The Phantom Zone #1 - cover by Gene ColanThe Phantom Zone

(1981-1982 - four issues, DC Comics)

Writer: Steve Gerber. Pencils: Gene Colan. Inks: Tony DeZuniga.

Kryptonian villains imprisoned in the penal Phantom Zone escape, simultaneously trapping Superman and the hapless Charlie Kweskill in the Phantom Zone. While the super-powered villains strike out at earth, battling Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Lantern, Superman learns something of the true nature of the Phantom Zone, travelling into increasingly nightmarish dimensions in his attempts to return to earth.

This series is a good example of the potential fickleness of opinions.

When I first read it (incomplete, admittedly) I was kind of cool to it. Gerber's writing seemed too heavy on redundant captions -- don't get me wrong, I like comics that exploit the full range of the medium, employing not just dialogue and pictures (like a movie) but internal thought balloons and text boxes that can embellish a scene. What I don't like is text that just seems to be describing the picture. It also seemed a bit violent for a Superman tale (and here I thought that was a late '80s trend) what with villains who can make people spontaneously combust. I also had philosophical qualms with Gerber's use of the idea of "souls". Not being especially religious, I see a soul as being symbolic of a kind of true essence, affected only by an individual's actions. But Gerber takes the idea (admittedly common among fantasy writers) that a soul is just another thing to be kicked around. Essentially, once death has become blase as a story tool, souls are substituted: they can be destroyed, or condemned to damnation through no fault of the person in question. That just seems, well, dumb, and a waste of the concept.

But... I read it again (this time including the missing middle issue) and I liked it. The violence toward the end of the story (once I was expecting it) didn't really bother me as much. After all, the story clearly has elements as much of horror and dark fantasy as of super-hero adventure. Gerber's writing (dialogue and captions) was pretty good and moody and the plot sufficiently substantial to fill out the four issues. Gene Colan, one of my favourite pencilers, and Tony DeZuniga, a penciler in his own right and a forceful inker (in some cases you're likely to recognize DeZuniga's inks before you recognize the penciler he's working over) are two of the moodiest artists around. Although Colan isn't necessarily the best choice for iconic Superman (his forte being more rumpled characters and shadowy figures) he and DeZuniga capture the intended flavour of this, at times, eerie and melancholy saga probably better than say a Curt Swan or John Byrne could've.

There's even some philosophical rumination -- not to mention potentially controverstial ideas. At one point, the Kryptonians trick the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. into launching their nuclear missiles at each other (this was during the cold war). Wonder Woman and Supergirl, unaware of super-villain involvement, promptly knock the missiles of both sides out of the sky. Without so much as a qualm Supergirl, essentially, commits an act of treason, obviously feeling her loyalty is to humanity as a whole, not to the agenda of one nation. I wonder if a scene like that, and its ideological implications, would even get published today.

There are plot weaknesses, like the villains engaged in the usual, lame-brained, comic book "motive" of some ill-defined revenge...against earth yet (a planet that had nothing to do with their imprisonment) or the fact that the averted nuclear war is never followed up on (if two nations just tried to obliterate each other, I don't think it would be business as usual just because the missiles never made it). Even the fact that the story doesn't maybe fullfil one's expectations of a series called "The Phantom Zone" since the villains escape the Zone and Superman quickly leaves the familiar-looking Zone for other regions. Nor are there many footnotes in a story where many of the characters had appeared in previous stories. The first issue cover asks "A humane method of criminal confinement...or a dimension without hope?", as if the series will be an examination of the morale implications of the Phantom Zone...but it isn't.

But for older fans, there's lots of pre-Crisis goodies, like the use of the "true" Krypton in some flashbacks, the Phantom Zone, and the original Supergirl.

Given my shifting feelings toward this, I don't know how I'll react after a third reading, but for now, I very much enjoyed The Phantom Zone with its atmospheric art and engrossing story. In fact, this almost 20 year old series was the highlight of my comic reading week.