The Spectre is one of DC Comics’ problem children.
The Spectre is an actual specter. In deathly pale flesh and ghoulish green cloak and hood, he’s a ghost whom God has granted near-infinite power to wreak vengeance on evil.
The Spectre has carried out his role by turning bad men into inanimate objects (and then destroying the objects) or simply scaring them to death; he’s also fought cosmic opponents. But he’s always had two problems from a story standpoint.
First: too much power. It’s hard to come up with challenges to create dramatic tension when the hero can do anything.
Over the years, writers have tried to limit the Spectre’s power. But his near-omnipotence is part of his attraction. A merciless spirit who can crush planets raises an exciting thrill of fear that other heroes can’t match. Weakening his abilities would weaken his appeal.
The Spectre’s second problem is insufficient depth. He’s been God’s instrument of vengeance; but the urge to vengeance is only one emotion. The Spectre’s narrow range of feeling keeps a lot of his adventures emotionally monotonous and repetitive. It’s hard to find enough variations to keep the Spectre interesting in story after story.
Writers have occasionally tried to fix this problem by giving the Spectre a love interest or other emotional connections; but those connections have pulled him from his mission. And his mission — to punish evil in the grisliest ways imaginable — pleases readers. Distracting him from it reduces their pleasure.
Thus the problems that make the Spectre appealing also force his stories into repetition and sameness. How can you fix his problems without undermining his appeal?
My answer: Satan.
The Spectre discovers that he’s unknowingly been serving the devil, not God. Whenever the Spectre thought he was hearing God’s voice or visiting heaven, he was falling for a deception that Satan had set up.
Why would Satan build such a cruel illusion? To reduce humanity’s trust in God. When the Spectre performs horrendous violence and calls it God’s will, he makes God look monstrous and unworthy of worship.
For the first time in a long career of horrifying others, the Spectre is himself horrified at what he’s done.
Not to worry, Satan says. You’ve done great work for me, so I’ll keep you on the job. But if you refuse, I’ll have my demons kill you.
Of course, the Spectre refuses, but we now have a setup for a universe of stories.
The Spectre is as powerful as ever, but Satan’s demons are nearly as mighty, and they vastly outnumber him. Some even have abilities that the Spectre has never developed. For instance, the Spectre is not especially nimble; alacrity is not his strength — but Satan has demons who come and go in an instant, harrying the Spectre into furies that could destroy continents.
And when the Spectre defeats the demons, he wreaks vengeance on them more ghastly than anything that he ever inflicted on human beings.
Why does he get so mad at them? Because they keep him from his new mission: to win God’s forgiveness for his sins.
The Spectre calls out to God, but God doesn’t answer his pleas any more than He sits down to chat with you or me. So he tries other means to reach Him. The Spectre is on the hunt for supernatural beings who’ve won God’s favor and who could intercede on his behalf. He also tries to atone by helping human beings, but his terrifying demeanor, intimidating power and deathly reputation scare them away. What’s a repentant ghost to do?
So that’s the new Spectre: as powerful and vengeful as ever, but facing formidable adversaries and a wider range of stories.
Of course, I don’t expect DC to offer me authority over its big, green ghost.
But it’d be fun to have the chance.