Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Back Issue Box: Phantom Zone #1

In a couple of recent issues, both Action Comics Annual 2021 and Wonder Woman 778, we were reintroduced to Aethyr, the oversoul, the entity who actually is the Phantom Zone. I was blown away. As a long time reader, I knew Aethyr first appeared in one of the most brutal and trippiest mini-series of my youth, The Phantom Zone.

There is a lot to unpack in this mini-series. But the first thing to discuss is the creative team. Steve Gerber was the writer on the book. I think of Gerber mostly as a Marvel writer, and usually on the weirder side of that universe. books like Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, and The Defenders. He certainly brings the craziness to this Superman story. We don't exactly get there in issue one. But hold on to your hats.

Gene Colan is on art. I love Colan's art. But I don't know if I would ever think of him as a Superman artist. I don't even think of him as a super-hero artist. I think he is fine on street level books like Daredevil or Nathaniel Dusk. But he truly shines on horror books like Tomb of Dracula and Night Force. His art here is stunning, especially when we get to the more psychedelic aspects of this story. But we have to get through some standard super-heroics first.

Phantom Zone #1 is also a bit of a vestige of a time when there weren't wikis and internet searches and DC encyclopedias at a comic fan's beck and call. This first issue is a primer on the Zone and its occupants. As a young fan who encountered the Phantom Zone villains here and there, to have this issue's role call hearing about all the prisoners and why they were imprisoned, I was in heaven. More comic knowledge to imbibe. We barely scratch the plot here. But what a delightful info dump. Heck, it was this issue I learned about Quex-Ul, a key figure in this story.

Okay, enough preamble. Let's dive into this issue!

We start rather mundanely.

A typesetter at the Daily Planet, Charlie Kweskill, has literally fallen asleep at the job. 

Perry reads him the riot act. The paper needs to be printed and can't be until Charlie does his work. If he can't stay awake, he may as well take a powder.

But after blowing up, Perry takes the time to make sure Charlie gets a taxi to get home safely and tells him to get some rest. He is a valued employee. I like that Perry is a caring boss.

But home is the last place Charlie wants to be because it is here that he is overcome with fear and visions.

He sees his reflection in the mirror, his head bandaged, and wondered how a criminal like him could be wearing a headband. And then the hallucinations overwhelm him.

They are all visions of an alien world. It is a place of scarlet jungles, gold volcanoes, jewel mountains. It is a world he was born on and a world that died. Savvy readers know this is Krypton.

I love how already you can see how Colan is going inject some Dr. Strange craziness into the mix. Even though this is a planet, this environment looks like chaos, like Hell almost. The fever dream version of staid Krypton.

His visions turn into memories ... or more like historical moments.

He witnesses the science council on the day Jor-El shows his Phantom Zone ray for the first time. He demonstrates on his wife Lara, who he sends there and then brings back. Her phantom smiling overhead as she witnesses this. He feels this is a more humane prison than Krypton's current system, putting the guilty in suspended animation and rocketing them into orbit for their sentence.

Having never read the first appearance of the Zone, I don't know how true this is to history. But as a kid thirsting for Superman knowledge, this was fantastic history to learn.

Jor-El's rival that day, a man named Gra-Mo is the last person rocketed into space, his scheme of mentally controlling Krypton's robot labor force stymied.

And then, as I said, we get a historical rundown of all the prisoners and their crimes.

 Jax-Ur for  destroying the manned moon of Wegthor.

Va-Kox for running illegal experiments on evolution with Krypton's marine life with disastrous results.

Dr. Xa-Du for putting people into suspended animation (even though the people volunteered for the experiments.

And then this horrific page where we see Faora Hu-Ul and her farm where she sadistically tortures men.

All these pages are beautifully drawn by Colan. But this one really evokes his horror mastery.  These decomposing men in bags is terrifying.

And even more.

We get a longer history of General Zod and his attempt to take over the world with an army of almost Bizarro like duplicates.

But Gerber continues to infuse some philosophy to the works. How can a place as advanced as Krypton continue to create such fiends? Why does evil exist?

But there is more.

We meet Nadira who can cause seizures with her telepathy. And we me Az-Rel who can light things on fire with his mind.

Are these the first super-powered native Kryptonians? I don't think the planet had an enhanced population.

But they too are captured and sent to the zone.

The list goes on. Kru-El is put in the Zone for creating forbidden weapons. And then a long list of names whose crimes we don't see. Some I recognize like Shyla Kor-Onn and Ak-Var. Others I don't like Ze-Da and Cha-Mel.

And then we get to Quex-Ul, a man who looks like Charlie, who has a penchant for green and yellow shirts like Charlie. (Yes this is Charlie.) He is put into the zone for slaughtering the protected Rondors and using their healing horns for his own gain.

Now we know why Charlie remembers. But why has he forgotten. Perhaps one day I'll review his origin story which I have read in Superman #227.

I just have to say again that as a kid reading this off the rack this was a treasure trove of history. When I added this knowledge to that in the three issue mini-series 'The World of Krypton' and 'The Krypton Chronicles', well I felt like a true expert.

At this time I didn't know Xa-Du or Quex-Ul. And while I knew Zod and Faora and Jax-Ur, I didn't know their origin stories.

Ultimately, we know Krypron's fate.

The planet explodes, trapping the criminal wraiths inside the dimension forever.

It turns out that Quex-Ul, robbed of his powers and memories by Gold Kryptonite, is susceptible to the Phantoms psionic attacks from the Zone. They have been driving him mad with these visions but also controlling him at night, sending him out on missions to gather technology, stealing components from various labs. This is why he is so exhausted each day.

While they plot, other phantoms ... like Mon-El and the mad monk Jer-Em are listening. What is this all about.

I knew about how the Phantom Zone villains, if they concentrated, could psychically attack people. I do think that having a fellow Kryptonian, one without super-powers, be more open to these attacks made good sense.

Back at the Planet, Clark realizes he hasn't checked in on Charlie for some time and he regrets it. He flies by Charlie's apartment, thrilling the Metropolis citizens. But he initially finds the apartment empty. 

After the nighttime news program (this was back when Clark worked for WGBS), Clark goes back only to find a confused Charlie putting together some crude device from the missing electronics

It turns out to be a Phantom Zone projector bomb. After the explosion, a group of the criminals are now free. And Charlie and Superman are in the Zone!

Quite the cliffhanger!

But the thing that intrigues me the most is the pacing of this mini-series. Let's face it, there is very little plot to this book. A couple of panels of Charlie stealing things. The last two pages where the bomb is set off. The rest of the book is more of an encyclopedic review of the criminals. My only regret is that there aren't any 'see Action Comics #XXX' editorial boxes to refer to any of these referenced stories.

Honestly, I loved it then and I love it now. Knowing the history of my favorite characters is one of the things I love about comics. But now we have three issues to get through the actual story of the Phantom Zone villains free on Earth.

To complete the feel of this first issue is this 'letters page',The Editorial Zone which added some more history to the Phantom Zone. Again, in an era when you needed to do true research and seek out information without the benefit of never-ending reprint trades and the internet, these things were invaluable.

But wait! 

This was supposed to be a post about Aethyr!

Trust me, I'll get there.

Love this comic. Love this pacing. Love this information. Love this art.

Overall grade: B+


Steve said...

I adored all of Gerber's work besides this mini. It was just too weird and too far removed from anything the Phantom Zone had been before.

Anonymous said...

This is not Gene Colan's best work, in fact most of his DC work from this era is at best "past his prime", but there is still plenty of energy to his pencils. Gerber is a little berserk in his scripting, but it's a "good berserk" by all means, I don't accord with all his ideas but that doesn't mean they aren't intriguing. I like this mini because Supergirl is depicted so well, snarky, confident, she can "take it" and "dish it out in spades".
Its minis like this plus her usual round of guest appearances that reminded me through out the late bronze age of what A Great Character Supergirl always was and is, as opposed to her moribund plotting and lifeless art in most of her SMF Dollar Book Run. She even neatly self rescues in this one via her natural courage and determination...that is "My Kara" to a T!! I won't give more away, this is otherwise a great mini to deep dive.


Martin Gray said...

Thanks for a great look at the first issue of this classic mini-series. I knew a lot of the stuff in there, but the way Gerber made a very different - yet still authentic - Superman story out of it was wonderful. And you can’t beat Gene Colan when it comes to haunting visuals. All this, and a fantastic Supergirl!