I just read the greatest comic. It made me feel like a kid again! Let me tell you why.
Come and time travel with me, muchachos, back to the days when the air tasted of sweet, honeyed promise, when summer days lasted forever and winter snow-days were frequent and glorious. Join me as we twist through the time stream and kerplop! ourselves down into the loosey-goosey 1980s that’re all the rage with you hip retro youngsters.
There was a time when DC comics was this wonderful, crazy mess of weird lore and alternate realities (wasn’t even really called the ‘multiverse’ yet, these were just ‘alternate Earths’… and, side note here, but that these whole Universes were denoted by their “Earths” always amused me! But that’s neither here nor there) …and where was I?
Yes, it was a wonderful mess! DC (later, “DC Universe”) had accumulated nigh on fifty years of history, much of it not exactly knitting together into a flawless tapestry. Readers didn’t give a damn — and by readers I am talking about kids, because comics were still decidedly For Kids at this time, despite the maturing of comics in the 70’s. Kids didn’t mind that there was an older Superman with gray temples and an old-timey ‘S’ in the books sometimes; we could see they were set in olden days and we instinctively knew it was the-same-but-not as the one who was also WGBS News Anchor Clark Kent. We knew Superboy was “the adventures of Superman, when he was a boy!” and it was cool that all three of those dudes could maybe even team up, surewhynot.
DC was a poorly-stitched tapestry of hyper-creative crap all built on top of itself and it was one thousand percent, and in the most literal of meanings, awesome! And the DC folks blew it all up!
It’s not as dire as that sounds, and maybe we’ll eventually talk a whole lot more about CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, that continuity-altering nuclear bomb that continues erupting to this day, having spawned …I have lost count of how many further Crises and reality-reboots. What matters is that you understand that several years pre-CRISIS was a Very Cool and Very Weird time for DC Comics. The comics nerds were running the creative show to a great degree, and the entire comics hobby seems to attract list-makers and continuity-counters and things that obsessive minds enjoy obsessing over. Even before the great CRISIS, certain creative types always pushed to make new stories that would tie up and explain away old pieces of continuity. It’s a weird obsession shared by precisely half the comics community and I don’t want to alienate those that really do care about the minutiae! It’s all good! The weird stories generated by these bouts of continuity-correcting are a constant source of fascination for me.
Which brings me to this book. SUPERMAN: PHANTOM ZONE. I love this damn book so much! It exists specifically to tell more about that weird Flash Gordon-y pre-CRISIS Krypton (where people basically wear superhero costumes as street fashion), focusing on the awful serial killers and human monsters that had in the past been condemned to the Phantom Zone. The Phantom Zone is much more than the pane-of-glass we all remember from Superman II; in DC lore it’s both terribly cold and yet you have no sensation of your body; you exist as pure thought in a place without form but you can spy on the Real World whenever/wherever you want (which is creepy!) and it’s purply misty and yet people walk around and sit in bummed out poses …and it’s sort of a cave system too? Anyway, not a pane of glass flying through space.
There will be more to come on Superman The Movie and Superman II in future missives, trust me! A subject dear to my heart! Or click below to follow this Twitter rabbit hole I fell down on Sunday, live-tweeting during a rewatch of Superman The Movie.
(I was super high.) Anyway, back to the comic!
General Zod plots revenge, the mad ones go madder still and we learn over the course of this story many details about who they all are and what they did to deserve Phantom Zone imprisonment.
Some of it’s pretty grisly, so a side note here: this comic is pre-CRISIS, but it’s also from 1982, which means it’s solidly Bronze Age. Storytellers are doing much more complicated storylines and are starting to get more graphic in references to violence. This maturing and complexity, layered over what are still at their core Silver Age goofy fun heroes, created some funky comics.
By 1982 the World of Krypton and the Phantom Zone had already had tales told about it in backup stories and references and flashbacks, so it seems the primary reason for this miniseries was to tie all this old stuff together while trying to tell a kick-ass tale. Intermixed is some metaphysical/philosophical stuff Gerber’s working out in his own head that I don’t begin to understand, and also a glance at the national Cold War fear surrounding nuclear conflict.
This epic begins with Charlie, a dude who (does a job that doesn’t exist nowadays), works pasting up layouts (with razor and glue!) at the newspaper production office. Specifically, the Daily Planet office, specifically with Perry White screaming at poor Charlie for sleeping on the job.
Charlie can’t sleep at home because he has bad dreams, you see — and we’re invited along to witness as he ‘dreams’ of Krypton decades ago, before it exploded! It’s a frame for an extended sequence of wonderful vignettes beginning to show us the histories of the Phantom Zone Criminals and the Zone itself. They don’t really do these expository history recaps much these days, but this was common storytelling practice at the time. I loved it. More story! Took longer to read! Felt like more bang for my buck! Same reason I always grab Annuals and Specials from once-quarter-now-dollar bins.
It’s pretty cool how this is all part of Zod’s great escape plan and I’m not going to retell a story that I think some of you will want to read. And it’s worth reading! I’ll share a few highlights.
The art is by Gene Colan. He is one of those all-time art greats that I never appreciated back in the day, but I love now that I’m in my marinated middle age. He is known for beautiful runs on Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, others; he’s done it all. He co-created Blade! He’s amazing!
PHANTOM ZONE is amazing-looking, because it’s in his loose style. It’s a treat a to see it on what are basically the Super Friends.
Speaking of! Guest stars abound! Besides headliner Superman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl have significant roles, Batman too has a big part, as does Green Lantern, and we have a nice cameo of the rest of the Satellite Era Justice League (more to come on that topic another time, I promise) and a very tight story explanation for why these heroes (Firestorm, Flash, Elongated Man, Zatanna) are written out.
Oh! I tweeted a gag while reading, and Robert Crais REPLIED! I am star-struck! Robert Crais is amazing and a big deal! I’m celebrity-adjacent!
Back to the comic! You can get my autograph later!
Steve Gerber is the writer - he was an old-school out-there underground comix dude. He co-created Howard the Duck! He was a big name in that psychedelic 70s Marvel era. Here Gerber gives Colan a lot of wacky out-there concepts to visualize and he gives the reader a ton of story even while he stitches together threads of old DC lore that would ultimately be undone whole-cloth in the CRISIS just a few years hence.
It’s through that lens I can’t help but read this story, knowing that all this nutty storytelling that sprang from such an odd series of concepts, would all become naught… yet not forgotten.
The 4-issue miniseries apparently wasn’t the final word on the subject of the Phantom Zone and the Kryptonian criminals. In 1986, in the final issue of DC Comics Presents (a Superman team-up comic) Steve Gerber returns with a very specific epilogue. This was that dreadful during-CRISIS time when the old books were shutting down. It felt so sad to me at the time. Exciting, of course; I was thrilled for the new post-CRISIS DC Universe! But it was still sad to see books like this and others, end.
Steve Gerber is even more woo-woo out-there in this epilogue, layering in a sorta ‘Secret Origins’ tale for the Phantom Zone that extrapolates on groundwork from the miniseries and reveals that it’s …a living being evolved from the billions of souls of another dimension who all suicided to condense their souls into a massive heart-shaped diamond. That’s some trippy horseshit, hearties! It’s stuff fun to read, especially in context that this is a final opportunity for this weird dude to obsess about his acid-flashback sentient Phantom Zone concept, then it veers into truly WTF territory when the Phantom Zone possesses Mister Mxyzptlk by becoming a crystalline watch cap, I guess (looking a lot like when Brainiac took over Luthor’s dead body in Alan Moore’s classic FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING) and remote-controlling him into… shit, I am not spoiling this for you. It’s batshit crazy.
This book is amazing and weird on so many levels… I hate that I keep saying “amazing” and “weird”, and I know I should be using better, more descriptive terms but, wow. They’re apt.
I want people to read this book. I want to have discussions about it! I’m serious. It’s so easy to get a copy of the collected edition (that includes that DCCP #97 ‘coda’ issue) brand-spankin’ new; you won’t pay more than $15 for a copy and if you hunt about you can probably get a deal. Digital is a solid option as well!
This is just great reading, folks — assuming your tastes more or less align with mine, trust me; grab this, enjoy, and hit me back! I want to know what you thought.
Until next time, friends!
Plenty of Pulp, by Max Cage
Published at Here We Are Now, Entertain Us and at The Wednesday Pull List