John Ostrander: Reading Myself
I recently received my comp copies of the second trade paperback (TPB) collection of The Spectre, dubbed Wrath of God, and took advantage of it to re-read the stories Tom Mandrake and I created back in the Nineties.
The character was originally created back in the 30s by Jerry Siegel who also co-created Superman. Jim Steranko described the Spectre as having the toughest origin in comics. Plainclothes cop, Detective Jim Corrigan, is killed by gangsters but, unable to rest, is sent back as an Avenging Ghost by a mysterious Voice who can be taken as God. He’s also given lots of powers. He may in fact be the most powerful character in comics. Some think he’s too powerful; how can you create a significant threat to a character who’s only slightly less powerful than God? In the decades since his creation, those powers got damped down. Corrigan himself was supposedly brought back to life with the Spectre as a separate entity who took shelter within Corrigan.
When Tom and I got a hold of the character, we decided that having a powerful Spectre would result in better visuals and that Corrigan was dead and had been since the character began. The result has been what many readers declared a definitive version of the Spectre and some of the best work Tom and I have done separately or together.
I know writers who can’t/don’t/won’t read their own work once it’s been published. I understand and sympathize but I always read the comics once they came out. For me, it wasn’t really a comic until it was published. I wanted to experience it as the reader did. Granted, I couldn’t experience it for the first time as they did but I often forget exactly what I’ve written between the time that I finished the script and when the book is published. A turn of phrase, for example, can surprise me. I’ve gone on to other things and that’s where my focus is.
So I came to Wrath of God with, if not fresh eyes, at least with a touch of amnesia.
The first volume, Crimes and Judgments, introduced Tom’s and my version of the Spectre. The twelve issues were tied together with an overall plot that reached a tragic end. The second volume deals with repercussions emanating from that end. The Spectre goes somewhat mad with grief and when you have a character that powerful, it’s a very dangerous situation indeed. His mission is to punish murderers, to find evil, and in the first story of the second collection, the Spectre finds an entire nation guilty and destroys it.
That was extreme, even for the Spectre and I knew it at the time. I wondered if I had taken him too far. Would it alienate the readers? It might be hard enough for them to empathize with a character as powerful as the Spectre. Would such an extreme act drive them away from the book?
In my private life this was also a time of stress and sorrow. My wife, Kimberly Yale, contracted breast cancer and it would claim her life in 1996. I was in a somewhat bleaker state of mind while I created these stories. I was sometimes asked how I was able to continue writing while dealing with Kim’s illness but writing was a refuge for me. It was where things still made sense and with The Spectre I could channel all those emotions I was feeling.
The bulk of the rest of the stories in this volume stem from this first story as we explored the ramifications for the next ten issues. I like doing things like that; something significant happens in one issue and you can follow up on it. It’s one of the virtues of doing a monthly comic; there’s room to explore.
We dealt with issues such as forgiveness and justice, mercy and retribution, guilt and responsibility. While I had become an agnostic, I was a very specific agnostic. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and that still very much showed in my writing. Especially with the Spectre.
Not every story is an unalloyed delight. One story was set in Northern Ireland and dealt with “The Troubles” between Protestant and Catholic there. At least, it attempted to do so. However, this was before I visited Belfast and my understanding of the situation there can only be described as woefully inadequate. Well intentioned but I didn’t have the comprehension of the issues that the story needed and clichés abound in it. It is readable but not as strong as other stories in the TPB, in my own opinion. It’s one of the things that occur when you re-examine your own work; flaws pop out at you. Useful if you learn from it.
One of the great strong points of the volume and indeed of the entire series is the work of my friend and collaborator, Tom Mandrake. We worked together in what is known as “plot first” style; I would break down the story into page and panels and Tom would draw it. (Our gag was that sometimes he drew what I should have plotted.) It would come back to me for dialoguing and it was always a thrill to first see those pages. Tom, in my not so humble opinion, is one of the modern greats in the medium and The Spectre would not have been the same without him.
It was interesting re-reading the stories after all this time, to re-encounter the person I was back then. It’s me but a different me. I don’t know if I could write the same stories today but that’s how it should be, I think. Our writing reflects who we are and, as we change, so should the writing. The Spectre I would write today would be very different from the book I wrote back then. I have changed and, hopefully, grown.
The stories in this volume, I think, are still worth reading. If you do, be sure to say hello to the Old Me. He’s lurking in there.