Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Back Issue Box: Adventure Comics #283

Today was an open slot in the blog schedule and had been a while since I had done a back issue so I was pondering what to cover. With Kneel Before Zod on the shelves, I thought looking back at the original Phantom Zone story and the introduction to General Zod might be fun.

So set the time machine for 1961 and Adventure Comics #283. In all transparency, I have this issue in the Tales From The Phantom Zone trade so might be mining that particular collection more in the future.

Pretty solid cover here by Curt Swan promoting The Phantom Superboy and name dropping the Phantom Zone for the first time. And nice ethereal colors on the phantom hero, showing us the terrain in the background.

On to the story.

'The Phantom Superboy' was written by Robert Bernstein with solid art by George Papp. 

As was the custom back in the day, the opening page was almost a second cover teasing the story. Given how the Phantom Zone and the two villains in the story have remained major components in the Superman mythos, it is a little amusing that neither are strongly shown in either place.

Instead, here, we learn that Superboy is an intangible phantom and that the Clark Kent robot that is imitating him is about to reveal his big secret. Obviously this very Silver Age story construct is a silly part of this story.

The story opens with Clark showing Lana the latest new-fangled appliance back in the day ... an electric typewriter! This must have been a big deal in the past with a couple of panels showing how it is plugged in and turned on! How the keys barely need to be touched to type. That alone both dates the issue and makes it somehow nostalgically charming.

Lana shows up and wonders if the powerful electric impulses of super-brain waves might be able to communicate to this wondrous tech!

We definitely get the sense of this world. Clark helping Pa in the general store. Lana pining for Superboy while being chummy with Clark.

Also, if you think this wasn't foreshadowing, you don't know Silver Age storytelling well.

As happened often in the Silver Age, an artifact from Krypton somehow makes its way to Earth, crash landing in New Mexico. A giant metal box hits the ground unharmed, a Kryptonese plaque on the outside. Superboy is called in to examine and open it.

Inside he is shocked to find a note from Jor-El! And a cache of weapons!

It is important to read the letter carefully as these devices were considered so dangerous that Krypton didn't even want them to stay on the planet. Now you think that they might just destroy them themselves but I suppose rocketing them away where anyone might discover and use them seemed like a better idea?

And please keep that rocketing part in your head for a bit.

Inside Superboy discovers a disintegrating ray and an enlarging ray, both which have disastrous effects.

Then he dons this telepathic helmet which relays the story of the Phantom Zone and how to use the now famous Phantom Zone ray projector. No where in this story does it say Jor-El discovered the Zone and invented the projector. 

We learn about two of the villains that are in the Zone.

One is Professor Xa-Du, sent to the Zone for conducting experiments on Kryptonians and putting them into suspended animation, which was against the law on Krypton. It is interesting that Xa-Du says all the subjects volunteered for the experiment. Still, he is sent to the Zone for 30 years. 

And then we hear of General Zod's crime. Zod invented an imperfect duplicator ray (like Bizarro, first seen in a Superboy story as well) and created an army of himself to try and overthrow Krypton.

There is little further explanation. We don't know why he aimed to overthrow the world. We don't know how his army was defeated. What we do know is he was sent to the Zone for 40 years. 

How interesting that this little throwaway story, those three panels, led to General Zod being such a huge part of Superman lore. A lot of creators picked up this baton and ran. Truly fascinating.

Okay. Now my question. If Jor-El and Krypton decided to rocket the Phantom Zone projector into space, how would they release these criminals after they served their terms? Why did they think this was too dangerous to keep on the planet? There might be a good story in there to be told.

Unfortunately, we move squarely back into the Silver Age. A lizard hits the button and sends Superboy into the zone.

In the Zone, Superboy can only watch while crime runs rampant.

I absolutely love that third panel with Superboy openly weeping because of his inability to interact with the physical world. 

With no choice, Pa has to activate a faulty Clark robot to cover for his missing son. The thing is on the fritz, almost doing superhuman robotic feats as seen in the opening splash. 

Now Clark is doubly peeved. He can't stop crime and his identity is about to be revealed.

Again, it truly feels like this is the meat of this story and not the discovery of the Phantom Zone or the existence of other Kryptonian survivors (albeit in the Zone).

As if on cue, Clark remembers the electric typewriter and Lana's thoughts on brainwaves.

Focusing his mind, he is able to get a crucial message to print on the typewriter giving Pa the instructions to release him. 

I don't know if the final panel gives us any idea of where the projector is going. Is he dropping that cache of weapons into the sea (given the boat on the horizon)? 

And that's that ... the first appearance of the Phantom Zone and General Zod. The end panel does promise that perhaps he'd look more into the Zone in the future. Maybe DC was waiting to see if there was fan clamor for more?

But, for me, this is far more interesting to look at from a historic perspective. This is a 14 page story but the actual peek into the Phantom Zone and its criminals is only one page. So I am pretty amazed that it caught on enough to become what it is now. So the story, especially the electric typewriter resolution, is average but the legend it spawned has to be considered in the grade.

Overall grade: B-


PT Dilloway said...

Those Silver Age comics are so kooky. It's kind of ironic if they had just left those weapons on Krypton they would have been destroyed when the planet blew up; by sending them away Jor-El actually makes it so they can continue being used.

Anonymous said...

Is it me, or does Superboy sometimes come off as a bit of a blunderer in the Silver Age? :)

BTW this story was turned into a teleplay for the proposed Johnny Rockwell "Superboy" TV show circa 1961...never produced though, as the series was not picked up.


Martin Gray said...

It’s always fascinating to be reminded of the humble beginnings of things that became stalwarts of the Superman Legend. Lana really shows some sharp thinking around Chekhov-El’s electric typewriter. Maybe one day she’ll get a job as a science reporter!