Jason Sacks: The Phantom Stranger didn't have much in common with most of the horror comics we've been reviewing for the site, except for one thing: the spectacular art. We got Neal Adams, lots of Jim Aparo, plenty of Tony DeZuniga and a couple of issues of exquisite work by the amazing Mike Sekowsky. All in service of some diligently mediocre comics.
Daniel Elkin: Mediocre comics? While I will certainly agree with you that the art is the showpiece of this collection, I think there were some moments, especially in the later issues, where there were some interesting things going on. I found myself wondering quite a bit about certain aspects of the each story and this wondering kept me going.
Sacks: Maybe that's why they were always called "mystery stories" at DC instead of horror stories.
Sacks: Actually, what I really enjoyed the most, aside from the work by the great Sekowsky, was the variety in this book. One month we got that magnificent superheroic Phoenix story and the next month we got a moving Gothic romance tale. This was almost an anthology series, in part because the Stranger is such a cryptic character.
Elkin: Cryptic character is right, Sacks. I'm still trying to figure out who or what the hell The Phantom Stranger is. Is he an angel of the lord? Is he some guy from the future? What is up with the Phantom Stranger? I know hardly anything about him, and this collection only added to the mystery.
One thing I noticed is that with each subsequent issue, he seemed to gain greater power and had more of a clear "mission" (as it were).
Sacks: What do you think his mission is? Because there are some stories where he is a literal deus ex machina and others where he takes an active hand in moving the story forward
Elkin: His mission appears to be to stop the forces of evil from causing chaos and overwhelming the forces of good. There seems to be a pretty strong "religious" sensibility to his demarcations of good and evil, and he seems to imply at times that he is working for some larger agency.
Sacks: I think it's the Gerry Conway issues where he specifically says he's fighting for the preservation of order against chaos (The Stranger, not Conway).
I liked how the Stranger is pretty much a complete mystery - his powers, his motivation, his connection to people - they all seem kind of amorphous.
(My favorite characters, by the way)
Sacks: Aren't they great? What is his connection to them? I think it's just that they seem to attract mystic strangeness and that Robert Kanighter wanted to have some continuing characters in the book since the previous issues were mostly reprints. Such a combination of '60s freaks and old-school kid gang comics. Like the Stranger's Scooby Doo friends.
Elkin: My thoughts exactly. And what the hell kind of jive is Spartacus spouting?
Sacks: I love that insane '60s jive! "
Elkin: He says awesome things like, "Man -- Look at them upper platers burn rubber on that straightaway!"
Sacks: "Bein' slammed off our open wheels by a hurricane ain't our idea of a joyride."
Elkin: "Fine time for the binders on the goat to pout out -- and no lubritoriums open until the A.M."
Sacks: That one's my favorite!
Elkin: I was reading this stuff in Logan Airport after having my flight delayed for what seemed like 12 hours. At that time I seemed to almost understand it. Then again, I was a bit delirious.
Sacks: This book would make you delirious. I loved Spartacus, Attila, Wild Rose, and Mister Square but HATED Terry Thirteen, the obnoxious know-it-all guy who kills the party every time.
Elkin: I AGREE!
Sacks: "Pah! Another of your phoney spiels to go along with your phoney tricks!"
Elkin: What was it with that guy? Seriously? That creepy shit with his father?
Sacks: I gotta say that right now, goddamn asshole.
Elkin: I loved how the Phantom Stranger kept doing all sorts of things to convince him that weird shit doesn't always have a logical explanation, and that asshole held on to his beliefs as strong as a Tea Party supporter does in the face of actual facts.
Sacks: NICE way to throw a little 2012 into the mix! But seriously, the “stranger” things got, the more Dr. 13 believed in science over science fiction.
Elkin: To the point where you just wanted to kick him in the teeth (metaphorically). But then he would go and tell these stories about weird shit in the past that "sometimes had no explanation.
Sacks: In the new comic by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, his complete insistence that everything has a rational explanation is played for massive laughs - the guy is so convinced he's right that even an actual ghost in front of him can't convince him that he's wrong. But yeah, I just wanted to kick the guy in his teeth. Some of his scientific explanations are so absurd - sub Scooby Doo stuff.
Elkin: I know, right. I noticeably winced every time he showed up in this collection.
Sacks: Page 244 is so awesomely laughable. "One day, Phantom Stranger -- One day I'll expose you for the fake you are!" as Terry shakes his fist in impotent fury.
Gorgeous Jim Aparo art, though.
Elkin: Let's stop talking about Dr. 13. It's bringing me down. Let's DO talk about Jim Aparo's art. AND Tony Dezuniga
Sacks: And the amazing Mike Sekowsky. Don't forget Sekowsky.
Elkin: Yea. For all the nonsense in The Phantom Stranger Volume 1 -- there was some brilliant art going on in the early 1970's.
Sacks: There is seriously not one badly drawn story in the collection. And there are a lot of pages that are absolutely breathtaking, especially in black and white.
Elkin: I agree. Out of all of the artists, who did you like looking at the most?
Sacks: Sekowsky and Anderson in Phantom Stranger #5 is so gorgeous to me. It has all of Big Mike's uninhibited looseness combined with Anderson's wonderful eye for mood. The scenes on the beach are amazing to me.
And then the next issue, where Sekowsky mostly inks himself, has that awkward and arbitrary reality that I absolutely adore in the man's work. Sekowsky is like an artistic Philip K. Dick, to me.
Sacks: The story he writes is totally off the hook, too.
Elkin: We forgot to mention that issue #4 was penciled by Neal Adams (who did the covers for the rest of the issues in this collection). That splash page (pg 116 in the collection) is unbelievable. It is so emotionally tense and the horror on the woman's face is palpable, as is the insanity in the dude's eyes. Pretty spectacular stuff.
Sacks: Oh yeah, Adams was so transcendent at that time, too. His story had such passion and energy. And his covers are spectacular. The star of the book is clearly Jim Aparo, though.
Elkin: Amen, brother. So let's talk a little story.
How about issue #11? It's got hippies in space and commentary on the Arab/Israel conflict. Pretty cool stuff, huh?
Sacks: The Stranger makes a friend, and his worst enemy too. This issue is so absurdly compressed. It's a novel in 22 pages.
Elkin: I thought it was a stand out (although how those hippies hijacked a NASA rocket....)
Sacks: Yeah I really had to suspend my logic for that one... The sequence in Israel with the bombings, on pages 276-279, though, was all too real.
Elkin: And that was in 1971. Funny how things haven't changed much.
Sacks: Unfortunately true.
Elkin: That Gerry Conway, he had his finger on the pulse of time. Just like The Phantom Stranger. Speaking of Conway -- the series went through writers like I am going through gin and tonics tonight. Of all the writers in this collection, who do you think did the best job?
Sacks: Oh, without a doubt it was Len Wein, who totally showed his versatility by presenting very different stories in each issue.
Elkin: Indeed. I agree with that, but I gotta hand out props to Robert Kanigher. Issue 13, "A Child of Death" -- that was some major what-the-fuckery going on there. It went everywhere I didn't expect it to go.
Sacks: Oh yeah, the explanation didn't make a lick of sense, but the journey was intense and the story actually had me on the edge of my seat. A killer 4-year-old? What a perfect plot hook.
Elkin: I know. I was in my airport delirium when I read it, and it didn't help the situation one bit. Needless to say, it fully enveloped me and spoke volumes to my hallucinatory state.
Sacks: Yeah, a bunch of these stories are really hallucinatory.
Elkin: Plus, Kanigher wrote that wonderful jive we were talking about earlier. For that alone he deserves my unending praise.
Sacks: Kanigher wrote some genius jive during his career!
Elkin: I don't know what else he wrote.
Sacks: Kanigher was a strange, strange man who wrote and edited many great stories for the DC war comics. His stories are always super emotional and often quite crazy, and very much his style. He was also an amazing egomaniac.
I actually have a 5000 word essay I wrote about him a few years ago around here somewhere for the FlashCompanion.
Elkin: I would love to read that. You should start a new column: The lost essays of Jason Sacks
Sacks: Former CB editor in chief Keith Dallas assembled that book. What a fun project. There's a breathtakingly odd interview with Kanigher in an old Comics Journal that's almost performance art, it's so surreal.
But back to The Phantom Stranger. My favorite issue was #17, where the Stranger gets assaulted in the subway, meets and falls in love with a blind woman, flies to Egypt – coach (of course) - and fights his arch nemesis - who conjures a Phoenix and rides on the Phoenix's head. If issue #11 was like a novel, this issue was like a movie, with love and action and interesting subplots, and the ending was legitimately tragic.
Elkin: I agree. That Tannarak was a real bastard.
Sacks: LOL who was more of an ass, Tannarak or Terry Thirteen?
Elkin: Don't bring up Terry Thirteen any more. I told you, man, that guy brings me down, man.
What about in issue #4 when Tala is riding on the airplane yelling "I have put out the eyes of the world!"? I love that.
See, there were some great moments and some good stories in this collection after all, Sacks. But I still have no idea who or what The Phantom Stranger is.
Sacks: I think that's the genius of the book and the genius of the character - and what differentiated DC from Marvel. At DC you could do different shit every issue, unencumbered by the shackles of continuity, so one issue you could do superhero action, the next Gothic romance. And Phantom Stranger could be whatever he needed to be for a specific story.
Elkin: That seemed to hold true with Gerber's run on Man-Thing too, though.
Sacks: Yeah but with Man-Thing there was a sense that the plots came together, the character was consistent from story to story, and the setting was pretty much always the same.
Elkin: I think I could probably argue against that, but I think I'll hold off for now.
This seems to be one of the advantages of writing a lower tiered horror anthology book, though. There seems to be a lot of creative freedom for going weird in these sorts of books, at least there was in the early 1970's. Do you think the 70's were the golden age (of the Bronze Age) of weirdness for the big two publishers?
Sacks: For the big two? Yes.
The '60s and '80s were great eras for the alternatives, but in the big two there was only a short era of real weirdness, pretty much between the 15 cent cover price in 1970 and the DC Implosion in 1978... on either side things are much quieter at the big two.
Elkin: Funny how those are my formative years.
And when I first started reading comics.
Sacks: It's pretty awesome finding these lost gems and discovering that so much great comic work was being done 40 years ago.
Elkin: That's what I love about doing this column. There's such a wealth of wonderful stuff out there just waiting to be gobbled up. These sorts of things continue to keep me on my good foot, and further expand my faith in the goodness of giving talented creators the freedom to create.
Sacks: Indeed! There is so much great in comics if you just look in the right places. Like the self-published comics that I wrote about this week in Manifesto - there's great work everywhere if you just look around a bit.
Elkin: Comics, Ya Gotta Love Em! Hey, I hear The Phantom Stranger is getting a new series.
Sacks: We may have to team up on that too. It won't have that awesome '70s vibe though.
Elkin: It may be even awesomer????!!!!!????
Sacks: You are a dreamer!
Elkin: Call me, Mr. Positive.
Any last words on DC Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger Volume 1, Sacks?
Sacks: I went into this book expecting pure schlock. What I found was pure '70s awesomeness.