JOHN OSTRANDER: The Way I Were
For me, it seemed like this week was all about returning home. The news about GrimJack appearing here on ComicMix was broken… well, here on ComicMix. And DC published the first issue of my new Suicide Squad miniseries (Elayne also has a stake in this since her husband, Robin Riggs, is providing wonderful inks over Javi Pina’s pencils for the series). This is my first new issue of Squad in – well, in a long long time.
It’s interesting coming back to a series after a lengthy absence. When I began scripting GrimJack: Killer Instinct a while back, my concern was – would I get Gaunt’s voice right after so long? Not to worry – it was right there – as was Amanda Waller’s over on Squad.
I’ll be writing more about GrimJack as we get closer to the publication date. (October 2, if you’ve forgotten and, by the way, you’ll be able to see it here on ComicMix for free. Always bears repeating.) Today I’m going to talk instead about one other book with which I was closely connected and which, after a lot of thought, I don’t think I’d want to return to on a regular basis.
Tom Mandrake and I had a longish run on that series which some people at the time said couldn’t be done. For those of you who don’t know the character, he was created in the late 1930s by Jerry Siegel – co-creator of Superman – and Bernard Baily. Jim Steranko once said the Spectre had the toughest origin in comics – he had to die to get his powers. The Spectre was also the strongest character in the DCU – perhaps in all comics. Only God was stronger and He?She had better be eating His/Her Wheaties.
The concept: the Spectre was Plainclothes Police Detective Jim Corrigan who ran afoul of some gangsters and was dumped into an oil can of cement and dumped in the river. At the gates of Heaven, Corrigan just can’t let it go. The Voice (aka God) lets Corrigan return as a crime fighting ghost who can take an almost human form. His powers were magical – almost divine – and he meted out big time justice. Never more so in a series of stories by Mike Fleischer and Jim Aparo. The vengeance meted out was often horrific.
The Spectre then went through a bunch of different permutations depending on who was writing him when Tom Mandrake and I got him. We had just come off a stint on Firestorm together and were looking for another project and both of us loved the potential of the Spectre. We had very clear ideas of what we should and should not do with him.
The main change we made in the concept was not in the Spectre but in Corrigan. We stripped off the barnacles and got down to basics. Corrigan was dead and had been dead since the Thirties. He was a plainclothes cop in those days and I took early Dick Tracy and the movies from the Thirties as my cue of how he should act.
The biggest difference we made in the concept was that we used it to pose a series of theological questions – about the nature of sin, of redemption, and ultimately of God. One of the thoughts I posited towards the end of the series was that, with the new Millennium, one of the most important questions for Mankind would be the name of God. Turned out to be a little truer, in a scarier way, than I had anticipated.
The reason that I don’t think I can or should return to the Spectre on a regular basis – not that I’ve been asked so let’s not start rumors – is that I’m not the person I was when I wrote that series. Specifically – I’m not the person I was theologically when I wrote the series.
I was raised Roman Catholic and, in the late afternoon, literally in the shadow of the parish church that I attended which was right across the street from us. I had been a choirboy and an altar boy and, my freshman year in high school, attended the diocesan seminary in Chicago. I grew up in the mystery of the Old Latin Mass but embraced the changes that the Vatican II council proclaimed.
I lapsed during my college years – mostly a question of the hierarchy of the Church, questions of women ordination and other things (this was well before the current spate of clergy/child molestation cases became known). Deep down, however, I was still theologically RC – I still sort of believed in heaven and hell, sin and redemption, God and the Devil. The first time I saw The Exorcist, I slept with the lights on all night because I knew the devil was coming to git me! I really think that film is the ultimate RC horror movie because it took everything Sister Mary Tabernacle Door Half Open warned us about and put it up there on the big wide screen in Technicolor so the pea soup vomit would be real vivid.
I think it was Zen Writing Master Denny O’Neil who taught me that writing questions make for far more interesting stories than writing answers. The former engages the readers as we compare notes on experiences: Have you ever felt like this? Have you ever thought something like this? What do you think now? The latter is simply propaganda.
I remember going into a writing class at Virginia University a couple of decades ago and asking, “Who here wants to be a writer because they fell they have something important to say?” Lots of hands shot up. “Who cares?” I shot back. I pointed out that, on any given topic, their readers also have something to say. They have their own thoughts and, to their minds, equally important. They, as writers, needed to listen and tap into that. What we call “reading” is, to my mind, really a dialogue between writer and reader. It doesn’t matter if the writer is living or not. That’s actually the wonder of it. The two don’t have to be in the same room or even the same century. Each brings something to the process; reading is an act of active participation or the circuit is not complete.
When I wrote The Spectre, I was asking questions and posing thoughts about God et al but they were coming from a very specific background. While I no longer went to church, I still believed. My view of God and redemption – my theological worldview – was, more or less, my RC inheritance. The questions I had about it went into my Spectre scripts. I had thoughts but I didn’t really have any conclusions. If the book had resonance with the readers – I mean outside of the gorgeous art that Tom was producing – perhaps that was the reason.
Since that time, I’ve wound up as a member of an Episcopal Church – Church of the Redeemer – and in some of its Adult Forum classes I learned more about the Bible – both Old and New Testament – than I had known before. We studied them not only as “Holy Writ” but as cultural and historical documents. My questions began to change as well, including one that should have been very fundamental for me as a writer: Who were these stories being written for? They were written for specific peoples at specific times – the Epistles, for example, were written to specific congregations. Knowing which congregations and what the issues were at the time provides a context within which to better understand what the Epistles say.
It made sense. Shakespeare was not writing for our time or for all time – he was writing for his time. Same thing for the writers of the gospels. I also started to learn how certain concepts and motifs were repeated from one culture to another in that region. The word “Christ,” for example, meant “anointed one” and could be applied to many people. There were also many gospels; it wasn’t until much later that it was codified so that only four were approved.
My questions shifted from the nature of God to God’s very existence. I became an agnostic. I’m not trying to proselytize; I’m not trying to open anyone’s eyes to “the truth” as I now understand it. The very fact that I know – and respect – people who do have a deep faith in God or Great Spirit or however you want to term it is the reason I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist. Nor do I think this is my final stop in my theological journey; it’s simply where I am now.
More than anything else, that’s the reason I can’t write The Spectre these days – at least, not as I did. I’m not that John Ostrander now. I don’t have the belief that underscored my work back then. As a professional writer, I’m certainly capable of putting together stories from the mythology that makes up the Spectre – but I would be judged by the work I did back then and I don’t see how it can measure up.
It’s different with characters like John Gaunt and Amanda Waller – there’s something of me still in them and that hasn’t changed. What made the Spectre work for me, however, isn’t there any more; the questions I have now won’t fit the nature of the character as I understand it – as much as I love that character.
Besides, I wouldn’t want my career now to be a “Greatest Hits” tour. I’ve got plenty of new ideas as well and I want to explore those. Remind me to tell you about Glamours Inc. as we get closer to that starting date. It’s fun to look back, but it’s better to move on.
GrimJack: The Manx Cat, by John Ostrander and Timothy Truman, debuts on ComicMix Tuesday, October 2nd. John’s Suicide Squad: Raise The Flag and Star Wars: Legacy are in the comics shops right now.