Super-heroes in Limbo

Superman: The Phantom Zone: written by Steve Gerber; illustrated by Gene Colan, Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, Rick Veitch, and Bob Smith (1982, 1986; Collected 2013): Steve Gerber was both the oddest mainstream comic-book writer of the 1970’s and, with the benefit of hindsight, far and away the best and most interesting superhero writer of that decade. His work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics remains legendary, and unlike a lot of decades-ago legends of the superhero-writing game, compulsively readable and rewarding to this day.

This volume collects a 1982 Superman miniseries and a 1986 follow-up story. It also marks, I think, Gerber’s first work for DC Comics. In a perfect world, the miniseries might have led to Gerber getting a full-time gig writing the Man of Steel’s adventures. In this world, this volume is pretty much Gerber’s entire Superman output. It’s still a gem.

The Phantom Zone, introduced during the 1950’s as the planet Krypton’s extra-dimensional jail for criminals, was originally a handy source of enemies for Superman because within it were held Kryptonian criminals who would have the same powers as Superman should they be released on Earth. Oh oh! Over time, though, the ramifications of the Phantom Zone became stranger and more disturbing.

For one, Krypton (and Superman’s father, Jor-El, specifically, for he had invented the Phantom Zone projector) had allowed dozens of dangerous criminals to survive the death of Krypton. For another, the non-physical, telepathic state the Zone put prisoners into did not seem to encourage anything resembling rehabilitation. Actually, the criminals just seemed to get angrier and crazier over the years. For a third, the Zone actually allowed the criminals to telepathically influence people in the normal universe to, I don’t know, let them out? What a prison system!

Gerber explores these problems and others in his Phantom Zone work, while coming up with an explanation for what the Phantom Zone really was that’s completely bonkers and genuinely disturbing. And as he runs Superman through a gauntlet that becomes increasingly surreal and nightmarish, Gerber gives the Man of Steel some of his greatest comic-book moments.

The artists chosen for the miniseries and the follow-up augment the oddness of the proceedings. Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga supply art that one would have found much more normal on Batman or Dr. Strange or Dracula, three characters whom Colan is best known for drawing, along with Daredevil. DeZuniga, who spent years on various Conan properties at Marvel and on Western anti-hero Jonah Hex at DC, inks the miniseries with satisfying heft and murkiness. The follow-up issue brings Rick Veitch, best known in the mainstream for his art and writing on Swamp Thing, into the fold. It may not be his best work, but it’s still pretty swell. In both cases, Superman remains heroic despite being faced with horrors and weirdness more suited to a Master of the Mystic Arts.

Could Gerber have kept going at this level of weirdness and excitement on a regular Superman series? Well, we’ll never know. But a man can dream. Highly recommended.

Harbinger: Perfect Day: written by Joshua Dysart; illustrated by Barry Kitson, Clayton Henry, Riley Rossmo, and others (2013): The new Valiant Comics universe is a dangerous place. So when super-psychic Peter Stanchek and his friends get a chance to rest and relax after their disastrous Las Vegas confrontation with the super-powered forces of both older super-psychic Harada’s Harbinger Foundation and the anti-psychic soldiers of Project Rising Spirit , they take it.

And then stuff happens.

Writer Joshua Dysart and artists Barry Kitson and Clayton Henry continue to create great stories in what was, back in the early 1990’s with the original Valiant, a universe that basically copied the X-Men. They’ve grounded the super-heroics by trying to establish a sense of verisimilitude. These psychics (called ‘psiots’ in the Valiant universe) possess basic human weaknesses. They can be killed. They can be distracted. But they can also cut loose in horrific ways.

Besides the sharp characterization of Stanchek and his friends, the book also makes its main antagonist, the world-conquering/world-saving Harada, an unusual comic-book villain insofar as he not only sees himself as hero and saviour, he may very well be humanity’s best hope: his desire to save the world from itself is never written as anything other than genuine and heartfelt. But the means to his ends aren’t so good for everyone involved, and the ends may ultimately not be either. He’s a saviour who’s likely to turn into Sauron by the end.

By any standard, this is a great and affecting superhero comic book, already one of the best quasi-realistic superhero books ever published. It manages scenes of spectacle that aren’t empty of concern and horror, and it’s remarkably generous to even its most minor and fleeting of characters. Highly recommended.

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