- July 8, 2021
Why Ostrander’s Spectre is a Tragic Hero
The Spectre is an underrated favorite character of mine. Almost as old as Superman, he first appeared in 1940. He was even made by the same writer, Jerry Spiegel, with a co-credit from one Bernard Baily.
He has a storied history, playing a significant role in many of its events, particularly in Crisis on Infinite Earths. But ever since, he’s never had that big a role in the universe, and there’s a good reason for this.
He’s so fricken overpowered.
The Divine Trinity
The Spectre is one of three aspects of the Presence’s will in the DC Universe. The Presence is the god of DC; the Biblical god, the god of Abraham, Yahweh, and Alla all rolled up into one. And the Spectre is an aspect of that god, one of three.
Eclipso is the original incarnation of God’s Vengeance, only to become God’s Wrath. Sometimes his origin starts with him being God’s Wrath, but sometimes not. Being God’s Wrath gives him Omnipotence, or unlimited energy, but not the ability to do anything.
Then there’s the Radiant who is the incarnation of God’s Mercy. She has the power of omniscience, or to know anything she wants in the Presence’s purview.
And the Spectre completes the trinity as the embodiment of God’s Vengeance, the Spirit of Vengeance if you will. As that spirit, he has the power of omnipresence. His form, in terms of volume, mass, and shape, is boundless. He even having the ability to enter the minds of people living, dead, and inanimate.
Don’t ask me to explain how he enters inanimate objects, I don’t know, I’ve just seen him do it.
But that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg with him. The Spectre has been around so long, he’s been able to play a part in a lot of ancient religious fiction. He was the plague in the story of Moses, who killed all the first-born sons of Egypt,, for instance. He was even the flood that destroyed everything in Noah’s ark.
This being is seemingly all-powerful, vengeful, and judgmental on every level. He’d be beyond dangerous if let loose. He once went on a rampage and destroyed a small country in his rage. When that didn’t sate him, he then threatened to do the same to all of Earth.
The Tragic Origin
The Presence, in his infinitely failing wisdom, saw that the Spectre had the ability to become another Eclipso. To stop that, he hampered the spirit’s ability by connecting him to a mortal spirit.
There have been a few famous hosts for the Spirit of Vengeance in DC. The one I’m talking about today is the most popular one that people known best as the Spectre.
Jim Corrigan, the main character in Jim Ostrander’s run on the character.
You see, when Jim Corrigan is bound to the Spectre, they become one, and from here on I will speak of them as if they are one being because they act as one being for the first arc of Ostrander’s run. Jim Corrigan is the man under the hood. While he may often under the violent influence of the Spectre, it is very much Jim Corrigan in control.
This is important to understand because when I say that the Spectre is a tragic hero, I mean the Spectre and Jim Corrigan as one entity.
The Spectre’s Hamartia
Whether on purpose or not, I believe writer John Ostrander wrote the first story arc to frame the Spectre as a tragic hero.
I’ve never found evidence for it so fast for a comic book character as I have the Spectre. He is practically defined by the faults and flaws that make up Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero.
The Death of a Beat Cop
That’s how his story begins. Corrigan is an undead spirit, cursed and bound to the Spirit of Vengeance, doomed to wander the earth punishing evil. From the very beginning of Ostrander’s run, we are shown the Hamartia: the tragic flaw that led to each of his tragic downfalls. Corrigan, before and after becoming the Spectre, doesn’t trust anyone but himself to decide justice or mercy.
He wantonly takes it upon himself to investigate the murder of a woman whose spirit can’t pass on. This would seem righteous, he clearly has good intentions, but as the Spectre, Corrigan goes on a warpath. He accuses, tortures, and horrifies several people innocent of the crime before he finds the right person.
For example, the woman’s husband whose locked up in jail as the prime suspect. The Spectre invades his mind and tortures him to learn the truth. The husband, Michael Landau, does tell him the truth, that he did not kill his wife. While the Spectre, with his awesome powers, knows that Landau isn’t lying, it does not undo the psychological damage done to Landau. He was so sure of his justice and his ability to judge he tortured an innocent man. This poor man actually commits suicide before the Spectre finishes proving his innocence. This ends up causing Michael Landau to end up going to Hell anyway, with the blame purely on Corrigan.
When the cops are investigating, Corrigan likes to take what he needs to move on. He keeps going through suspect after suspect, judging them for their sins. Each time, he finds them not guilty until he finds the woman’s true murderer.
But this idea that he must commence judgment and punish the sinners, does not simply extend to his detective work. It even extends to anyone he meets on the street.
Behold his Wrath
It’s in issue 3, after this whole murder mystery, that the Spectre meets a woman named Amy Beitermann. She’s the one who finally calls him out on his behavior. He’s trying to show her what he is as the embodiment of God’s Vengeance, by trying to kill some thugs who want to rob him.
When Amy calls for him to stop, he can’t fathom it because he decided they deserved it. She, more or less, posts the question of who should decide if they deserved it.
As is his flaw, the Spectre has the arrogance to say that he, as the Spirit of Vengeance, whose understanding of right and wrong has in actuality failed to prove better than any other man’s, has the authority to decide what they deserve with only a modicum of proof of intention.
To put it into perspective, Amy calls him out for having no perspective. She specifically questions, “What right do you have to judge them?! When did God make you judge, jury, and executioner?!”
She says this because while these thugs were going to rob them, do their crimes derive violent murder without trial? This is at least the start of convincing Corrigan that he’s not as qualified to judge as his Hamartia would have him think.
Of course, as if an excuse, he tries to explain why he is who is through his origin story. But instead of proving to Amy why he as the Spectre can judge people, he proves his Hubris.
The Spectre’s Hubris & Peripeteia
Hubris is another key facet of the tragic hero if you use Aristotle’s components of a Tragic Hero.
The Hubris is the excessive pride and disrespect for the natural order of things on one hand. The Hubris and the Harmartia can be one and the same, but they are not here.
It is Corrigan’s belief that only he is capable and worthy to judge, defend, and punish that leads to his downfall. This leaves his hubris as a separate but altogether important part of his character. His Hubris is tied to his Peripeteia, the reversal of fate the hero experiences.
I’m not going to explain every facet of his backstory. Jim Corrigan was a cop, with a partner, a fiancee, and a criminal case that he was close to solving. For those of you who don’t know Jim Corrigan’s backstory, he ended up getting himself killed.
It is here, upon his soul going to Heaven, that the Presence offered to bind his soul to the Spirit of Vengeance and make him the Spectre to avenge his death and others. This is the Peripeteia, where his fate reverses from one of a powerless death to one of all-powerful vengeance. He goes from being stuffed in a barrel and covered in cement, to punishing any and all evildoers.
The Hubris of Vengeance
But that’s it for the Peripeteia because it was over in a page before his ultimate act of Hubris. For that reason, I’m going to go into a bit less detail for the Peripeteia. I find it to be the easiest to recognize of all a tragic hero’s facets.
Many heroes have a reversal of fate, tragic and not, so to dive into his origin would be wasting time. He was murdered, and then he was sent back to become the Spectre. His Peripeteia doesn’t have the same emotional transformation, his change is more physical than most.
But as I said, it does lead to his Hubris. While his arrogance does cause his death, it’s not also his Hamartia because his eventual downfall is more from his desire to seek justice. There isn’t any inclination that these men he was trying to arrest weren’t going to meet due process. This means his death isn’t a downfall caused by his belief that only he can judge. The second main downfall of the Spectre’s story as a tragic hero comes later, which I will get into.
It is when Corrigan first utilizes the Spectre that his Hubris shows. While he was being merged with the Spirit of Vengeance, his partner and his fiancee were searching for him. They even end up being kidnapped by Corrigan’s killers.
Corrigan, in a bout of rage and vengeance kills and punish his killers. But in his need to torture them, he is too late to stop them from killing his fiancee Clarice.
It is here, where his Hubris, his disrespect for the order of things becomes clear. While one could make the case that murder alone is his disrespect for the order of things, I would argue that the Spectre’s powers being given to him by the Presence are, by design, for murder. This makes murder an act not against the order of things in DC. It is what he does after finding his fiancee dead that is truly against the natural order of the world.
What does he do?
First, Corrigan chases after Clarice’s soul as she heads to Heaven. We know she’s going to Heaven, we see the pearly gates ahead of her soul. Before she can get in, he grabs hold of her, stops her…
And then brings her back to life.
I would argue that there is one factually natural thing about life, that everything does and must die. Many die in ways undeserved based on the way they lived, but it is natural for everyone to die.
A Wrath Against Nature
In his Hubris, Jim Corrigan, defies this natural order, by resurrecting Clarice’ soul after she died.
After the flashback, Amy asks him if Clarice got into Heaven. He then paints a bleak picture of the life and soul he ruined by mutilating the rules of life.
In his words, “I… broke off the engagement. What Life could we have shared? I am dead and I have my mission. Clarice married several times. She died a few years ago.”
To the question of whether she went back to Heaven, the Spectre nonchalantly answered, “I don’t know, I assumed so.”
It is here, where Amy calls him out for his bullshit. Enraged with him, she quite literally says that he has Hubris in spades. Then she says that Hubris allows him to believe that he can decide between justice and mercy.
Of course, he becomes enraged and continues to try and prove why he should be doing what he does. All he truly does is put himself on the path towards a moment in time when he makes an important discovery in the story, his Anagnorisis.
The Spectre’s Anagnorisis
An important discovery can be many things. It can be the main character discovering something important about himself, another character, or the world at large. There’s always so much to learn in a story that takes time to flesh out its ideas.
In the Spectre’s mental bout with Amy Beittermann, he comes to make several important discoveries.
Amy Deserved Better
The first discovery about Amy comes from this dreamscape through Amy’s memories. In moments, it’s colored over in this medieval fairytale to make Amy seem delusional. He wants to show how she doesn’t claim responsibility for the evils she has done. Instead, it shows how she sees her self-hating evil, and how the Spectre doesn’t see her as evil at all.
Amy has AIDS, Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome. Worse, she has unknowingly given it to several men who died from it. The Spectre dived into her memories to find her evil deeds so she can be punished and understand why he punishes people. Instead, all he finds is what she feels guilty about but nothing that makes her evil.
Then he has to face the question of how could something that Amy couldn’t have done on purpose, originally appear as something evil to his eyes? The answer is that his eyes are not as fit to judge as he would think and he doesn’t understand people as he thought he did. He never looked inside himself, “the violence, the anger, the hate, the evil that lives” inside him, he never confronted that.
That was his first discovery, and then he went to his past to confront the violence, anger, hate, and evil that blinded him. He went to try and look past his mission as the Spectre, past his abusive father, and past his hate for himself.
That Which Haunts the Dead
In a brutal image, Corrigan steps before his father with the same belt his father beat him with. In that moment, he finds that what held him back is his inability to forgive. He can’t look and judge other people because he only knows justice, but not mercy. And as he’s holding that belt over his father, he realizes that it is not right to judge people the way he has. He can’t be the one who judges others because he cannot forgive his father and then he beats the image of his father with his father’s own belt.
He learns about himself, and that the world is not as he sees it thanks to this discovery about himself. The men he has killed, tortured, and terrified, were not his to judge, completing his character’s Anagnorisis.
He does so just in time for people he unfairly judged to become the host for his Nemesis.
The Spectre’s Nemesis
The Nemesis of the Spectre in this story could arguably be Madame Xanadu. She appears to have all the makings of the perfect nemesis for Corrigan. His own belief that he is the best judge for justice and mercy is what leads her to believe that he lacks a true vision for how his power should be used.
In the first arc of this series, she even manages to steal his power and become Madam Spectre, but she is corrupted by the power as well. She fails to use it to fix that world’s problems as a whole just as Corrigan failed. But what keeps her from being the true nemesis, is that Madame Xanadu is one that he can escape.
A Nemesis is not only a punishment born from one’s Hamartia but is one the protagonist cannot escape, by definition.
She’s a person who is ultimately better than him and learns the lesson he took years to learn in a single day. She doesn’t teach him of his failures, just reminds him of a lesson he already learned and doesn’t quite punish him either. He lost his powers for a short time, and Madam Xanadu didn’t even hurt the one thing Corrigan cares about, Amy.
In fact, Xanadu befriends her without threatening Amy’s friendship with Corrigan.
So no, Madame Xanadu, as important and as well-written a part she plays in this tragedy, she is not the Spectre’s Nemesis.
Azmodus–a very old, and very powerful demon–is the Spectre’s nemesis.
The Devil Himself
Earlier on in the run, the Spectre interrogated and tortured not only humans to find the killer of an innocent woman. He also tortured an old enemy of his, the nasty archdemon, Azmodus.
Azmodus, while not a good person by any means, and I must emphasize, is in no way a good person, is innocent of the murder the Spectre tortured him for. It is the Spectre’s Hamartia, his tragic flaw, his old and firm belief that his will can accurately identify and dish out deserved justice, that spurned his Nemesis to truly hurt the Spectre.
Throughout this arc, there has been a B-plot I haven’t mentioned. There’s a serial killer on the loose, who has been targeting women with AIDS. This serial killer is one of many people possessed and manipulated by Azmodus for his plan to hurt the Spectre.
During the closing issues of this arc, Corrigan as the Spectre searches far and wide for the serial killer who would seek Amy’s life, settling back into his old ways of accusation, interrogation, and antagonization. He searches low and high for the killer, but doesn’t find him until its too late.
The Downfall of the Hero
Once again, not only has his Hamartia caused his Nemesis to appear, his Hamartia’s reappearance allows for his Nemesis to find power, and causes the Spectre to ultimately abandon Amy in the aim to protect her.
Azmodus is the punishment the Spectre cannot avoid. No matter how hard he fights, no matter how many planets he throws into Azmodus’s face, he cannot escape him, and its because of his Hamartia, his Hubris, and forgetting everything he learned during the Anagnorisis, that allows Asmodeus to succeed.
The Spectre’s Catharsis
The Spectre almost overcomes, and it is as he does that our feelings of pity and fear felt for his inevitable and complete downfall, that we come to the Catharsis.
Corrigan almost defeats Azmodus in time, but he is too late and comes upon a dying and bleeding Amy. In his failure, in his Nemesis’s punishment for him, he has devolved so far into his old flaws that he must search out and find the serial killer who stabbed Amy and punish him. We grow angry and upset at his struggle to defeat his better nature and feel for his guilt as the Spectre’s lust for vengeance quite literally forces him to leave his only friend to die alone and terrified.
Azmodus ruins Corrigan, he drives him to regress, to become a vengeful beast once again, a hero in name only, and to lose everything he loves. It is because of Azmodus, as we watch Corrigan try and fail to fight against his stronger nature.
After the serial killer has been punished, and Amy is moving on, we see the depths of Corrigan’s pain when he goes to her, seeking her path on the way to Heaven, and for a moment we fear that he may even keep her from passing on as he did Clarice.
He doesn’t, he only wishes to say goodbye, not only to her but symbolically to the good she helped him find in himself.
The Spectre finally takes down his hood, and we see Corrigan’s face in its ghostly form for the first time. We see that he has completely fallen, and has completed his journey as the Tragic Spirit of Vengeance. (Ends with the shot of Corrigan with his hood down.)