(PHANTOM ZONE #1-4: written by Stever Gerber, art by Gene Colan & Tony DeZuniga, 1982. DC COMICS PRESENTS #97: written by Steve Gerber, art by Rick Veitch & Bob Smith, 1986.)
As usual, I can’t remember exactly how or why these comics ended up on my wish list. I think I may have read something about it in the Krypton Companion, and I do like learning minutia about Silver Age Superman mythology, so maybe that was it.
Anyway, first up is the Phantom Zone miniseries by Gerber and Colan. There is a guy at the Daily Planet named Kweskill who we learn was once incarcerated in the Phantom Zone but upon his release somehow lost both his powers and memory and is now living like the Average Joe. Except the villains still in the Phantom Zone are psychically manipulating Kweskill to build a Zone projector which releases the criminals while trapping Superman and Kweskill inside. The pair then spend the remaining issues trying to escape, while Zod and the other escapees build a giant Zone projector to phase the whole planet Earth into the Zone.
The concept of the Zone is that you can only think and observe while you are there — no feeling or aging, though criminals can psychically communicate with each other. So I actively disliked the way that Superman only had to do a bunch of stuff to escape — much the way he came back from the dead in the 90s. Somehow the way Gerber delineates the Zone in such physical detail detracts from the existential horror of the idea. And the whole idea is so huge that plot holes are bound to emerge if you try to describe it too much. I have to admit though that I found Gerber’s approach less disconcerting on a second read through. Still, at times it was almost as if he bit off more than he could chew. Gerber’s best notes are played on Kweskill, who is the kind of Man-On-The-Street Gerber excelled at writing and often appeared in Gerber’s Howard the Duck. In fact, the fact that he makes time for the panel below amongst the chaos is classic Gerber.
But there is some weird stuff in this series. One the very first page of issue one, in the very first sentence, there is a misprint which reads: “Perry White is a newspaper of the old school.” Ironically, this page is about newspaper editing. (It’s so blatant part of me wanted to believe it was some kind of meta-commentary by Gerber.) We get a bit of history of Jor-El’s discovery of the Zone as well. Jor-El proposes the Zone as a punishment for criminals instead of cryo-freezing them and rocketing them into orbit as they do currently and the council seems to accept this after one day of deliberation — no scientific investigation or anything. Jor-El explains that the criminals are in the same physical space as them after they are projected into the Zone, but it’s not clear how they “travel” from place to place — how did they get to “Earth space” 30 years later? The council decides to rocket the projector into space to protect people from the psychic influence of the prisoners. This makes no sense since the criminals do not exist in the projector, and dooms them to eternity in the Zone no matter how long or short their judged terms were. It’s also very, very fucked up that Perry forgets that Kweskill was a Kryptonian until Batman reminds him in issue 3! And why does Superman keep a “disintegration pit” filled with “radioactive Kryptonian fuel” at his Fortress? Where did he get that fuel anyway? It’s also weird that Superman only has to destroy Zod’s mega-projector to return Earth from the Zone after being half phased into it. Really? So all you have to do is destroy any projector and whatever’s inside pops back out? Finally: Zod escapes and his one goal is to completely destroy the Earth — but his motive is never given. As far as we know, the Earth never did him any wrong. And if he kept the people alive, with his superpowers he could rule over them as slaves.
In terms of art, the work by Colan — a frequent collaborator of Gerber on Howard the Duck as well — is beautiful and moody and horribly reproduced. The heaviness of it is well suitted to the wasteland-like Zone. So why did they choose to make the covers so “comedic”? Weird. And I found it odd that when the villains manage to launch nuclear bombs against the Earth and Superman is forced to watch helplessly from the Zone, his face is practically emotionless. Also — probably not Colan’s fault — I disliked that Zod was bald. Aren’t Braniac and Luthor enough bald villains for Superman?
DC Comics Presents #97 (the last issue of the series) on the other hand, is one of the best superhero comics I have ever read. Gerber returns to write, this time with Rick Veitch on art, to create the final chapter of the Phantom Zone’s history in which the living entity which is the Zone becomes corporeal in our universe, fusing with Mr. Mxyzptlk, and releasing the prisoners once again.
As the cover states, this is an “Untold Tale of the Pre-Crisis Universe” — meaning Gerber had almost complete freedom to mess things up as much as he wanted since the continuity he was writing for no longer existed — much like the freedom Alan Moore had with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW. In fact, Gerber seems to have had so much freedom, that some of the events in here involving Mr. Mxyzptlk seem to contradict directly what Moore did with his story.
There is a very obvious Moore-influence here. Gerber often narrates in the first person here, instead of the omniscient third person narration he used in the miniseries. And the Zone, as a sentient being, speaks in an appropriately “unhuman” version of English — something too difficult for the 11-year olds reading the miniseries, but something Gerber seems quite comfortable with after Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing bomb hit DC Comics in 1984. This isn’t a knock-off though — it’s more like Moore revealed to Gerber more tools in his shed that he could be making use of, and Gerber used them to craft his own kind of house. (Although it is possible that the miniseries and this issue are each enriched by reading the other.)
Veitch’s work on this story is phenomenal. Gerber covers a lot of the same Zone backstory that he did in the miniseries (was it already in place before then even?), but he’s far more passionate about it here, and Veitch — Moore’s frequent collaborator on Swamp Thing — attacks it with the eye of Victor Moscoso, abstracting and intensifying the layouts. Characters are sweaty and paranoid and visceral — I felt like Veitch was channeling Justin Green the whole time. I haven’t seen superhero characters look this emotional since Kirby. After reading this and Veitch’s Heartburst and Shiny Beasts recently, I am convinced that Veitch is one of the true greats of comic art, and I wish sometimes he could draw every superhero comic.
(Faora and Binky Brown — separated at birth?!)
The other great thing about Gerber’s freedom on this book is that the ending is negative in a way that I don’t ever recall seeing in a superhero book up to that time. It’s almost like the DC Universe version of Miracleman #15, with Metropolis largely destroyed — which totally makes sense if Kryptonian villains were allowed to run rampant on earth — and Mxyzptlk having seemingly become a god.
Excellent. A heady, feverish experience of a superhero comic book. Highly recommended.