Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Review: Phantom Zone #4

Today I review Phantom Zone #4, the final chapter of the mini-series which introduced teh concept of Aethyr the Oversoul into the DCU.

As I have said in prior reviews of this mini, this is about as crazy a Superman story as you are going to read. We go to Hell and back, from the lurid to the psychedelic, and then back to Earth for a slugfest. I don't know if I have ever read something quite like this before. And certainly as a 12 year old reading this off the rack, I was both confused and elated.

Writer Steve Gerber does a great job of mixing a weird, almost horror vibe to the story as Superman travels through Aethyr in hoping to get to Earth. Last issues trip through the layers leads to the monster's lair. But, as usual, Gerber provides us with oddly paced side scenes to flesh out the story. From the opening 5 page scene of the nihilistic Nadira and Az-Rel destroying a punk rock club to Faora Hu-Ul doing what she does best, a lot of pages are spent making sure we know who these villains are and what they would do if left to tromp around Earth.

Artists Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga are on art again and really have had to stretch themselves this whole series. We are in the dingy back streets of Gotham and the surrealistic landscapes of Aethyr. I can't imagine anyone better suited for the job.

And as a side note, once again Supergirl is treated with tremendous respect getting into the main action sequences and quipping her way through clobbering the villains. Just great stuff.

Settle in once more for the weird!

We start out with our beatnik and extra-powered Krytponians, Az-Rel and Nadira hanging out in a rock and roll club somewhere. The punk band on stage bemoans that Supergirl and Wonder Woman stopped the nuclear Armageddon last issue.

Az-Rel and Nadira are bemused at the level of existential ennui seen in the revelers. They decide to up the game showing they care neither about life or death. The move by Nadira to shove the knife into her neck is wonderfully dramatic.

When those gathered get upset at the Kryptonians spoiling the fun, Nadira makes them convulse while Az-Rel makes them burn both with his pyrotic powers and his heat vision. They leave behind a burned club littered with bodies.

We get 4 pages of this! I love that Gerber gives the scene that room to breathe so we get to see just how psychotic these two are. I mean, if you remove them from the story, the main plot moves along fine. But I love seeing that not all the Kryptonian criminals fall in line behind Zod.

Meanwhile, Faora Hu-Ul does what she does best. 

In a distant country, she lures a shepherd into her arms by bathing seductively in a nearby pond. 

As he succumbs to her feminine wiles, she unleashes her anger against males. She crushes him like tissue paper.

Again, this is an added scene which shows us how deadly these criminals are without impacting the main story. But I love it.

In particular, the way the scene rolls out is fantastic as we go from 'romance' to horror in a millisecond.  Faora turns froma bathing beauty into a siren when she lures the man into her grasp. Colan and DeZuniga just bring it here.

Once more, I wonder how Gerber got away with these scenes which build up the universe but are sort of tangential to the main story.

Meanwhile, we finally see what Zod's ultimate plan is. 

If he had to suffer in the Phantom Zone at the hands of the Els then Superman's whole adopted planet will suffer too! He has built a Phantom Zone cannon powered by the Green Lantern battery. Once the Earth revolves around it once, the whole place will go into the Zone.

It seems like an overly elaborate and overtly vengeful scheme by Zod. Why not rule the planet? Or raze it? Or fly off as far away from it as possible?

Ahhh, pride cometh before the fall.

As for Superman and Quex-Ul, they have pierced the final veil of the Phantom Zone and have finally come face to face with Aethyr.

This demon god seems a bit haughty in his discussions. 

Since they have made it this far into the Oversoul, they will now be absorbed into him.

This is his realm with his rules, so our heroes begin to literally melt.

I love how Aethyr is never really truly seen. He is just this sort of purplish devil bathed in smoke.

Superman and Quex-Ul become wild blobs of ink, tossed about and sent to another scene.

As I have said all along, this is a crazy story which veers from ground super-hero action to this sort of bizarre nightmarish stuff.

Superman reduced to a smear of ink is just crazy. That maelstrom of colors is wild.

But let's make it weirder just to be weird. 

Aethyr plops them onto a city street scenario to 'confuse' them. And then when they get reintegrated, Superman is in Quex-Ul's clothes and Quex-Ul is wearing the red S.

In hopes of finally redeeming himself and proving he is a hero, Quex-Ul flies up into the maw of Aethyr only to have his soul absorbed into the beast. He is now one with the Oversoul.

And it looks like Superman will end that way as well!

Angered beyond words, Superman dons his famous costume again and screams defiantly at Aethyr that the Oversoul won't have the same luck.

That panel of the giddy Aethyr, cackling about the death of Quex-Ul is fantastic.

I said things were nutty in this book.

Superman knows that Earth is just beyond this last plane of existence.

He also flies up to face Aethyr. But rather than fly into the unholy fire spewed from Aethyr's mouth, he burrows into the demon's skull. 

What he sees defies his senses, ghosts and wraiths and more demons, the souls absorbed by Aethyr. They are wretches, unable to be saved. 

And then he smashes through the crystalline curtain back into the real universe, freed from the Oversoul.

I love this page, especially that middle panel. That is Superman flying through Hell.

Back in the real world, the remaining heroes feel the Earth shudder under the rays of Zod's cannon. Without a second's pause, Supergirl simply says she will be back and flies into space.

She meets her cousin above the Earth. Together they batter some of the lesser known criminals and shatter the cannon. Supergirl grabs the power battery and with pinpoint accuracy flings it to Wonder Woman who hands it to Hal.

Superman just batters them and a repowered Green Lantern comes and cages most of them.

But the main baddies Zod and Faora fly off, streaking to Metropolis.

There they are spotted by Nadira and Az-Rel who are so anti-authority that they use their powers on their Phantom Zone compatriots. Zod collapses in seizures. And Faora erupts into flame.

And now, my favorite page in the book. Faora crawls out of the river, burned and mutilated, vowing revenge.

There is Kara, standing with supreme confidence and sassiness, calling Faora 'Sweet Cheeks' before presumably mopping the floor with her off-panel.

Now this is the Kara I want to see.

Smug in their display of power over Zod and Faora, the two walk the streets of Metropolis only to run into the zealot Jer-Em.

You may remember that Jer-Em was wracked with guilt over his role in the death of Argo City. Plagued by his sin, he has decided to subject himself to Kryptonite, slowly killing himself. And he thinks that Az-Rel and Nadira deserve the same fate. He is Rao's prophet of doom.

He grabs Nadira who already is weak.

Ahhh, the disenfranchised youth! I love how Az-Rel, who had spoken how death and life were the same and he would embrace death suddenly runs when death is knocking on his door. So much for his existential ethics!

Nadira feels completely betrayed by her lover leaving her so uses her powers to make him convulse. This attack on Az-Rel's mind has him unleash his power on himself. He burns himself to ash.

Suddenly Superman is left with three corpses.

Just a brutal ending for these three. Suicide, murder, and death by a lover.

I love Gerber's words here, describing how beautiful Az-Rel is in death.

There is nothing left but the wrap-up. 

Green Lantern creates a new Phantom Zone projector and sends the surviving Kryptonian criminals back to the ethereal prison. 

Before there can be much discussion though, Superman flies off. He doesn't even share what he saw in the Zone. He can only mull over Charlie's sacrifice and all he saw.


Talk about a melange of horror, psychedelia, and good old fashioned super-heroics. Face it true believer! This one had it all!

I love this mini-series for this boldness, this experimentation. 

It happens both fast and slow, an amazing job of pacing by the group. So issue three has us pinballing through Aethyr and its planes while issue four devotes pages to side plots. All this in the gorgeous packaging of Colan's art. 

Plus, and this is really part of my love for this, Supergirl is at the top of her game here, doing more to save Earth than anyone. And her takedown of Faora is legendary.

Now you know about Aethyr. There is one more issue with him though, one which I may cover at length if there is enough clamor!

Overall grade: A


Professor Alan said...

You do wonder what they were going for in bringing in Gerber to tell a Superman-related story. Was it purely an experiment to see how his wackiness would work at DC? Was it a tryout for him?

Now, about 40 years later, it's a cool artifact of a weird time in comics.

Anj said...

It is doubly interesting they chose Superman.

Not a horror anthology? Or The Demon? Or Deadman? Or even Zatanna?

Yes, this is a cool artifact.

Steve said...

Clamor X 1000. Enough clamor for that promised follow up?

H said...

I'll add to the clamor, as I've read the issue in question and it's ever nuttier than the mini-series. They really pull out all the stops (and I do mean all the stops). It's also a historically significant issue, as it's officially the final appearance of the Earth-One Superman (Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is considered an alternate Earth story).

Professor Feetlebaum said...

It's interesting that this series, in which Supergirl is treated with "tremendous respect" was edited, not by Julie Schwartz, but by Dick (Superman with b**bs) Giordano.

I have the impression that Giordano was more of a "hands off" editor who gave his writers as much freedom as he possibly could. He was a great talent. It's just too bad that he failed to see Kara as anything more than a girl version of Superman.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for spotlighting this mini. For all my knowledge of things "Super," it seems there is always some new and wonderful obscurity to discover. I only glanced at your posts (because SPOILERS!), but the art alone was enough to sell me. As a kid, I used to read both "Tomb of Dracula" and "Howard the Duck," so Colan and Gerber are both faves from way back. I have purchased a copy of the trade collection of "The Phantom Zone" off eBay, and eagerly await its arrival!

Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments!

I will definitely do the followup to this at some point, probably late October given brief peek at schedule.

Interesting point about Giordano editing and Supergirl's portrayal given he was the one who authorized her death in Crisis and felt she was dispensable.

H said...

I don't know if that's an accurate portrayal of Dick Giordano. From what I remember reading, Supergirl was the death he had to think over the most before he said yes. Plus, he inked the Deadman Christmas story she was in after the Crisis. Admittedly, I'm firmly in the 'Crisis was a bad thing and should never have happened' camp but I'm willing to look at both sides of things.

Jfeer said...

Just remember Faora came within an ace of snuffing Kal El in 1977 (I think), Supergirl scoffs at her threats and clobbers the Kryptonian Psycho off panel...this is like a single panel summation of everything I have ever loved about Supergirl, she is A-List when she is proud confident and courageous. How could they kill her off when all she needed was an artist & writer willing to see her potential? Is that a barnacle on Superman's Hulk that repowers Green Lantern? Who takes out Faora like a hefty bag? Who soars over Metropolis like a Goddess? Who crawls out of that disintegration cauldron determined to mete out justice, not vengeance.
THAT Supergirl wouldn't sit back and watch a barbaric stoning with a small smile on her face!
This is Supergirl as Superman's Equal, she has never really reached that pinnacle since this time, food for though IMHO.


Anj said...

Good point H. As we know from his famous note, he initially wrote 'non of the above' before clicking 'yes'

Professor Feetlebaum said...

Wasn't it Jenette Kahn who first checked off "none of the above" before crossing it out and checking "yes" on Giordano's "can we kill Supergirl" memo?

Whatever Giordano's feelings about Supergirl (and he did speak somewhat contemptuously of Kara in that Back Issue 34 interview), in the end it was Kahn who had the final say so.

I wonder if there was a similar memo regarding Barry Allen?

Anj said...

Yes, it was Kahn who checked that off when Dick asked if they could kill her off. My dodgy memory strikes again.

I think the writing was on the wall for Barry. No note needed.

H said...

Yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, Barry wasn't going to fit into the new DC. I still wish that they hadn't killed him and just left him in the future with Iris or something. He was one of the good ones, one of the few that never got tainted by those late 60's/early 70's 'updates'.

I seem to remember reading somewhere (possibly in one of those articles you posted, Anj) that Marv Wolfman wrote in some way for Barry to come back that nobody ever used.

Anonymous said...

Well at the end of the day, it was Jenette Kahn's decision, she could have overrode Giordano & Wolfman, instead she hemmed &hawed and opted to Fridge Supergirl. The irony is stark and brutal, Kahn a feminist and a trailblazing feminist & publisher in a then male dominated milieu opted for cheap heat by making a human sacrifice of a female character that a male character might regain his popularity and singular uniqueness.
If that isn't sexism and deference to patriarchy...then what is??
But in her defense, she was under intense pressure to extract more profits from DC Comics from Warner Brothers, she'd fended off a bid to end the creation of new DCU comics and nearly got fired shortly thereafter, I don't think she ever felt her position secure, any pandering type solution probably seemed worthwhile from where she sat.
For me, what I remember is the bleak stupid HATE that emanated from DC whenever Supergirl was mentioned thereafter, they expelled Supergirl from their continuity which is a direct rebuke to her fans, a stark threat to learn to love Power Girl or else become She Hulk Fans or some damn thing. And that hate lasted 19 years, the COIE casualties ebbed and flowed in that period, but Supergirl's death remained seemingly eternal.


Professor Feetlebaum said...

I also remember reading something somewhere about an idea that Marv Wolfman had for bringing back Barry Allen if DC chose to do so. I couldn't find an actual quote from Wolfman, but I did find an article at Comic Book Resources under "Comic Book Legends Revealed #483", dated 8/8/14. Here's what it says:

"The idea was that since leading up to his death Barry was traveling erratically through time, Barry would pop up in the present day from the time-travelling journey that led to his death. Barry would then live in the present knowing that at any moment he will be picked up and sent to the NEXT step in his travels, which will ultimately lead to his death. Wolfman felt that this would be a major shake-up and would add a great sense of drama to the series."

About that note, I'd sure like to know what was going through Jenette Kahn's mind when she checked off the boxes. Did she check "none of the above" and then immediately change her mind, or did she think about it for awhile? Giordano seemed to want an answer ASAP. What course would Supergirl's history have taken if Kahn had stuck to her first answer?