The Spectre's career began in the late 1930s (More Fun Comics #52, February 1940), when hard-boiled cop Jim Corrigan was murdered. His spirit was refused entry into the afterlife, however, and, in the guise of a grey-skinned humanoid being in green cloak, gloves, trunks and boots (the skin became chalk-white six stories into the run, while blue garments appeared in #51's aforementioned house ad as well as the cover and symbolic splash panel of #52, with all reprints of this early material "corrected" to match the official version; Corrigan did not adopt the Spectre persona until late in #53, so the blue costume was never seen in-story), it was assigned by an entity referred to only as "The Voice" (generally conceded to be God) to eliminate all evil from the world.
The Spectre began by seeking bloody vengeance against Corrigan's murderers in a grim, supernatural fashion. In years to come, the character would gain a reputation among editors and writers as being too powerful to get a dramatic handle on, but creator Siegel apparently felt otherwise, because in More Fun #60 (October 1940), only the eighth Spectre story, he gave the Dead Detective an almost literal deus ex machina, the Ring of Life, which would appear on the ghost's finger when he faced a menace beyond his powers (in six stories reprinted in recent years). The Spectre proved quite popular, and was awarded charter membership in the first ever super-hero team, the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics. Another reward was the resurrection of the body of Jim Corrigan (accomplished with the aforementioned Ring of Life), from which the Spectre's ghostly form could emerge and function independently (seen in More Fun #75, Jan. 1942).
During the mid-1940s, the popularity of superhero comics began to decline, and the Spectre suffered as a result. He was reduced to playing the role of "guardian angel" to a bumbling character called "Percival Popp, the Super Cop." Eventually, Jim Corrigan enlisted in the military to serve in World War II, and on his departure, the Spectre became "permanently" invisible, becoming a secondary player in his own series. The feature's final installment was in #101 (January--February 1945), and the Spectre made his last JSA appearance at the same time, in All-Star Comics #23 (Winter [1944--]1945).
The series was cancelled with scripts written but not yet drawn. Several years later, these remaining chapters were penciled by Aparo, lettered and inked by others, and published in the final issue of Wrath of the Spectre, a 4-issue miniseries in 1988 which reprinted the ten original Fleisher/Aparo stories in its first three issues (Two Aparo-drawn horror shorts of similar vintage were used as page-count fillers; all thirteen Spectre stories were subsequently collected in a trade paperback book of the same title in 2005). However, while three "new" stories were presented here, a 1980 interview--this is a full transcript, not a textual article littered with direct quotes--with Fleisher in The Comics Journal flatly stated that two scripts were left undrawn. (The writer also indicated here his preferred habit of staying well ahead of deadline in his comics work, explaining the leftover scripts; the existence of these had led to an incorrect belief that the series was cancelled quite abruptly.) Given that the thirteenth story does not follow certain formulae that all twelve previous installments did, the claim that it was written by Fleisher in 1975 is called into question. However, it can be alternatively argued that the interview is the unauthentic work here.
The Spectre also made a guest appearance in the "Doctor Thirteen" series in the DC comic Ghosts. This three-part story (#97, February through #99, April, 1981) was a direct sequel to the Fleisher/Aparo run, including the Earl Crawford character (albeit visually redesigned as the Aparo original looked too much like Terrence Thirteen) and the same formatting of story titles (one of the ways that the thirteenth story credited to Fleisher varied from the other twelve; even the inside-covers text pieces in the reprint mini followed this particular formula), but was clearly produced with no consideration for Fleisher's then-undrawn leftovers. Here, supernatural debunker Terrence Thirteen became caught in a dangerous situation with deadly, terrorist-style criminals. The Spectre appeared and, as Thirteen watched in shock, killed the offenders. Thirteen was convinced that the Spectre was not a ghost, but a man, until in the final installment, the Spectre took Thirteen to the realm of Judgement, where Thirteen met with the spirit of his dead father. The Spectre would make periodic guest appearances in other DC titles as well, such as The Brave and the Bold, DC Comics Presents and All-Star Squadron.
Among the many changes made to DC Comics' characters during the later half of the 1980s (following the Crisis on Infinite Earths, where the Spectre fought the Anti-Monitor), the Spectre was largely de-powered. First, and actually prior to the Crisis, The Spectre is revealed to be guarding an entrance to Hell in a Swamp Thing Annual story by Alan Moore. Then, in the conclusion to Moore's later serial in the regular Swamp Thing comic, "American Gothic", the Spectre is defeated by evil incarnate (the Great Evil Beast) as it advances to destroy Heaven. Next, in the Last Days of the Justice Society of America special, he fails to resolve a situation and is punished by God for his failure. In his fourth solo series and second self-titled comic, the Spectre, under the authorship of Doug Moench, became merely a generic mystical entity, with Corrigan the central figure in this story of an occult-oriented private detective agency. The Spectre's powers were significantly reduced here, with even the act of emerging from Corrigan's physical body being painful to both. This run was cancelled with the November 1989 issue, #31. A few months after this, the Spectre has a cameo in The Books of Magic, a four issue miniseries/whirlwind tour of the DC Universe's occult characters, written by Neil Gaiman. This implies him to be Raguel, an archangel who metes out punishments for God as the Spirit of Vengeance.
Ostrander placed the Spectre in complex, morally ambiguous situations that posed certain ethical questions, one example being: What vengeance should be wrought upon a woman who killed her abusive husband in his sleep? Other notable dilemmas included, among others:
Ostrander also retconned several new concepts into the Spectre's history: he revealed that the Spectre was meant to exist as the embodiment of the Wrath of God, and Jim Corrigan was but the latest human spirit assigned to guide him while he existed on Earth. This eliminated the resurrection of Jim Corrigan's body depicted in More Fun Comics #75 (January 1942), and made the Spectre's 1945-1965 disappearance as explained in Showcase #60 (January-February 1966), which had a few problems on its own terms, virtually impossible, yet Ostrander expressly retained that. It was also shown that the Spectre was a fallen angel named Aztar who had participated in Lucifer's rebellion, but then repented, and that serving as the embodiment of God's anger was its penance.
Furthermore, the Spectre was not the first embodiment of God's anger, but was the replacement for the previously minor DC character Eclipso. Ostrander chose to portray this as a distinction between the Spectre's pursuit of vengeance and Eclipso's pursuit of revenge. In a historical context, Eclipso was responsible for the biblical Flood, while the Spectre was the Angel of Death who slew the firstborn Egyptian children.
The Spectre has also played a pivotal role in the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour storylines. In both cases, in the final struggle against the main villain — the Anti-Monitor and Parallax, respectively — the Spectre was the only hero capable of standing against the villains directly, allowing the other heroes time to put a plan into action that would destroy the villains once and for all.
The 2001 Green Arrow story Quiver (written by Kevin Smith) and the final Supergirl story arc, Many Happy Returns (by Peter David) revealed that the Spectre (as the Hal Jordan incarnation) is aware of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. He is one of the few DC Universe characters with this knowledge.
Eventually, Corrigan's soul found peace. He relinquished the Spectre, and went on to the afterlife. The role of the Spectre was later assumed by Hal Jordan, the spirit of the former Green Lantern, during the Day of Judgement storyline; the Spectre chose Hal as his new host because Hal sought to atone for his actions as Parallax. In a series written by J. M. DeMatteis, Hal Jordan was able to bend the Spectre's mission from one of vengeance into one of redemption, also making other appearances through some of DC's other storylines, such as advising Superman during the Emperor Joker storyline (Where the Joker stole the reality-warping power of Mister Mxyzptlk) and also helped Linda Danvers save a time lost pre-Crisis Kara Zor-El and erasing all public knowledge of Wally West's identity as the Flash after his terrible first battle with Zoom. After this series was cancelled, Jordan was forced to return, temporarily, to the Spectre's mission of vengeance, following a confrontation between the new Justice Society and the Spirit King, who had managed to 'resurrect' the ghosts of all those the Spectre had damned to Hell. After the Spectre was able to purge the Parallax from Jordan, he departed in order to move onto the next recipient of the Spirit. Jordan says that the knowledge he gained from being the Spectre's host has faded. If he has any greater knowledge of the Universe, he has not revealed it to anyone else.
As covered in one of the lead-ins to Infinite Crisis, Day of Vengeance, Jean Loring was transformed into the new Eclipso. She went after the Spectre, who was on a vengeance rampage. Not only was he killing murderers, he was also killing people for minor crimes, such as petty theft. She seduced the Spectre, who was unstable due to the loss of his host, into removing all magic in the DC Universe. Eclipso explained to the Spectre that all things that follow the rules of the physical universe follow God's law. Anything that breaks those rules, breaks God's law and is therefore evil. Consequently, as magic breaks the rules of the physical universe, it is an originating source of tremendous evil (this line of logic made sense to the unstable Spectre).
Therefore, the Spectre went on a rampage, destroying magical constructs, institutions that taught magic, and magical dimensions. In one such dimension, his acts included the mass murder of over 700 battle hardened magicians. His actions caused havoc to some of the more powerful magic-based characters:
In the Day Of Vengeance: Infinite Crisis Special, the Spectre killed Nabu, the last of the Great Lords of the Ninth Age and the Presence's attention was finally drawn to him. The Spectre was once again forced into a human host, finally stopping his mad rampage. Nabu revealed, before dying, that originally he and the other Lords had been working towards forming the perfect host for the Spectre, but those plans were cut short.
The text of the story is a little unclear on exactly who the Great Lords were. Nabu, introduced in 1942 as the powerful entity responsible for Kent Nelson becoming Doctor Fate, was one of the Lords of Order. The Spectre had apparently killed the others, along with their counterparts the Lords of Chaos, with the exception of Nabu and Amethyst, whom he battled on Gemworld. Amethyst was among those gathered by the Phantom Stranger to aid in rebuilding the Rock of Eternity, and survived into the Tenth Age.
Alexander Luthor also revealed that he was indirectly responsible for the Spectre's actions in Day of Vengeance. The Psycho-Pirate, under Luthor's orders, gave Eclipso's diamond to Jean Loring, making her manipulate the Spectre so that magic could be undone and used as fuel for Luthor's Multiverse tower.
In Gotham Central #38, Crispus Allen was killed by a policeman coincidentally named Jim Corrigan (not the same Corrigan formerly associated with The Spectre). While Allen's body was in the morgue, the Spectre was forced against his will to enter Crispus Allen, taking Allen as his new host.
A conversation between McCay and the character Deadman in Kingdom Come #3 revealed that Spectre had become further and further removed from humanity as time went on. In Kingdom Come #4, he is convinced by McCay to try to see things through the perspective of his human host, and as Jim Corrigan, he can be seen in the congregation of McCay's church, as well as at the end of the epilogue in the Planet Krypton restaurant.