So I read Gotham by Midnight #2 today and I love the way they are portraying the Spectre. To explain how and why the new Spectre works, though, I'm going to have to explain the history of the Spectre and why so many people had trouble writing for him before.
The Spectre first appeared in More Fun Comics #52 in 1940 and he was created by Jerry Siegel (yes, the co-creator of Superman) and Bernard Baily. A cop named Jim Corrigan was murdered (he was put in a barrel of cement and dropped into the river - the Golden Age of Comics could be hardcore, y'all) and then resurrected and commanded by "The Voice" to gain vengeance on his killers and then all evil-doers. Here's a good article about the Spectre's creation and his creators.
The Spectre's powers, like a lot of Golden Age superheroes, were nebulous at best. One man turns into a skeleton upon merely touching him. At one point, he grows huge to grab a car full of criminals, then crushes the car in his hand and tosses it away. The Spectre became more popular and joined the Justice Society of America, but soon readers lost interest in superheroes and he was relegated to playing guardian angel (to "Percival Popp, the Super Cop," I kid you not) and then he stopped appearing altogether.
Legendary DC editor Julius Schwartz brought him back in 1966 in Showcase #60. At this point, his nebulous powers were vastly increased. Writers began to suffer from this effect: how do you write a character that's omnipotent? The Spectre was soon relegated to the background again, until Joe Orlando revived him for a new feature in 1974 called "Wrath of...the Spectre!" The feature was quickly criticized for being incredibly violent: the Spectre would turn criminals into broken glass or melting candles. Even though this material actually came from older Spectre stories, when they were used in the new feature, they were seen as disturbing.
In the late '80s, Doug Moench wrote a series about the Spectre with Jim Corrigan as a private detective, but three years after that was cancelled, one of the most celebrated runs of the Spectre happened, written by former theology student John Ostrander.
Ostrander examined the Spectre's role as the Avenging Wrath of the Murdered Dead and even added to the Spectre's mythology, by making him the embodiment of God's Wrath. A lot of his stories were morally complex: is a woman guilty if she murdered her abusive husband? Is the State of New York guilty if it executes an innocent man?
Ostrander also included the fact that the Spectre wasn't the first Wrath of God and, in fact, Eclipso had been a previous version gone bad.
Ostrander's run came to an end in 1998 and after that...well, that's went things went off the rails. You'll notice above that, aside from the Justice Society, the Spectre doesn't really interact with any other superheroes (he had some teamups with Batman, but that was it). The Spectre was best when he was not part of an integrated universe, when he was doing his own thing alone. His best stories are ones of bloody vengeance, but those don't really work when the superheroes around him are against killing. (The Spectre is basically an omnipotent Punisher and all the superheroes in Marvel hate the Punisher.) Also, having an omnipotent hero kind of killed any suspense for most stories. The only time when being integrated with the rest of the DC universe worked was during Crisis on Infinite Earths, when the Spectre fought the Anti-Monitor.
Well, after Ostrander's run, they tried to integrate the Spectre more into the overall DC universe. Jim Corrigan's soul found peace and a new host was found for the Spectre: the recently deceased Hal Jordan. Jordan's Spectre series had him try to change the Spectre's mission of vengeance to be a mission of redemption. After Jordan was resurrected and became Green Lantern again, the Spectre was left without a host and, due to manipulation by Eclipso, during Infinite Crisis went on a magical rampage and destroyed Atlantis, Shazam, and Nabu. Eventually, the Voice forced the Spectre into a new host, Crispus Allen of Gotham Central (who had been killed by another man named Jim Corrigan, only this one was a corrupt crime scene tech).
And that's pretty much where the Old DC universe ended with the Spectre. The last decade of Spectre stories really didn't work that much — especially with a story about Crispus Allen's son killing his father's murderer and then the Spectre having to kill him (it was insanely depressing and stupid and his son was resurrected again by Greg Rucka). Nobody could really use the Spectre effectively — writers found ways to make him ineffective against the current villain so he couldn't just wave his hands and kill them. (In Final Crisis, the Spectre can't fight against Libra for some reason and then gets controlled by the Spear of Destiny; in Blackest Night, the Spectre can't fight against Nekron because Nekron has no soul.) Every attempt to make the Spectre work ended up not working.
And then the New 52 happened and the Spectre was once again put on the back burner. He made one appearance in The Phantom Stranger and this disappeared, eventually showing up in Batman: Eternal. And now he has his own series again, Gotham by Midnight, written by Ray Fawkes and illustrated wonderfully by Ben Templesmith (illustrator of 30 Days of Night, Fell,and Wormwood, Gentleman Corpse).
Gotham by Midnight isn't like any of those other Spectre stories. It is a supernatural crime drama about the GCPD's Midnight Shift, responsible for responding to all of the occult crimes in the city. The team, consisting of Detective Jim Corrigan, Detective Lisa Drake, Dr. Szandor Tarr, Lt. Weaver, Sgt. Rook (a member of IA that's auditing them), and Sister Justine (a nun).
And how do they handle the Spectre? Magnificently. You never see him: all you see is lightning bolts emerging from Corrigan and him trying to hold the Spectre back. Why hold back the Spectre? Because releasing the Spectre is the equivilent of a magical nuke. Here's what happens after he unleashes the Spectre one time:
Corrigan: You're all right. You're safe. It's every else in the building who's dead. The pastor, your reverend mother...the janitor, a couple of altar boys downstairs. Some of the homeless guys too. I'm sorry...I'm real sorry. I'll be damned. Not a mark on you. You must be a bona fide pure soul, sister.
Sister Justine: No, I...
Corrigan: Trust me. If you were any kind of sinner you'd be all over the walls right now.
This Spectre isn't a superhero. He is Wrath incarnate. Just unleashing him kills any sinners nearby. And that's why Corrigan doesn't want to unleash him.
This is the Spectre done right.