I've decided to mix things up a little by stepping outside of my usual bargain bin fare and taking a look at a few of the older and more "valuable" comics in my collection. They may not be "Longbox Junk" as far as collector "value" goes, but nobody ever asked for reviews of them either, so there's that!
The comic at hand is a perfect example of how I usually come to own the older comics in my collection. I bought it for the cover, period.
If I like the cover on a comic, I don't care about the company, character, or creators, I'll buy it. I have a display of framed comic books on a wall in my office at work that I rotate monthly. . .sometimes I'll go seasonal (Captain America for July, Horror for October) and sometimes I'll go with a theme (Science fiction, Batman, Western), but in any case I'm ALWAYS on the hunt for an awesome comic cover.
But the thing is, I hardly read them. I'll usually give them a quick flip-through before bagging, boarding, cataloging, and storing them until I'm ready to give them a turn up on the "Wall O' Covers". I know it's sort of a strange way to collect comics, but that's just what I do. I have PLENTY of comics that I buy to read. . .but if I buy a comic just for the cover, it usually goes unread.
Which is why I like doing these "Retro Reviews" every now and then. It gives me a chance to get into the unexplored corners of my collection and crack open some of the older comics I've bought for the covers and never read AND maybe educate myself a little in the process.
So enough introduction! Let's crank up the Longbox Junk paper time machine and set the dial for 1969! Ready? Let's Gooooooooooooooo!
THE PARCHMENT OF POWER PERILOUS
SCRIPT: Steve Skeates
PENCILS: Jerry Grandenetti
INKS: Murphy Anderson
COVER: Nick Cardy
This is the kind of cover that doesn't just catch my eye. . .it reaches out, grabs me, and shouts "BUY ME!" I mean, just look at it! It has a commanding presence. The colors. . .the title. . .the feeling of motion and energy. . .THE FINGER! POINTING AT ME! ACCUSING ME! This is one of my favorite covers in my collection. As far as I'm concerned, it's worth the price of the comic alone. It's just a beautiful thing. Let's get inside. . .
We begin our tale with a prologue set in 18th-century England. A student of the dark arts named Narkran looks on as his master performs a powerful spell that will unlock the doorway to another dimension and unlimited power.
Otherworldly forces possess the old magician and he inscribes a parchment scroll with mystic instructions. The apprentice looks on, convinced the power will be wasted on his old master, and decides to steal the scroll. But before he can, the master cries out that the scroll is evil and must be destroyed!
Determined not to let the power of the scroll be destroyed, Narkran confronts his master. A fight between the two ensues and Narkran strikes his master with a candlestick, killing him!
Now in possession of the scroll, Narkran reads it. He is immediately thrown into another dimension, and the pain of the immense knowledge he is gaining is almost unbearable! He realizes that the only way to ease the pain is to finish reading the scroll.
Unfortunately, the scroll remains on Earth while Narkran has been sent to another dimension. He is determined to return somehow to Earth, regain the scroll, and complete his transformation into a more powerful being. End of Prologue.
The story moves forward 200 years later, where the powerful mystic being known as The Spectre is returning to Earth following an exhausting mission elsewhere. He feels the urgent need to reunite with his human host (Detective Jim Corrigan) because they have been separated for far too long. . .
Spectre finds his host in a gun battle with thugs from the Carstagg gang, who have him outnumbered and pinned down. Corrigan refuses to allow Spectre to enter his body until he assists with his present desperate situation.
The Spectre summons his mystic energy and strikes the gangsters down, saving Corrigan. But what Spectre doesn't realize is that in his impatience, he has also harmed an innocent bystander with his careless use of power!
Later that night, The Spectre finds himself being pulled from Corrigan's body against his will. He is forced to stand and be judged by the voice of for his careless act of harming an innocent with power meant to destroy the wicked.
The Spectre is punished with "The Mark of Cain", a constant reminder of his failing that will manifest as different weaknesses that will come during times of stress and danger. . .
As the Spectre returns to his host body, the magician's apprentice, Narkran finally breaks through the astral barrier and returns to Earth. He is astonished to realize that is is now two centuries in the future, but is still determined to discover where the scroll of power is located at. . .
The next day, The Spectre and Corrigan go their separate ways again. Corrigan to continue his pursuit of the Carstagg gang, while Spectre investigates unearthly forces causing strange weather on Earth. . .something he believes is being caused by a powerful being approaching the planet.
The Spectre finds himself correct in his assumption as he encounters the gigantic form of Narkran approaching Earth. The giant being's thoughts reveal his evil intent and Spectre knows that he must stop Narkran from gaining the scroll of power. He grows to match Narkran's immense size and attacks!
As the two mystic beings battle in space above Earth, Spectre is suddenly struck blind! He realizes this is the "Mark of Cain" that he was cursed with, and fights on through the darkness using his other senses.
It's a hard-fought, brutal battle between the opposing forces of good and evil, but eventually The Spectre finds the proper moment and uses his mystic powers to weaken and defeat Narkran!
With the force of evil defeated, the Spectre's blindness comes to an end. He realizes that his enemy was powerful, but not as all-powerful as he could have been with the scroll of power. The Spectre uses Narkran's shoes (Wait. . .what?) to discover the hiding place of the scroll on Earth. . .
The Spectre destroys the scroll so that nobody else will try to gain its power. As he does so, a massive explosion rocks space above Earth as Narkran's power destroys itself. His task now complete, The Spectre returns to Earth to ponder the nature of his punishment for harming an innocent.
I'm going to do a bit of a disclaimer/ confession here. I'm not a big fan of The Spectre. Because of that, I'm not very familiar with the character. . .with most of my knowledge coming from issues of the 1990's Ostrander/ Mandrake series and from the Kingdom Come mini-series. I have a handful of issues from other runs (including this one), but I've just never really been able to get into The Spectre.
It's not that he's a BAD character. It's just that he's never written the same way twice. Everyone who gets their hands on Spectre (as far as I can tell) has a different interpretation. Marvel's Moon Knight is a great example of another character that suffers from the same treatment. Every series has a different version of Moon Knight. It's just sort of strange when I read a story I like and decide to hunt down some back issues and find it's almost a completely different character.
THAT SAID. . .
I give every comic a fair chance, and even though I'm not a fan of The Spectre, this comic gets that same fair chance. So let's break it on down!
The story here is pretty. . .slim. It's definitely not the kind of story that makes me want more. It's not BAD, mind you. It's just sort of. . .how can I put this? It's just sort of THERE. It's got a pretty weak "one and done" villain and the entire back half of the story is pretty much two ultra-powerful mystic beings PUNCHING each other in outer space to determine the fate of the Earth. One would THINK that there would be a bit more magic at play than fisticuffs when the forces of good and evil clash.
The story really seems like it's actually meant to be a framework to hang what should be a pretty big change to Spectre's status quo on: That he's now cursed with random weaknesses because he harmed an innocent with his power. But a bit of research shows me that idea was quickly swept under the rug anyway.
BUT. . .
The story is only half of what you read a comic book for, right? There's also the art. And HERE is where this comic shines! I REALLY like the art style in this comic!
I'm not familiar with Jerry Grandenetti's work, but if this issue is a good example, I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for more. I was really surprised to see an art style this unusual in a Silver Age comic. Most Silver Age artists that I've seen (especially on DC comics) have a more traditional style that is thinly-inked and has characters that look a little stiff and posed, set in a strict grid of rectangular boxes (there's exceptions, of course. . .but they just serve to illustrate the general rule).
Grandenetti delivers art with thick, chunky lines and shadows. There's a feeling of motion, of energy. The characters populate unusual panel layouts that spill over into each other, twisting and turning in a truly unusual manner. I see from a bit of research that Grandenetti worked with Will Eisner on the Newspaper version of The Spirit, and I can definitely see the influence, especially in the panel layouts.
Oddly enough, it seems that there was a bit of pushback from Spectre fans on Grandenetti's art (and on Neal Adams as well, who also worked on this short-lived series). From the letters page, it looks like they preferred the more traditional stiff Silver Age art style and rigid panel structure of artists like Murphy Anderson rather than the more experimental and unusual styles of Adams and Grandenetti.
Here's part of one pretty droll letter to that effect which gave me a little chuckle:
So even though comic fans in 1969 seem to have been a little annoyed at the psychedelic art style of Jerry Grandenetti, from my modern point of view it's the best thing about this comic and a perfect fit for a mystical character like The Spectre.
In other Longbox Junk "Retro Reviews" I've said that I need to separate what I think as a modern reader as compared to the audience the comic was originally written for. I didn't really need to make that distinction here because this comic was written for a more mature audience to begin with.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't reflect this as much as the art does. The story is pretty weak, with a forgettable villain and two magical beings punching each other in outer space. It's a good example of the kind of stories churned out as comic rack fillers during the Silver Age without much thought put into them.
On the other hand, the unusual art style holds up to the modern eye very well, and takes this comic above and beyond what would otherwise be pretty forgettable based on the story alone.
I didn't go into this comic a big fan of The Spectre, and it didn't really change my mind on the other side. That said, if you're a fan of mystic superheroes and want to get a good eyeful of some really unusual art for a Silver Age DC comic underneath a fantastic cover, then keep your eye out for this one.
Up Next. . .
I'm still liking the Retro Reviews, so why not another one?
Maybe something from Atlas/ Seaboard? Yes. . .I think so!
Be there or be square.