The character first appeared in "More Fun Comics" #52 (February, 1940), created by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily. In his origin story, the Spectre was Jim Corrigan, a police detective who was murdered by criminals. In the afterlife, he decried the injustice of his murder, and an unseen voice (later interpreted as being God's) granted his wish: he returned to life, but with supernatural powers that he soon used to kill his murderers.
At this point, other than in his physical appearance, Spectre was your typical supernatural avenger character. However at the time, superheroes were getting in vogue, so he was soon added to the roster of the Justice Society of America, and treated pretty much as any other superhero; he even acted and talked as casually as the others. He also found himself easily defeated despite his nonliving nature and his incredible powers, just so the other members of the group could have a chance to save the day. As for Corrigan, he broke off his engagement to Clarice Winston since he was no longer a living human being, but otherwise he just went on with his life, as if nothing had happened (his murder never having been discovered.)
The relationship between Corrigan and The Spectre varied over the years; at one point, they were actually separate characters, with The Spectre merely using Corrigan's body to "rest" when he needed to, much to the latter's chagrin.
The Spectre held his own series in "More Fun Comics" until issue #101 (January, February, 1945). He was regularly featured with the Justice Society in "All-Star Comics" #3-23 (Winter, 1940 - Winter, 1944). The character was then dropped for the following twenty years. He was revived in "Showcase" #60-61 (January-April, 1966). He also appeared in #64 (September-October, 1966), before gaining his own magazine. "Spectre" vol. 1 lasted for 10 issues, from December, 1967 to June, 1969. In the 1970s, the Spectre was revamped, now being taken back to his original horror roots: he would track down murderers and then execute them in some pretty twisted ways (for example, turning a hood to wood and then cutting him with a buzzsaw.)
The Spectre also found himself becoming more and more powerful: in his fight against Shathan (a poorly disguised Satan stand-in) they hit each other with planets. Spectre was eventually acknowledged as one of the mightiest beings in the DC Universe, even more so than the Silver Age Superman. About the only beings stronger were The Phantom Stranger (though pretty much Depending on the Writer) and God himself. This limited him to making appearances only when the universe was threatened by supernatural menaces, and usually only long enough to fix some problem and then leave.
Post-Crisis, The Spectre was reinvented as the actual embodiment of God's Wrath. He had his own series again, which explored the reasons for his existence. Ultimately it was revealed that the Spectre was actually a fallen angel pardoned by God by being turned into his personal avenger and not just part of Corrigan's soul. Corrigan in fact was tired of living and willingly separated from The Spectre and went on to Heaven.
This left the Spectre without a host, which made it reckless; eventually he bonded with the then-dead Hal Jordan, who tried to twist the Spectre's mission from vengeance to redemption. This was later undone by Jordan's resurrection. Again left without a host, the Spectre was tricked by Eclipso (who ironically was once God's Avenger as well) into killing most of the magic-users in the DC Universe since she convinced him that "magic goes against God's will". (This turned out to be part of a larger Gambit Roulette to recreate the DC Multiverse, as seen in Infinite Crisis.) He was stopped only by being bonded (by God) to Crispus Allen, another recently-murdered cop. (DC teased the audience by having his killer also be named Jim Corrigan.)
After the New 52 reboot, the original Jim Corrigan is back as the Spectre once again, although under different circumstances this time, tying into the rebooted version of The Phantom Stranger as well.
The Spectre received a twelve-minute animated short as a bonus on the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths DVD. A pre-Spectre Jim Corrigan made an appearance on Constantine with a quick vision indicating his grim future.
Tropes involving this character:
- Abusive Parents: John Corrigan's father was a fire-and-brimstone preacher who beat Corrigan savagely as a child, with the excuse that it would "beat the sin out of him". He also had an illegitimate child with their black housekeeper and had both of them thrown out of the house so he wouldnt have to deal with his own sin staring back at him (this eventually led to the boys death during a storm). The end of the 1992 series revealed that Corrigan Sr was himself abused by his mother in the exact same way, twisting him into the monster he became.
- Aesop Collateral Damage: During John Ostrander's run on it, this was sometimes used to demonstrate the Anti-Hero's Black and White Morality extremism. Such as threatening to destroy every person in the state of New York if the legal State of New York sent an innocent man to death.
- Affirmative Action Legacy: Prior to the New 52 reboot, the host of the Spectre had been an African American. Not quite "Black" since the Spectre is always whiter than the moon.
- All Crimes Are Equal: Has a tendency to believe this when not bound to a human host. Once when he was between hosts he went from murdering a serial killer (eaten by crows), then a cheating wife and her lover (strangled by their bedsheets), then a little boy who stole six dollars from his mother's purse (drowned in a sea of pennies), then a girl who spoke rudely to her father (beheaded), then a man who cheated on his taxes (impaled on a giant pen).
- Angelic Abomination: The angel Aztar is a vastly powerful, eerie Horrifying Hero with a disturbingly harsh morality and nightmarish Reality Warper powers.
- Arch-Enemy: Has several:
- Zor, another spirit wandering the Earth, who chose to spread evil instead of fight it.
- Eclipso, his predecessor as the personification of God's Wrath who turned evil.
- Azmodus, a demon who seduced the Spectre's first human host.
- Parallax, who holds a grudge on him for separating it from Hal Jordan.
- Butcher, whom the Spectre considers to be a perversion of his mission as the embodiment of God's Wrath.
- The Atoner: The Angel Aztar, who was one of the rebellious angels, but apparently the only one that repented. As penance, he must fuse with the soul of a dead man and purge the world of evil. One sinner at a time.
- Baleful Polymorph: A usual punishment meted out by Spectre.
- Been There, Shaped History: The Spectre was the one who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, killed the first-born of Egypt, brought down the walls of Jericho. Any religious horror event one can think of besides the Great Flood which was caused by Eclipso was most likely caused by The Spectre.
- Beware the Superman: The most powerful Reality Warper in the DCverse is also dedicated to the explicit purpose of murderously punishing anyone he considers a "sinner". And he has no sense of scale (all crimes warrant death, from rape and murder to taking some pocket change from your mother's purse) or reluctance to slay innocents in pursuit of his goals.
- Break Them by Talking: The Spectre often does this to his victims as his usual form of punishment. The usual occurrence is that he appears in some frightening manner, states the crime his victim is guilty of, explains why they're awful for committing the crime in the first place, and then administering some horrific punishment upon them.
- Bumbling Sidekick: Yes, even the Spectre had one in the Golden Age - "Percival Popp, the Super Cop."
- Eventually Took a Level in Badass after he died; he's still bumbling, but not to be messed with.
- Cement Shoes: This is how Jim Corrigan became the Spectre in the first place. He was hit on the head, put in a barrel, covered with cement and then tossed in a river. When his spirit returns from death he looks over and sees the barrel lying on the bottom of the river with his dead hand sticking out. Gruesome.
- Retconned by John Ostrander: Corrigan choked to death on the cement before he could drown.
- Creepy Good: The other heroes regard him as this, or just a uber-judgmental and supremely dangerous Wild Card, even during his time fused with Hal Jordan. They also heavily disapprove of his murderous way of justice, but there's little they can do to stop him.
- Crisis Crossover: Since Crisis on Infinite Earths the Spectre has fallen to the Worf Effect or been conveniently absent.
- During Crisis on Infinite Earths itself, the Spectre wrestled the fully-charged Anti-Monitor, at the Big Bang, empowered by all the magic-users of the multiverse, to determine whose hand would shape the cosmos. At the peak of the battle, the Spectre was implicitly more powerful than God. The result was the collapse of the multiverse into the unified DC Universe. After that, everything is a letdown.
- Crossover Cosmology: In the DCU, every god is real.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: A specialty of the character
- Drama-Preserving Handicap: For a character as powerful as the Spectre he sure has a lot of problems.
- Deus ex Machina: He's literally a Deus ex Machina because he is God's personal hitman.
- Deus Exit Machina: A frequent victim because of his immense power.
- Exalted Torturer: He's technically on the side of the heroes, but never shies from using deadly force even for offenses that can be barely construed as such.
- Evil Counterpart: It's been revealed that the supervillain Eclipso is actually this to the Spectre, as he was once the personification of God's Wrath until he became corrupted. If you think the Spectre is overzealous, it's nothing compared to what Eclipso did (and does).
- Fallen Angel: Aztar was one who repented before he became the Spectre.
- Flat-Earth Atheist: One host of the Spectre was an atheist — before God revived him as The Spectre.
- Foil: Reporter Earl Crawford in the Jim Aparo series. While the Spectre believed in punishing criminals beyond their crimes, Crawford believed that wrong doers deserved a fair trial and a chance to face up to their crimes.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: See Fridge Horror above. One point of the Comic Code Authority was that it said humans couldn't be set on fire. One comic got around this by removing the "Human" part of the equation and letting Spectre turn a criminal into a candle. There was no rule against burning a candle, even if it was screaming in pain as you did it.
- God Is Good: The Spectre is a superhero in that he avenges those who were innocent and cry out for justice. But...
- See Throw-Away Country below for a more extreme example.
- God Is Evil: A nightmarish example is shown at the end of the 1992 series, where The Spectre comes looking for guidance after he begins to notice himself becoming more extreme in his behavior, only to discover Heaven completely empty. After searching Hell and various other spiritual realms to no avail, he is eventually led to search inside himself, where he comes upon a dying Archangel Michael... who is being devoured by God (drawn just like the Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Sons). God reveals that he's eaten every last being in Heaven, the angels, the souls, all of them, and scoffs at the Spectres rage at this enormous cruelty, claiming that Creation is his work, and is His to do what he wants with. Ultimatley averted when it turns out this isnt God at all, it's the personification of Jim Corrigans anger against his abusive father, which has colored his perception of God his entire life. Heaven was never really empty, it was part of a journey Corrigan had to undergo to move on to the afterlife and leave the Spectre and Earth behind.
- The Good Shepherd: Father Craemer from the Ostrander series. Despite his controversial views (by "controversial" we mean he doesnt slavishly follow Catholic doctrine) which eventually gets him defrocked, he's shown to be a wise, loving and faithful man, also serving as a conscience of sorts for the Spectre when he needs advice on his role. It's telling that even Amanda Waller sticks up for him (he was once the prison chaplain at Belle Reeve where the Suicide Squad recruited). At the end of the run, he's the one who officiates Jim Corrigan's funeral.
- He also personally assisted in a few of the adventures such as helping Madame Xanadu and the Spectre in the battle against Lord Sathan. During this story, Sathan throws him into hell, and Father Craemer just climbs back out again!
- The Gods Must Be Lazy: The Presence only intervenes when it damn feels like it. He's been noticeably sparing about using his gifts against people like, say, actual supervillains. Apparently, there are rules. Somewhere.
- The trope is lampshaded, and explored, in Final Crisis: Revelations. The Spectre and his fellow avatar, the Radiant, find themselves powerless against the forces of evil who have taken over the Earth - and not even they know why they can't do anything about it.
- The Ostrander/Mandrake ongoing Spectre series cleared up many facts about the Spectre-force: while it is the literal embodiment of God's wrath, it is not allowed to roam free, but must be bound to a mortal soul, who in turn decides how to use its power. But most of this seems to have been forgotten in recent years; for example during the Infinite Crisis miniseries the Spectre, now without a host, sought to ironically kill anyone he could find regardless of their crimes severity (i.e a kid stealing $6 from his mother is drowned in change). He then caused mass destruction (being an unwitting pawn of some villains) and God only stopped it after it caused the end of the 9th Age of Magic (by killing off the Lords of Order and Chaos.)
- Have You Seen My God?: At the end of the 1992 run, Spectre looks for guidance in Heaven, only to find it completely empty... It's part of a quest Jim Corrigan has to undertake to move on to the afterlife, it's not empty for real
- Hero with an F in Good: He means well, but he got such a low grade in good that God keeps him bound to a human soul just to give him a cheat sheet.
- Horrifying Hero: He's a wrathful angel possessing a dead human's body with god-like Reality Warper powers and a maniacal fixation on punishing sinners... which he does by dealing out nightmarish deaths and transformations. He's also willing to deal out the same punishments for even the most meagre crimes. If it wasn't for the fact he's normally shown dealing with absolute scum, he'd be an outright Villain Protagonist.
- Humanoid Abomination: If his power and origins didn't tip you off, his disposition will.
- Invincible Hero: The Spectre is one of the most powerful beings in the entire universe. Needless to say, he hasn't hung out with a bunch of mere mortals like the JSA much since The Golden Age of Comic Books. A memorable run on his comics side-stepped this by having him pass judgement on morally ambiguous situations and focusing on his choices.
- Joker Immunity: The Spectre once tried to pass Judgment on The Joker; he failed, because for all his viciousness, the Joker is still crazy, and thus not responsible for his acts.
- Karmic Death: The Spectre arranges these.
- Karma Houdini: The Spectre's purpose is to make sure murderers don't become these. He doesn't punish every murderer; only those who would otherwise escape justice.
- The Spectre himself is one depending on the case, as the case where he destroyed an entire country and its population with Heaven's later approval and later complete genocide of magicians by ending the 9th Age of Magic with no other punishment than just being bonded to another human host to continue his murderous ways.
- Knight Templar: Has a tendency to go overboard. See (again) Throw-Away Country, and also his plan to kill New York if an innocent man who had been found guilty was put to death, essentially because the case was titled that man "vs the State of New York". Sometimes his human host is portrayed as the only thing holding him back from being an Ax-Crazy All Crimes Are Equal nutjob.
- Lack of Empathy: There's a damn good reason why the Spectre needs a human host — he may want to inflict justice, but the host gives him enough compassion, and hence restraint, to prevent going overboard.
- Lighter and Softer: His Golden Age stories after Corrigan got a comedic sidekick in Percival Popp, the Super-Cop.
- Lovecraftian Superpower
- Monster Modesty: Despite being an all-powerful instrument of God, he has a strange knack for wearing as little as possible.
- Murderous Mannequin: In Adventure Comics #434 (during the Michael Fleisher run), the Spectre battles a mannequin maker whose mannequins come to life and commit murder. After defeating his creations, the Spectre transforms the maker into a mannequin himself.
- No-Sell: Despite being virtually omnipotent, there has been a handful of people who he's been unable to kill. Most notably, his powers were useless against Nekron, who, being devoid of a soul, could not be judged. However, he was also unable to kill the Phantom Stranger and Madame Xanadu during his rampage against magic. He still managed to turn the Stranger into a mouse and seared Xanadu's eyes to block her from using her divination. He was also unable to fight Libra, who at the moment was backed by Darkseid at the pinnacle of his power.
- He was unable to pass judgement on the Joker when he realized that Jokers insanity meant he wasnt fully responsible for his actions.
- The Omniscient: As a divine agent, the Spectre has access to virtually all of the knowledge in the universe and is even aware of events that have been altered by distortions in time.
- Omniscient Morality License: What makes the Spectre so creepy; while his intentions are good, in many ways he's just as bad as the criminals he punishes, making him arguably not much more than a Serial-Killer Killer with superpowers.
- An interesting interpretation behind why he can never return to Heaven is that he thinks he has this, when the reality is that he does not. In other words, God Himself disapproves of the lengths the Spectre goes to in pursuit of vengeance, but can't really punish or reprimand the Spectre, because he is still technically doing what God wants him to do, beyond denying him a return to Heaven until he realises he's staining his soul with evil in the name of good.
- Post ''Flashpoint, this has changed somewhat. The presence has claimed that the Spectre is not the embodiment of wrath but instead the embodiment of justice. He also stated that both the Spectre and Phantom Stranger need to open their eyes to what they are meant to be. How this affects the Spectre's divine status is not yet known.
- Our Angels Are Different: The non-human half of the Spectre Entity.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: The human half of the Spectre Entity.
- Power Creep, Power Seep: Makes Superman's climb look puny.
- Powers That Be: The Voice, aka The Presence, aka God.
- Rage Against the Heavens: Several villains has this as their origin, most notably Asmodeus, who was once one of the Spectre's hosts during the days of imperial India, but was corrupted by a demoness who showed him the fate of his wife and sons souls after his own death, having been reincarnated in injustly cruel lives. Attempting to rebel, the Spectre was stripped of his power and cast down, fusing with the demoness to create Asmodeus, who swore to corrupt all future Spectres in revenge.
- Living people occasionally rage against the Spectre himself, demanding to know why he doesnt help BEFORE horrible things happen.
- Reality Warper: The Spectre is capable of warping and controlling reality. He can use his ability to control reality to simulate any form of superpower or ability from shapeshifting to warping time and space.
- Refusing Paradise: Done as a Sadistic Choice early on to The Spectre; the Voice (implied to be God) says he's now earned the ability to pass on to Heaven, one time only offer... just as his love interest has a bullet speeding at her head.
- Semi-Divine: The Spectre, as a dead human who is the host of (the angel that represents) God's Wrath/Vengeance.
- Shout-Out: To BIONICLE here◊.
- Sociopathic Hero: Ruthless and with a slightly-off morality, he's nonetheless pointing in the right direction.
- Story-Breaker Power: Being a virtually omnipotent entity with all the powers of a god, this is a given.
- Throw-Away Country: Vlatava, a minor European country, was completely slaughtered by the Spectre after passing judgment on it for war crimes, presumably even including the children. The sole survivors were two opposing politicians. Curiously, one of them was the supervillain Count Vertigo.
- Vengeful Ghost: The Origin Story is about this: the cop Jim Corrigan was murdered by thugs and eventually came back to life as the form of The Spectre. With the time, Spectre becomes more as the Spirit of Vengeance by his own and later he got other human hosts, two of the most famous ones are Hal Jordan and Crispus Allen.
- Voice of the Legion: He speaks in fiery or dripping green speech balloons.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting
- What the Hell, Hero?: Happens very often, including burning an entire country to the ground.
- The Worf Effect: He has a tendency to be defeated by whatever villain writers are favoring that week. Mostly because if he did intervene, he'd kill the villain instantly making for a boring story.
- Worf Had the Flu: The writers are usually good enough to give an in-universe explanation.