Showcase Presents Phantom Stranger volume 2

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1722-8

By the end of 1972 the horror and mystery boom had stabilized into a key component of both DC and Marvel’s core output, with fantasy and sword and sorcery adventurers also scoring well with fans, but the glory days of huge comic-book print-runs were gone forever. However, although a depleted force, superhero comics did not disappear as some older heads suspected they might, and an initially unwieldy amalgam, the horror-hero, soon became a useful crossover sales tool.

Never as common as Marvel’s burgeoning pantheon of spooky crusaders, the most successful of the DC stalwarts were Swamp Thing and the 1950’s revival Phantom Stranger. This volume concludes his impressive second run of tales (see also Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger volume 1 (ISBN: 978-1-4012-1088-5) and includes not only his crossover trips into the greater DC Universe, but also includes the rare final appearances that seemingly ended his career until revived in the post Crisis on Infinite Earths 1980s.

The monochrome magic begins with an impressive chiller from Bob Haney, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito that originally appeared in the Batman team-up vehicle the Brave and the Bold (#89, April/May 1970). ‘Arise Ye Ghosts of Gotham’ saw a religious sect return to the city that had driven them out two centuries previously, only to awaken the vengeful spirits of their banished ancestors until pacified by our initially squabbling heroes.

The Stranger’s return to Brave and the Bold (#98, October/November 1971), was a much more traditional tale, superbly crafted by Haney and Jim Aparo. ‘Mansion of the Misbegotten!’ was a twist-ridden mystery of demon-cults and possession that fully exploited the world-wide obsession with Satanism that began with Rosemary’s Baby and peaked with The Exorcist, as the Gotham Guardian found himself outwitted, outmatched and in dire need of assistance to foil a seemingly diabolical force threatening the life of his godson.

Following on is ‘A Stranger Walks Among Us!’ by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano, as the haunted hero saved Halloween and the World’s Greatest Superheroes from a magical murder plot and consequently joined the Justice League of America (in issue #103 of their own comic, December 1972).

From the same month the Stranger’s own solo adventures featured ‘Circle of Evil’ (Phantom Stranger #22) by Wein and Aparo, wherein the coalition of evil calling itself the Dark Circle initiated its master plan by attacking the hero through blind psychic – and nominal love-interest – Cassandra Craft, whilst Ghost-Breaker Dr. Thirteen exposed another hoary hoax in ‘Creatures of the Night’ by Steve Skeates and Tony DeZuniga. These counterpoints to eldritch adventure, although usually excellent, were rapidly reaching their sell-by date, and very soon Thirteen would be battling real monsters he couldn’t rationalize away…

‘Panic in the Night!’ from #23 saw the Stranger and Cassandra in Paris battling analogues of the Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame as they gathered an unlikely ally for their imminent final clash with the Dark Circle. However, great as this yarn is, the real gem is the back-up feature which transformed Terry Thirteen.

‘The Spawn of Frankenstein!’ saw the discovery of an ice-entombed man-monster lead to dark tragedy. When Victor Adams, a colleague of Dr. Thirteen, attempted to revive the beast it resulted in his death and Thirteen’s wife Marie being crippled and hurled into a coma. The vengeance-crazed Ghost-Breaker resolved to hunt down and destroy the unthinking monster, utterly unaware – and perhaps uncaring – that the beast was both rational and wholly innocent of any misdeed.

Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by the unique talent of Michael Kaluta, this debut promised much, but the feature was plagued by inconsistency. Phantom Stranger #24 (March/April 1973) saw the epic conclusion of the long war against the Dark Circle as the hero and Cassandra battled the ‘Apocalypse!’ in the shadow of Mount Corcovado (that’s the one with the Jesus statue “Christo Redentor” overlooking Rio de Janeiro) with old foes Tannarak and Tala, Queen of Darkness along for the spectacular and long-overdue ride.’The Spawn of Frankenstein continued by Wolfman and Kaluta as the revived monster decided to revenge itself upon Victor Adams for dragging him back to cruel, unwanted life (by returning the favour…) by resurrecting the dead scientist in return…

A new tone and a resumption of episodic, supernatural triage marked issue #25 as the mysterious wanderer pitted himself against a voodoo cult in ‘Dance of the Serpent’ (by Wein – from an idea by Michael J Pellowski – and Aparo) whilst Kaluta ended his run on Frankenstein with another untitled tale wherein Rachel Adams (wife of the departed Doctor) was kidnapped by Satanists before being rescued by the monster; a tale that led into #26’s crossover ‘From Dust Thou Art…’ by Wein, Wolfman and Aparo, which teamed the monster and the Stranger against demons in need of earthly bodies.

The radical change was completed with the next issue as innovative horror-anthology artist Gerry Talaoc replaced the sleek, realistic Aparo (who moved on to the Brave and the Bold and a long career illustrating Batman), whilst journeyman mainstay Arnold Drake assumed the writer’s seat. Together they introduced another long-term nemesis for the Stranger in the deeply disturbed psychiatrist and parapsychologist ‘Dr. Zorn: Soul-Master!’

Eschewing the Gothic trappings that had carried the series thus far this driven meddler, callously warping his patients and performing illicit experiments for the US Military-Industrialist Complex, was a far more insidious and freshly contemporary threat in tune with the times. Thwarted but seldom defeated he returned to bedevil the Stranger many times.

Frankenstein was taken over by Steve Skeates and the legendary Bernard Baily (Golden Age co-creator of Hourman and the Spectre) and ‘The Terror and the Compassion’ saw the misunderstood beast stumble into a commune that was actually a demonic coven intent on blood sacrifice and raising the devil…

‘The Counterfeit Madman!’ by the new regular team saw the Stranger explore the mind of mad-dog killer Johnny Ganz. Was the young offender a true psychopath or a cunning crook pretending to be a multiple-personality sufferer? Was there another innocent victim trapped inside the killer’s skull with him? An element of moral ambiguity had been added by Drake that layered the later adventures with enticing and challenging dilemmas absent from most comic fiction and only matched by Steve Gerber’s challenging work on Man-Thing. The back-up,‘Night of the Snake God’ however, was a more traditional tale which continued the Spawn of Frankenstein’s battle against the hippie cult in a solid if undemanding manner.

Zorn returned to his unscrupulous scientific explorations of the supernatural in Phantom Stranger #29’s ‘The Devil Dolls of Dr. Z!’ whilst matters hardly progressed at all in ‘The Snake-God Revealed!’, which saw the Spawn of Frankenstein lose momentum – and story-space – as his strip was reduced to six pages. The next issue led with another contemporary terror in ‘The Children’s Crusade!’ as a modern Pied Piper seduces a town’s young into his charismatic cult whilst ‘Turn-about!’ concludes – and not before time – the exploits of the Spawn of Frankenstein.

Issue #31 (June-July 1974) is an exotic yarn dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam war as a disgraced US “general” smuggling drugs for a local warlord awakens a slumbering demon in ‘Sacred is the Monster Kang!’ The Stranger tales were usually 12 pages long at this period, but the back-up feature that originally filled up the comics – The Black Orchid – is not included in this volume.

Bill Draut, one of the Stranger’s earliest illustrators returned in #32’s ‘It Takes a Witch…!’ an old-fashioned spooky whodunit, whilst superstar-in-waiting Mike Grell illustrated another Dr. Zorn vehicle that guest-starred the ghost of Boston Brand. In ‘Deadman’s Bluff!’ the ghost’s protracted hunt for his murderer ended as usual in frustration, but an antagonistic partnership was established for the future…

Talaoc returned for ‘A Death in the Family!’ in #34 where a “clean” brother was compelled to assume control of the family’s business – running a crime mob. His guilt was further compounded when his dead sibling returned from the grave to give him a few pointers. Increasingly the Stranger was becoming a mere witness to supernatural events in his own series, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that this issue featured a return for the more hands-on Dr. Thirteen (wife Marie cured and both of them ignoring their brief stint of Frankensteinian tragedy). ‘…And the Dog Howls Through the Night!’ was another straightforward yet gripping adventure from Skeates and Tony Dezuniga, which I suspect had been waiting a few years in a drawer before publication.

‘The Demon Gate’ was the debut tale for writer David Michelinie who made the Stranger a target for the derivative Dr. Nathan Seine who wanted to siphon off the hero’s mystic energy and soul to cure his dying wife, and like ‘Crimson Gold’, a deadly African treasure hunt for Nazi treasure in #36, it briefly betokened a more active role for the immortal wanderer. Drake and Paul Levitz scripted ‘Images of the Dead’ in Phantom Stranger #37, another highly charged moral quandary wherein a young artist was forced to commit reprehensible crimes to earn money for his wife’s hospital bills…

Talaoc made way for fellow Philippino artist Fred Carrillo with issue #38 as Nathan Seine returned to extract a bitter revenge in Levitz’s ‘The Curse of the Stalking Skull’ and this new creative team brought back Boston Brand for ‘Death Calls Twice for a Deadman’ in a last-ditch effort to revive dwindling sales. Including the sometime Batman villain the Sensei signaled a belated return to the company’s over-arching continuity, but it was too little, too late.

Deadman also co-starred in #40’s ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind’ and #41’s concluding chapter (February-March 1976) ‘A Time for Endings’ as Dr. Seine tried to bring Elder Gods to Earth using the long-absent Cassandra Craft as a medium. With the tale’s finish the series ended and the Stranger all-but vanished until the winter of 1978 and a giant-sized tale from DC Super-Stars #18.

‘Phantom Stranger and Deadman’ (by Gerry Conway, Marty Pasko, Romeo Tanghal, Dick Giordano and Bob Layton) was an extended Halloween extravaganza as the mystic champions, with Dr. Thirteen and Tala in attendance, attempted to stamp out an infestation of demons that had infiltrated the comicbook Mecca of the season: Rutland, Vermont (long associated in both Marvel and DC titles as the only place to be on the Eve of All Hallows).

One final tale appeared a few months later in the 150th issue of House of Secrets (February-March 1978) as Conway and Talaoc related a generational tale of restless evil in ‘A God by any Other Name.’ The Stranger and Dr. Thirteen united to complete the work of Rabbi Samuel Shulman and Father John Christian who in the dire environs of London, 1892, joined spiritual forces to destroy the World’s first malignant machine intellect Molloch. But those Satanic Mills have a habit of being rebuilt by greedy men…

More than most the Phantom Stranger is a strong character and concept at the mercy of pitiless fashion. Revived at the end pf the 1960s on a wave of interest in the supernatural, and seemingly immune to harm, he struggled to find an audience in the general marketplace before direct sales techniques made publishing a less hit-or-miss proposition. Blessed with a vast cohort of talented creators, however, the stories themselves have proved to be of lasting quality, and would so easily transfer to today’s television screens that I wonder why they haven’t yet. Mystery, exotic locales, forbidden monsters spectacular effects and a cool hat: C’mon, you know you’d watch it…

But until then you’ll have to thrill and scare yourselves with these fantastic tales.

© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.