Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Review: Phantom Zone #3

I continue my look at the origin of the Aethyr concept with this review of Phantom Zone #3.

It is hard to know where to begin in this introduction. In earlier reviews of this book, I have been saying that this book makes a big turn from superhero action to psychedelic insanity. And this is that book. 

That isn't to say that we don't get great hero action. Supergirl again is on the main stage as is Batman. They are trying to thwart the the freed Phantom Zone villains from running roughshod on the Earth.

But the main part of this book is Superman working his way through the unknown layers of the Phantom Zone. Writer Steve Gerber breaks out his E. Nelson Bridwell, working in some Kryptonian history and some prior stories as we get dive from one bizarre landscape to another. 

Gerber's delve into miasma gives art team Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga the space to use their skills. Nothing says Colan more than the weird and he uses all the tools in his toolbox. Even the cover, showing a red masked woman becoming a planet that explodes, let's the reader know that this is going to be a wild ride.

And here is the kicker. It was incredibly hard to limit what to post here artwise because every page has something special. There is something incredible and warped on almost every page. I hope everyone can read this in floppy or trade or on the DC app (where I pulled the panels from).

Settle in folks. Things are gonna get nutty.

"The Terror Beyond Twilight" picks up right where last issue ended. Superman and Charlie 'Quex-Ul' Kweskill have reached the edge of the ethereal section of the Phantom Zone and have decided to press on, piercing into the next layer of the Zone and into the unknown.

The first new place is somewhere Superman has been! Way back in World's Finest #198, Superman visited a place where an unstable sun flipped it's colors around, occasionally hitting yellow and powering him. Right now it is red! Moreover, suddenly the two have substance. They can feel each other. They are solid.

That World's Finest issue is one where Superman races the Flash. It hit the racks 12 years earlier. I wonder if this story just stuck with Gerber for some reason and he decided to bring it back. Perhaps that was a beloved issue from his youth? Regardless of the why, tying this dimension to the Phantom Zone is inspired.

Meanwhile, our hero Supergirl is in the Fortress of Solitude and has been beaten into unconsciousness by the escaped Phantom Zone villains on Earth. 

There Zod decides the best way to kill her isn't to simply crush her skull and be done with it. Instead he throws her into the Atomic Cauldron. As she plummets into the radioactive fire, she rouses. Using all her remaining strength, she literally claws her way to safety.

As I have said in my earlier reviews, Gerber really shows Supergirl some respect, making her a presence on Earth and in the hero community. She is capable and strong. Even this shows how he has her save herself rather than be saved.Plus, no complaints on how Colan and DeZuniga draw her. And bonus points to colorist Carl Gafford who brings lovely colors to all the issue. Here the greens and oranges of that last panel really pop.

Of course, I am a huge fan of the Atomic Cauldron too. So love that Gerber brings that to the mix too.

Back in Metropolis, Batman appears at Charlie Kweskill's apartment to investigate Superman's disappearance. He runs into Jer-Em, the religious zealot who brought Argo City to it's ultimate fate. 

It is clear that Jer-Em is quite mad. Luckily Batman's skills save him from a Kryptonian's form of holy vengeance. 

Nice action panel of Batman leaping backwards out of the building and still landing safely on the cop car outside. Colan has a beloved Batman run on his resume. Might be time to check that out. 

I am going to repeat myself a lot in these reviews. But it is clear Gerber knew Jer-Em's back story because he devotes so much time to us hearing of the villain's fervor. It is attention to detail that makes this mini-series so great for Superman fans.

Meanwhile, Superman and Charlie discover that this plane of existence with the unstable sun is home to nightmarish birds with humanoid faces. Superman and Charlie look like a perfect meal for the recently hatched younglings in the nest. Nothing like 'coiling, constricting, serpentine' tongues as an image!

Luckily, the sun switches from red sun to yellow. Superman suddenly has his powers back. With a few well placed slaps and punches, he is able to free himself and Charlie and fly to safety.

Oddly, the next portal seems to look like a crystalline face. With no choice, Superman flies through the mouth to escape this uncertain world.

Crazy birds? Face-shaped portals? 

Trust me. It is only the beginning of our tour of hell.

Of course when you fly through a mouth, you can expect to end up in a gullet. Or maybe a torchlit throat. Or maybe a tunnel with no outside.

I couldn't help but laugh at the matter-of-fact way Superman questions why he didn't end up in normal space this time. Even the stroking the chin pose adds to the silliness a bit.

Hmmm ... last time he was with the Flash AND had close contact with faster-than-light creatures AND was carrying an Oan-charged medallion. All in a day's work in the Silver Age!

But the tunnel becomes much more frightening. It begins to fill with water. But there is more.

Zombie-like corpses begin to rise and spout rather poetic phrases to our heroes.

"Drink of the foulness I offer ye!"
"Lave in the current of the perverse!"

This is a one page interlude. No further explanation is given.


But on to the next level we go.

This one a bit more sensuous as we see barely clothed women lounging around spa-like pools. The Temple of the Crimson Sun is certainly not any place I would consider Hell, at least not at first.

But it seems these women's mask are covering up what each person thinks is their greatest sin or maybe greatest regret.

For Superman, the woman says she is Lara ... she is Lyla Lerrol. She removes her mask to show that her head is actually the planet Krypton itself.

Krypton was meant to explode. Suddenly a bevy of Krypton-headed beauties have their heads explode, throwing Superman into the waters of the pool. 

As for Charlie, his greatest sin was removing the horns from rondors. So no surprise when his woman removes her mask to show her head is a rondor head. This is truly the stuff of madness. As a kid, I think I was perplexed but thrilled.

Here Charlie is told of who he was on Krypton. His earthly clothes transmute into his classic Kryptonian garb. And then the rondor head morphs into phantom zone projector, condemning for his sins, and blasting him into the pool.

Nightmare fuel!

And then we head right into the next plane of existence, this one much more Earthly in its symbolism. 

Suddenly Superman and Quex-Ul are standing before the Pearly Gates. This is definitely a physical plane. But reality is malleable. And each scenario has had a doorway out.

But this obvious doorway is protected by the Grim Reaper. And the skeletal cloaked figure wields a scythe which nearly cuts Superman in two, opening a 'fatal gash' in Superman's abdomen.

This is another one page jaunt! Is your mind reeling? 

I have to comment on the nice commitment to detail here. The suit we see Quex-Ul wearing is close to the green and yellow suit he had on in his first appearance in Superman #157. I like how Charlie wore green and yellow plaid shirts, sort of a nod to his Kryptonian attire.

Don't worry. Superman doesn't die. He is rescued and healed by Thul-Kar, a Kryptonian wizard from the mystic lands of Juru. He leads Superman and Quex-Ul to his castle-like fortress.

Thul-Kar is horribly disfigured, clothed in mystic robes and doffing a horned helmut. He tells Superman his tale. His dark magic sect, unknown to most of Krypton, heeded Jor-El's warning of Krypton's demise. He used occult means to enter the Phantom Zone before the world exploded. He tried to escape the Zone the same way Superman is. But as Thul-Kar worked his way to the center he realized the Zone is but an expression of Aethyr, the Oversoul. 

Aethyr is a god who has willed itself into existence and therefore controls its own reality. The Phantom Zone is a sort of interface between Aethyr's universe and the DCU. When Thul-Kar tried to leave the Zone through Aethyr, his face was ravaged. He believes he still lives only at the whim of Aethyr.

So everything we knew about the Phantom Zone just being a dimension out of synch with ours is a lie. 

But name dropping Juru! And saying that the lost land of Juru spawned a dark magic cult which existed on Krypton even to their last days! I love the history Gerber is leaning into and adding too!

Even if traveling forward hurt Thul-Kar, Superman presses forward. He needs to try and save Earth! The only thing he perceives as a possible exit from this realm is Thul-Kar's massive fireplace. He grabs Quex-Ul and the two run.

But Aethyr is displeased with this intrusion. It blasts Superman and Quex-Ul, seemingly disintegrating them. 

I love this. It has that Negative Zone/Nightmare realm insanity of the best Marvel Comics. And this whole tour of Aethyr has been one LSD-fueled bit after another!

But let's not forget about that Earth Superman is trying to save.

Supergirl recovers in the Fortress only to realize that Zod is both up to no good and where Superman has been sent. Once more, Gerber gives us an intelligent and action-ready Kara.

And I love how Colan and DeZuniga draw her.

What is Zod up to anyways?

Well, he could have simply flown through Earth's core if he wanted to destroy it (like John Byrne had them do in Adventures of Superman #444). Or perhaps he could have simply had the Kryptonians mass slaughter people until the world knelt before him. But instead, he is building some sort of weapon in space. To quote Dr. Evil, why would Zod make an 'easily escapable situation with an overly elaborate and exotic death'? Why? Because he can! And hubris!


That was a lot! I love the crazed scenarios Gerber throws at us, one after the other!

So delicious!

And it only gets better!

Overall grade: A+


Martin Gray said...

You’re bringing back some great memories. I’d have loved this issue even more had Superman referenced the last time he came across Heaven, back in Superman #236 in the Sand Superman days - that one freaked me out!

I wouldn’t say this was an ‘everything you thought you knew was wrong’ for the Phantom Zome so much as ‘everything you thought you knew was true, but you didn’t know everything’. Just wonderful work from everyone involved.

Anonymous said...

As I said before, this is Supergirl in all-up Bronze Age Goddess Mode, Self Reliant, Self Confident & Most of All, Self Rescuing. This is literally one of my favorite all time depictions of her, and she isn't even the focus, she just relentlessly imposes herself on the narrative in a seamless way with her brains, bravery & power. The downfall of Zod however, is his Bombastic Narcissism, He Suffered in the Zone so Superman's Adopted Planet must suffer in the Zone. If you languish in the slams long enough you get some pretty twisted ideas as to what constitutes payback. So the giant Zone Projector in Space, makes nigh perfect Bronze Age Sense, I wish someone at DC would reach waaaaa-ay back and adapt this mini as a direct to home video animated project, its already got perfect storyboards. Knowing DC, they'd leave Supergirl out and substitute Harley Quinn or some damn thing. This would also make a dandy TPB eh?
Rereading this, drives home one great point to me, One of Supergirl's Best Writer's who paradoxically DID NOT ever write her core feature is, Steve Gerber who effortlessly "Let Kara Be Kara" banking on her natural appeal & power to move the story along. Is she a "barnacle on Superman's hull" here?? HELL NO!! Gerber does more with Supergirl as a stalwart supporting character in this mini, than her previous five writers in her SMF feature!!

So to sum up, we need an animated feature AND a TPB...who's with me??