The Spectre's career began in the late 1930s, when hard-boiled police detective Jim Corrigan was murdered. His spirit refused to pass into the afterlife, however, and, in the guise of a chalk-white man in a green cloak, it sought bloody vengeance against Corrigan's murderers in a grim, supernatural fashion.
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." The character had formerly been part of the Justice Society of America featured in All-Star Comics, but he was replaced in 1944.
When the Silver Age of comic books arrived in the 1960s, the Spectre was re-written and returned to the role of an avenging undead spirit. Under the authorship of Gardner Fox and as drawn by Murphy Anderson, his power was vastly increased, and at times he approached the level of omnipotence. This run of the Spectre is marked by various attempts to avoid the strictures of the Comics Code. For instance, the Spectre transforms a murderer into a candle and then lights it. According to the Code, a person could not be burned alive, but a candle could (even if it was screaming in pain).
In the 1970s, the Spectre was revived in the pages of Adventure Comics. This series, written by Michael Fleischer and drawn by Jim Aparo, was notorious for its gruesome depictions of the Spectre's retributions against criminals; they were melted like candles, turned to wood and run through sawmills, transformed into glass and knocked over. The series was cancelled with a few chapters written but not yet drawn. These remaining chapters were illustrated by Aparo several years later and collected as the final issue of "Wrath of the Spectre", a 4-issue miniseries which reprinted the original Fleischer/Aparo stories in its first three issues.
Among the many changes made to DC Comics' characters during the later half of the 1980s (following the Crisis on Infinite Earths), the Spectre was largely de-powered. First, in the conclusion to Alan Moore's Swamp Thing series, "American Gothic", the Spectre is defeated by evil incarnate as it advances to destroy Heaven. Finally, the Spectre, in Last Days of the Justice Society of America, fails to resolve the situation and is punished by God for his failure. Under the authorship of Doug Moench, he became nearly a generic mystical figure, with Corrigan joining an occult detective agency.
Eventually, Moench was replaced by former theologian John Ostrander, who chose to re-examine the Spectre in his aspects both as the embodied Avenging Wrath of the Murdered Dead and as a brutal 1930s policeman.
Ostrander placed the Spectre in complex, ambiguous situations — what vengeance should be wrought upon a woman who killed her abusive husband in his sleep, for instance. Other notable dilemmas included the tiny (fictional) nation of Vlatava (faced with endless cycles of civil war and ethnic cleansing and retribution and blood feuds that had endured for centuries, the Spectre responded by judging the whole nation guilty and killing the entire population except two politicians), the pending execution of a wrongfully-convicted man (his death sentence was commuted to life in prison after the Spectre threatened to kill the entire population of the state of New York in retribution), and a 90-year-old woman who had spent her entire life trying to atone for the single murder she had secretly committed in the 1920s (the Spectre found her on her deathbed).
Ostrander also retconned several new concepts into the Spectre's history: he was originally 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. It was also shown that the Spectre was a fallen angel 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.
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. 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. After this series was cancelled, Jordan was forced to return, temporarily, to the Spectre's mission of vengeance.
Since then, Hal Jordan has been separated from the Spectre in the fourth part of the limited series Green Lantern: Rebirth. The Spectre's true fate is yet to be revealed, although he is to play a big role in one of the follow-ups to Countdown to Infinite Crisis, Day of Vengeance.