The Phantom Stranger #19. May-June, 1972. DC Comics. The Phantom Stranger: “Return to the Tomb of the Ice Giants.” Writer: Len Wein. Artist: Jim Aparo. Dr. 13, the Ghost-Breaker: “The Voice of Vengeance.” Writer: Steve Skeates. Artist: Tony DeZuniga. Mark Merlin (reprint): “Captive of the Cat Curse.” Title Editor: Joe Orlando.

I’ve always liked the Phantom Stranger. It took me a while to find one Phantom Stranger comic that stood out above the rest (always a good reason to go through a lot of comics; the search for an absolute favorite). I definitely had to consider Secret Origins #10, which presented four variations on the Stranger’s origin, highlighted by an outstanding Alan Moore story. Then there was The Phantom Stranger #33, not so much for the story but for the sheer enjoyment of artist Mike Grell’s early work for DC. Then there’s the bizarre ‘team-up’ of the Phantom Stranger and the Spawn of Frankenstein in The Phantom Stranger #26. All great comics. But the one that won out was The Phantom Stranger #19, for a number of reasons. First, the cover. Artist Neal Adams effectively portrays the terror of the situation, while the Phantom Stranger, in the form of a windswept, snow-capped peak, looks on in nonchalant observance.

The story takes place at the tail end of comics’ ‘relevant’ era. Ex-geologist turned environmental activist Anthony Blake seeks to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline across the Arctic. He can’t convince the headstrong supervisor of the project that man’s “progress” is destroying the Earth. So Blake allies himself with a race of Snow Giants that live beneath the Arctic surface. Unfortunately, that alliance has resulted in the murder of seven men working on the pipeline project. The Snow Giants, though grateful for Blake’s information on the location of the pipeline, do not take kindly to being used to further Blake’s cause. Blake snaps, firing a gun at his girlfriend and the Phantom Stranger. The missed shots cause an avalanche that destroys the passageway that allows the Snow Giants to reach the surface world. Blake is either trapped with the Snow Giants or has perished. The construction crew regroup and continue work on the pipeline.

When the Snow Giants make their full-scale appearance on page 13, Wein pulls no punches with the narrative introduction: “Take legend and give it form — hone the edges sharp on the grindstone of insanity — fill that polished shape with every dark whisper of night, every muttered curse ever bespoke by man — and you will still have less than this…” Aparo’s art matches the description. These giants are huge and they’re scary. Wein and Aparo made a great team on PS. When they both left the comic, the quality of the book, despite a bold and controversial new look, simply paled in comparison.

There’s also a fine Dr. 13 backup feature. The Ghost-Breaker comes to the aid of an old friend who is being haunted by his father’s voice. The father died of natural causes, but from the grave he is now accusing his son of murdering him. Dr. Terrence Thirteen, of course, doesn’t buy into the supernaturalness of the situation. He knows someone very much alive is behind the haunting. To say the butler did it doesn’t tell the whole story! Writer Steve Skeates convincingly steers the story from the supernatural to darker aspects of the human condition.

Rounding out this issue is an unfortunately uncredited but surprisingly entertaining Mark Merlin mystery. No blood, no death, just an ancient curse that stalks the streets of an American city. Merlin and girlfriend Elsa save us all!

The Phantom Zone #1. January, 1982. DC Comics. “The Haunting of Charlie Kweskill.” Writer: Steve Gerber. Artists: Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga. Editor: Dick Giordano.

It’s a goofy cover — more like an over-the-top DC house ad than anything else — but inside is an excellent story. “The Haunting of Charlie Kweskill” — potentially an even goofier title — tells the history of Krypton’s Phantom Zone, and unveils the hideous plot of General Zod to escape, along with many of Krypton’s most dangerous and ruthless criminals, from the Zone to our Earth. Released a few months after the movie Superman II, it’s more a Superman comic book fan’s take on the Phantom Zone criminals as opposed to the Hollywood action-packed blockbuster. There is tight continuity with Superman’s history, writer Steve Gerber’s compelling narration and uncanny good sense with dialogue, fine art by Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga, and a knockout cliffhanger ending to set up part two. The title reflects Daily Planet paste-up man Charlie Kweskill’s unfortunate state of mind and body as the story unfolds, but it’s a plot device that Gerber utilizes with exceptional skill. I feel that The Phantom Zone is the best of DC’s early efforts with the miniseries format.

© 2004, Jim Kingman