Comics

The Ghost of Spectres Past

On the cusp of “Convergence”, which ties together all DC comics ever published, have Fawkes and Templesmith finally found the character’s quintessential magic?

Act One: The Wake Up Call

It’s maybe the best moment of Constantine thus far, and the full emotional weight can be read off Angélica Celaya’s almost theatrical look of simultaneous fear and relief, and intense sorrow.

The moment comes right at the end of the episode “Danse Vaudou”. Right when Celaya’s character, Zed Martin, realizes that whatever dragged her and the titular Constantine to Louisiana is far from done. The trio came here, Zed, Constantine and the stalwart Chas in tow, to mount a rescue of sorts of the intrepid and world-wearied Jim Corrigan, played with equal theatrical resolve by Emmett Scanlan.

As with every Constantine episode thus far, Constantine and crew fathom some strange supernatural goings-on that connect with the broader continuity arc of Hell pushing into the mortal world, when it shouldn’t be. In this episode these particular goings-on seem to center on a resurrection spell gone awry. So all Constantine and crew need do is right the resurrection to ensure Zed’s vision be averted. And her vision? A horrible death for Jim Corrigan, and the pain and suffering that follow on from that.

And by the deus ex mechanics of TV Land storytelling, Constantine and crew achieve exactly that, the righting of the original resurrection spell. And right at the end of the episode, we’re standing on the cusp of the happy ending, or at least, as happy an ending as a demon hunting, occult mastering wise act like Constantine can carve out. We’re just waiting for the central cast to smile. But that’s when the look comes.

And that look that Celaya gives really is something. Draw a breath and take a moment, something. The danger hasn’t passed, Zed intuits psychically through her final vision for the episode. In fact, the horror is just beginning, and if anything this little sojourn into the supernatural courtesy of Zed and of Constantine has done nothing but cement Corrigan on the path to whatever horrible destiny is waiting for him in the wings.

Ironically, it’s Scanlan’s Jim Corrigan, world-wearied and disheveled, who smiles. And who keeps smiling right through whatever terrible energies Zed’s final psychic vision hints at. In that terrible moment of recognition, of primal dramatic irony, your mind’s cast back to what you know about this incarnation of Jim Corrigan. That he’s a Man of Louisiana, that he seems to epitomize New Orleans after Katrina, that there’s a weariness to him, but you’re equally likely to find him “marching in the second line,” as Dave Grohl tells us he can do in “In the Clear” on the new Foo Fighters album.

All in all, it’s probably the most singular moment of the entire season thus far, probably the most iconic. It is beautifully layered. There’s what Jim Corrigan knows, that the dangers of the hauntings are past, a knowledge sealed with a smile. There’s what Zed knows, that some dark and terrible something awaits Jim Corrigan. And there’s what we know, that Detective Jim Corrigan, very soon, will be given over to the implacable, unyielding vengeful magicks of the Spectre.

How good was that scene? So good it turned you back into that kid who, just having turned eight, listened to Bryan Adams’s “Summer of 69” in an absolutely non-ironic way. And appreciate that song in a way that allowed you to express a hope—that soon, your own life might take exactly the kind of turns Adams sings about. You see a scene like that, you get a wake up call. For me, it’s the call that comes with “Where have the years gone? How’d I let them slip away?” I get an almost existential pang when I realize that I still haven’t kept a promise I made to my eight-year-old self, that I’d collect all the issues of The Spectre.

The Past Can Haunt Us Still

Back then on the cusp of the final decade of the 20th Century, it seemed like a simple promise for an eight-year-old to keep. Until two things; until I realized that Mom’s mean it when they say, you won’t buy a book with a title like The Wrath of the Spectre, and until I figured out that this series of the Spectre was Volume Two, and that this wouldn’t be the final volume.

Years gone by now and I look at my collection of issues of The Spectre, across its various volumes, with all the sense of purpose of Jimmy Nail’s “Big River” or maybe The Boss’s “Thunder Road” building. All I can see are the gaps. The middle issues of the second volume, right around Corrigan’s second death. Some issues during “The Haunting of America” arc from the third volume, the one written by Tom Mandrake, the same volume now sporadically being rereleased by Spectre publisher DC. Most of the fourth volume, but strangely that’s the one I’m most OK with. Because, to be honest, it’s pretty much J.M. DeMatteis reworking classical J.M. DeMatteis themes, (which I’m a fan of, but more with DeMatteis’s Dr. Fate, and oddly, with J.L.I., and b-sides, there’s a ring of the disingenuous when the Spectre’s human anchor is Hal Jordan). And of course, there’s the one that really hurts, I have still none of the issues of Wrath of the Spectre.

I keep thinking to myself, I need to get my act together. But that’s the true wrath of the Spectre, I guess, self-recrimination. I keep thinking I need to get my act together and I need to do this right. Swing by one of the smaller Comic Cons, where it’d be like it was when the Cons got started, really just collectors trading with each other for gaps in their own collections. I keep thinking I need to do this right, ditch the digital, forget Amazon or any other such, and just find what’s really just an oversized high school gym. Once and for all, complete the entire collection, all four volumes.

And that’s where a second sense creeps into that almost existential pang attendant to “Where have the years gone?” The years not just for me, but for the Spectre himself. Why hasn’t DC been able to sustain a marquee title for the Spectre like it did back in the post-Crisis ‘80s, and the pre-Zero Hour ‘90s?

And as if in answer to that very question, I rummage through the mail that came this morning (well the morning that I’m writing this), and find a debut issue of the brand-spanking-new Spectre title, Gotham By Midnight.

Act Three: Gotham By Midnight, Texas, By God!

Some images are hard to shake. The opening image from the final collection of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s landmark series, Preacher, for example. The frieze commemorating the Siege of the Alamo in San Antonio, lit artificially, standing stalwart even in the dead of night. Between that opening chapter of Preacher: Alamo, “Texas, By God” and the following chapter where Jesse Custer finally confronts the Saint of the Killers over the latter’s bones, buried these last hundred years gone, there’re a plethora of images that haunt you and will continue to haunt you.

What Gotham By Midnight was able to achieve, aside from an eerily similar setup to another Ben Templesmith book (Fell, co-created and scripted by Warren Ellis, wherein a small, almost off-the-books detective bureau operates outside of the law to uphold the law), was more or less the conceptual opposite of Preacher: Alamo. Rather than be haunted by presence, by beautiful and terrifying images that scar you just to behold them, what Gotham By Midnight offers is the presence of Jim Corrigan who’s in the middle of doing good work as a Gotham City PD detective, and the tantalizing absence of the Spectre.

The book follows on from Jim Corrigan’s, and the Spectre’s, path through the weekly Batman: Eternal. As for characterization, we’ve gone back to basics. Corrigan’s once again a PD detective, like he was in the gorgeous ‘70s version drawn by Jim Aparo. The same version collected in Wrath of the Spectre, reissued to coincide with the second year of The Spectre, Volume Two. He’s not the venal, amoral Jim Corrigan of Gotham Central responsible for the murder of Cripus Allen, and ultimately for Allen becoming the Spectre after Hal Jordan. He’s not the rudderless, drifting Spectre of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come. He’s not the freelance private eye of Volumes Two and Three of The Spectre, the, respectively, Dough Moench- and Tom Mandrake-penned volumes.

Nothing big’s happened yet, which is to say the Spectre hasn’t shown up yet. (I’ll say this in addendum, after now having read issue #4, some weeks after originally writing this, but the Spectre still hasn’t shown up, and it’s a gorgeous siren song of drama. We experience the central crisis of the Spectre, and of Jim Corrigan, from an entirely different perspective. This is no longer a case of Corrigan solving supernatural cases, as with the Moench-era, nor a case of Corrigan employing supernatural means to ensure criminals be punished, whether or not crimes go unsolved, as with the Michael Fleischer- and Tom Mandrake-eras). Gotham By Midnight refocuses on, in these early stages, being a regular police procedural, with, y’know, supernatural elements.

But really, that seems very much to be the strength of the book. That like Zed’s vision back in late November last year, there’s this haunting, tantalizing, pre-apocalyptic sense to Gotham By Midnight. For a minute there, as Corrigan begins his interview with the parents of kidnapped children who come back unable to speak anything but a made-up language, I think about how a Spectre book could be done today. Do you go the same way Aparo did back in the ‘70s? Those dizzying angles and eerie framings to support the kind of neonoir-comeuppance-by-supernatural-way-of-vengeance stories that Michael Fleisher wrote? Or after, all these decades now, after “Crisis” and “Infinite Crisis” and “Final Crisis” and The New 52, is an entirely different way to write the Spectre now in order? One that only hints at a deep and terrible reservoir of supernatural power, and holds off on showing the Spirit of Vengeance immediately?

Whatever else, the Spectre not appearing the debut issue of Gotham By Midnight at least holds within it a promise that, not yet but soon, readers who stick with this book will have a moment equal to the one where Angélica Celaya looks at Emmett Scanlan at a time when she should be relieved that it’s all over, and instead sees things she cannot express, and can scarcely understand. Yet, empathize with powerfully. Whatever else, begun the way it was, Gotham By Midnight holds the promise of a dramatic irony that can only come from a deep understanding of the Spectre’s publication history. And that’s the real haunting.

Splash image from Constantine (Amazon Prime)

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