Justice Society of America, appearing in most of the issues of their magazine, All Star Comics, from #1 (Summer 1940) to # 23 (Winter 1944 - 1945).
The Spectre: Introduction (1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Police detective Jim Corrigan is attacked and killed by criminals, but returns from the dead with awesome supernatural powers. The origin of the Spectre. Jim is given his powers by an awesome agent of the good, who he never sees, but only hears. In later tales, Jim refers to this Being as the Voice. One suspects that the Voice is God, but this is never explicitly stated in the stories; the Voice might also be an angel.
This densely written story encompasses many different Siegel themes. It has the "difficulty of getting married" theme: Jim is on the way to his engagement party with socialite Clarice Winston when the terrible events occur. It has the "man pursued by dynamic woman theme": Clarice does not take the difficulties laying down, but vigorously pursues Jim, just like Sally Norris in Spy, and Lois Lane in Superman. She shows the same sleuth hound abilities as Sally Norris, tracking Jim down here at one point. It has the dubious "upper crust woman conquered by virile lower class man" theme: just like the opening stories of Slam Bradley and Radio Squad. This subject goes back to Frank Capra's film It Happened One Night (1934). The dialogue even compares Jim Corrigan to Clark Gable, the lead actor of that picture. Siegel introduces some irony to this subject here, for the first time in his fiction. Jim stops the car to go into his caveman act with Clarice, and both seem to be pleased with his conquering hero routine. But this stopping the car is what allows the bad guys to capture and kill Jim. So Jim pays with his life for a cheap bit of macho flourishing. If he had just gone on to his engagement party, he would still be alive. The story suggests there are some huge costs involved with the macho attitudes of Siegel's heroes.
This apparently linearly plotted story gains resonance from its relationships with other Siegel tales. Virtually every plot development echoes key events in earlier Siegel stories. It also often contains new and different approaches and perspectives on these, too. All of this helps make this tale a riveting reading experience. However, it should not be considered a summation of Siegel's ideas, or the last word on these themes. Many of these ideas were explored more fully, at greater length and depth, in the earlier tales. For example, the theme of the "persistent woman who chases a disappearing, reluctant man" is explored in much more depth in the five part origin story of Spy, "The Balinoff Case" (Detective Comics #1-5, March to July 1937). The comic treatment it receives there are seems more intelligent and profound that than the rather brief treatment it gets here.
The ideology in this tale is full of problematic features, especially its depiction of male-female relationships. The story is full of ambiguities: it partly endorses male chauvinism, and partly undercuts it. But the tale is gripping reading throughout.
There is other ambiguity in its Jim Corrigan-Clarice Winston relationship. Neither Jim nor his partner Wayne Grant can figure out what a lady like Clarice can see in Jim. Partly this just sets up the upper class - lower class duality of the characters. But Clarice is also a genuinely impressive person in many ways. She is indeed beautiful, intelligent and gutsy. She has crossed class lines without condescension to court Jim. She has never done anything offensive or snobbish, either here, or in the rest of the series. She wants to marry Jim, and introduce him into her family circle. Aside from wanting Jim to be well dressed, she is not doing anything to interfere with Jim or his work as a police detective. All of this means that Clarice is behaving far more decently than society ladies typically did in the movies of the period. Nor does Clarice have a wild background, unlike many fictional heiresses of the era. She is described instead as "a real lady".
Jim's appearance also is rich in ambiguity. He wears a tuxedo throughout this tale, suitable for the upper crust engagement party is supposed to attend. Jim is handsome and beautifully dressed here; he would have no problem looking well dressed and fitting in with Clarice's society family. But Jim also looks macho and tough as nails. He seems convincing as a hard-boiled detective. At one point, he subdues a gang of crooks with his fists, and in the dialogue he urges them not to mess up his tuxedo. This gives his appearance an ambiguous quality throughout the whole story. He plays a character with a foot in two different worlds.
Wayne Grant is one of a long line of "partners to the hero" in Siegel's stories. Like Shorty Morgan in the Slam Bradley tales, and Larry Trent in Radio Squad, he is both the detective partner of the hero, and the hero's room mate, as well as being his best friend. Unlike Shorty, Wayne is not a comic character. The tone of the Spectre tales is tragic, not comic, and the relationship is played seriously. Wayne is a good guy, and he is a genuine friend to Jim. So the finale of this tale is all the more painful. After the opening pair of origin stories, Wayne only infrequently appears in the Spectre stories. His most important subsequent reappearance is in "The Ghost of Elmer Watson" (#64, February 1941), where he plays an interesting role in the finale of an otherwise rather minor story. Wayne is a relentlessly working class looking character. Unlike the handsome, well dressed Jim, Wayne could never pass as an upper class person at all. He dresses like a denizen of a pool hall or saloon, around 1910, and would be at home in the comic strip Moon Mullins.
On the splash page, Jim Corrigan is described as a hard-boiled detective. By 1940, this term had been used hundreds of times in mystery pulp magazines: it had been in common use there since the early 1930's. In later Spectre tales, this would soon be changed to "hard-fisted". The term hard-boiled perhaps has connotations that the editors of More Fun Comics, or Siegel himself, did not like. Jim fights more with his fists than with guns, unlike hard-boiled pulp detectives. And while the Spectre's world is full of criminals, there is no sleaze in it, unlike many hard-boiled pulp tales: aside from its violence, More Fun Comics was squeaky clean, like other early comic books.
The Spectre Strikes (1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Jim uses his new powers as the Spectre for the first time. Direct continuation of the tale in the previous issue, "The Spectre: Introduction". It should also be considered as part of the Spectre's origin. The story is not quite as rich in invention as its predecessor, but it is still a vivid story. It too comes to a bitter end, in its depiction of human relationships.
This story shows the Spectre taking justice into his own hands, and killing bad guys. This will be a recurrent part of the series, and an aspect of it I really don't like.
Zor (#55, May 1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. The Spectre meets another spirit called Zor, who has supernatural powers like his own, but who is dedicated to evil. Zor will be a series villain in some of the Spectre tales, reappearing in a weak sequel, "The Return of Zor" (#57, July 1940). The idea of another antagonist with similar powers is a good one, but the Zor tales tend to be fairly weak. Best part of this story: Zor turns out to be another Siegel character who can impersonate anybody. The episode here with the impersonation is inventive.
This story is also the first appearance of one of the Spectre's super-powers: mind reading. Throughout the rest of the series, he will frequently read the minds of crooks who are lying to him, and get the truth. This often occurs near the start of cases. It gives the Spectre the initial clue he needs to start tracking down the bad guys, often revealing the location of their hide out. Siegel often generates irony, contrasting what the crook is saying, with what he is actually thinking.
Terror at Lytell's (1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. A wholesaler runs a protection racket, attacking retailers who refuse to buy from him.
The best part of the story is its depiction of the Spectre's powers. The Spectre grows to a very large size here. Such an image was already present on Baily's cover for the first Spectre tale (#52, February 1940), but in the stories the Spectre had usually grown to double the size of typical humans, or less. Here the Spectre becomes truly gigantic. Even more notably, the Spectre shrinks to a tiny size here, for the first time. The minute Spectre hitches rides in people's pockets, and travels through telephone wires. All of this directly anticipates the Silver Age Atom tales, written by Gardner Fox; the Atom's main super-power is the ability to shrink to a small size. In the Atom stories, the Atom's use of phone lines is called "the telephone trick", and is a major part of the Atom's persona. The whole idea is completely present in this Spectre tale; the 1960's version in the Atom is essentially identical. One difference: the Atom's powers are purely science fictional, whereas the Spectre's are supernatural.
The telephone trick recurs in a number of later Spectre tales. The telephone transportation is often interrupted in these later stories, by having the party on the receiving end hang up. The phrase "telephone trick" does not seem to be used in Siegel's Spectre stories; it seems to be a 1960's invention of Fox.
The Mad Creation of Professor Fenton (#62, December 1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Jim Corrigan encounters Professor Fenton, an archetypally mad scientist, after Jim saves the life of his daughter. This story is campy, but it also has elements of intelligence and consistency. Siegel unveils Fenton's scheme step by the step, and the whole story shows real logic. Siegel fully explores the logical consequences of these ideas in the finale of the tale, the story's most interesting part. This finale is the most science fictional aspect of the tale.
The World Within the Painting (1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Monsters stalk Jim Corrigan's city of Cliffland; they eventually turn out to have come from a fantastic realm within a painting. Imaginative, detailed fantastic story.
It is hard to say whether this story is a fantasy, or a science fiction tale. In many works, such a decision is easy and clear cut; but not here. Siegel does not explain the underlying mechanism or rationale supporting the existence of the painting. It could be a scientific principle; or it could be an act of magic. Or it could be some third kind of support, different from either of these. This makes the story exceptionally ambiguous. As in many early Siegel sf or fantasy tales, one feels one is getting glimpses of a large, complex world, a world full of mysteries and events not yet explored or covered by the tale.
This story has the biggest appearance in it of Jim Corrigan's irascible police boss. It also has some political commentary, with the invading monsters allegorically representing such totalitarian states as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Menace of the Dark Planet (#68, June 1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Beings from another planet kill towns of Earth people to steal their life force. This story is most notable for its vast science fiction background. Not only does Siegel have aliens invading Earth, in later parts of the story he has the Spectre visiting their home planet. The tale also has an outer space finale. Such broad based science fiction was typical of Siegel, but much less typical of Golden Age super-hero stories as a whole.
The science fiction elements here anticipate in general terms those in the Silver Age Green Lantern. Both series feel free to have their hero suddenly travel to other planets, or to wander about in outer space. In both series, the hero has vast powers, which he can use to interface with astronomical scenes and objects on comfortable terms. The Spectre constructs an sf prison for the bad guys at the end of this story, which anticipate those later used in Green Lantern. There is a non-violent feel to the powers of both the Spectre and Green Lantern. Both heroes simply put their ideas into reality, often on a large scale.
The story also continues Siegel's attack on dictators. The evil aliens are run by dictators known as "Leaders" - an obvious reference to Hitler and Stalin. Their whole society is organized on sinister, totalitarian lines. Siegel had depicted similar evil dictators in the far future of Earth in the Slam Bradley story "In Two Billion A. D." (Detective Comics #23, 24, January and February 1939), a tale which is close to this story in tone. In both stories, the hero enters a sinister science fictional society very different from our own. The story gives the effect of only showing part of this society. One feels one is in a complex sf culture, and that the brief visit is only revealing a piece of it. Everything around one is full of surprises, keeping the hero constantly on his toes.
The Strangler (#69, July 1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Various victims are strangled inside locked rooms. This story is a good candidate for the dumbest locked room mystery of all time, or at least the campiest. Its solution is jaw droppingly awful. Siegel had created an intelligent impossible crime story in "The Bank Robbery" (#52, February 1940) , a Radio Squad tale, so he understood the genre. However, this story's solution is not exactly cricket... In both tales, the criminal gives advanced warning of his intentions before each crime, and the rooms are guarded from the outside.
The Reluctant Bridegroom (1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. A young man mysteriously fails to appear before his wedding; the Spectre investigates. This story rings many ingenious plot changes on its central theme. The Spectre shows an ability to impersonate other characters in the tale, a skill he shares with other Siegel Golden Age heroes as Superman and Steve Carson of the Federal Men. Previously, the villain Zor had this impersonation skill. Both the Spectre and Zor use this ability to launch themselves into the middle of romantic relationships.
Weddings are inherently scary, and also difficult to pull off. The story has an undercurrent of human satire and comedy, in all the difficulties its characters have in getting to the altar. Such Siegel Spy stories as "The Nearly-Weds" (Detective Comics #3, May 1937) and XXX also had interrupted weddings. Siegel shows a rich atmosphere in all these tales, evoking subtle emotions through his wedding plots, both comic and romantic.
The Vanishing Menaces (1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. A new volcano suddenly erupts in the Spectre's town of Cliffland.
This story is one of Siegel's best science tales. The series of wild, fantastic events that occur in this tale show considerable imagination. They anticipate the magical feats that would later be performed by Siegel's Mr. Mxyzptlk. Both in this tale and the Mxyzptlk stories, the events have a transformative quality, radically changing the public life of the city. However, the events of the story are not magical or supernatural, despite early suggestions to this effect by characters in the tale. They are eventually given a consistent science fictional explanation. This gives the tale a bit of the structure of a science fiction mystery: find a logical explanation for a series of apparently disconnected events.
The magnitude of the events in the story, and their transformative effect on an American city, also recall Siegel and Shuster's early adventure stories in Federal Men, such as "Attack on Washington" (Adventure Comics #6,7, July and August 1936).
Siegel and Shuster lived in Cleveland, Ohio; the early Superman tales were set there, as well as Slam Bradley. Cliffland seems like a thinly fictionalized version of Cleveland.
Introducing Percival Popp the Super-Cop (1941). Writer: ?. Art: Bernard Baily. A would be detective, Percival Popp, starts trailing Jim Corrigan, hoping to be his partner in solving crimes. This tale is the origin of Percival Popp, a comic sidekick to Jim Corrigan. Percival Popp resembles Slam Bradley's partner Shorty Morgan in several ways. Both began as amateur sleuths who tagged along with the heroes of the tales in hopes to be detectives. Both were initially rejected by the hero, who found them deeply annoying. Both men provided humorous comedy relief in the stories. But both were also highly intelligent men who added a lot of brain power to the team's detective work. Both frequently saved the life of the hero. Both men were comically ugly, in contrast to the handsome hero of the stories. The persistence of these characters also recalls such Siegel women sidekicks as Lois Lane and Sally Norris of Spy.
This tale has a good finale, in outer space. The whole preceding story was a non-supernatural, Earth bound detective story; the ability of the story to suddenly switch gears at this point is a tribute to the freewheeling adventurousness of the Spectre tales. The finale is idealistic and moving.
Jim Corrigan Lives Again (1942). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Bernard Baily. Jim Corrigan is finally brought back to life, and gets to experience the joy of life as a living human being again. This tale directly builds on, and resolves, Jim Corrigan's situation in the first Spectre tale, "The Spectre: Introduction" (1940). Both stories involve a form of resurrection: in "The Spectre: Introduction" Jim comes back to Earth as a spirit after his death, and in this tale he comes back to full life as a human being. Siegel heroes frequently underwent resurrection: his Dr. Occult character had died and been brought back to life by a mad scientist in "The Lord of Life", in More Fun Comics #20 (May 1937) through #23 (August 1937), and Shorty Morgan had undergone a similar experience in the future in the Slam Bradley tale "In Two Billion A. D." (Detective Comics #23, 24, January and February 1939).
This tale also resolves Jim's long standing problem of not being able to marry Clarice, because he was dead. Romance elements were clearly important to Siegel, and they appear in many of his best Golden Age tales.