Sunday, November 2, 2008

Showcase #80 - Feb. 1969

The (sort-of) return of The Phantom Stranger!

This try-out of The Phantom Stranger is an odd hybrid, consisting as it does of new framing material by Mike Freidrich, Jerry Grandinetti, and Bill Draut surrounding two reprinted stories from the first Phantom Stranger series and a Dr. Thirteen story from Star-Spangled Comics.

But before we get to all that, let's take a moment to talk about the first of what will be many superb Neal Adams covers for The Phantom Stranger--interesting to consider that the main visual motif of the character of not being able to see his eyes is not used for the character's debut to readers! I also like how that one kid on the far left isn't all that scared.

This issue opens with some kids wandering through the streets of their creepy village on their way to an equally creepy cave. They gather around a lit candle, and discuss "a curse" that is supposed to fall upon the town that day. Some are skeptical, but they get scared when they see a mysterious shadow on the wall. Turns out its...The Phantom Stranger!
The Stranger decides to tell the kids a spooky story, one that he had experienced first hand!

Then we fade into "The Three Signs of Evil", reprinted from The Phantom Stranger #2 by John Broome, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Giella, which opens on Mark Davis, an artist who is taking "a leisurely walk" through Manhattan's Columbus Circle.

He runs across a group of men talking and discussing some weird symbols and "utilizing the power of moonlight." Huh?

The men see Davis, and that he is sketching what he sees, and they tell him to leave them alone. He does, but they decide amongst themselves to make sure what he saw never leaks out.

He is met by a man on the street, who sees Davis' sketch, and offers to buy it. Davis naively agrees to follow the man to discuss it (when an artist smells a sale...). He is led to a private courtyard, where he is attacked by a group of men to are here to kill him!

Luckily, he is helped by a mysterious stranger, whom these cult members seem to know--they call him "The Phantom Stranger!"

The Stranger beats the men up, and he and Davis escape. Davis notices the strange weapons the men used, and the Stranger tells him they are artifacts from various cults from around the world.

Examining Davis' sketch, they determine that the cult's next stop is Washington Square, so they head there:
I just have to mention, for a little, seven-page tale, this story captures a real creepy mood here.

sgThe nighttime setting in a big city, which (even at this late at night) should be teeming with life, yet is almost totally devoid of people, reminds me a lot of my favorite Val Lewton film, The Seventh Victim. Its also about a creepy cult and was set in New York City. Instead of feeling safe being in the middle of the busiest city in the world, the empty streets give off a real feeling of dread; and Broome, Infantino, and Giella capture it here. (I wonder if Broome ever saw The Seventh Victim)

Anyway, Davis uses himself as a decoy, and soon he is grabbed by members of the cult and dragged to an abandoned subway station. Its here they tell Davis that they need a human sacrifice to increase their mystical powers.

As they are about to kill him, the cult leader's is startled to see the room fill with moonlight, which is the work of the Stranger! He and Davis knock them all out, and then the Stranger surrounds their limp bodies with a strange powder, which he claims will keep them form escaping.

Davis flags down a police officer, and when he turns to introduce the cop to his mysterious friend, he sees that The Phantom Stranger is....gone!
Back in the present(?), the kids love the story...but notice that as they chat, the Stranger has pulled the same disappearing act!

As they leave the cave, they are met by yet another stranger...Doctor Thirteen!

He tells them the Stranger's story is all bunk, and then relates his own tale to them, "I Talked With the Dead!" (from Star-Spangled Comics #123), which underscores "there are no ghosts" view of life.

Suddenly, the Stranger returns, and he and Thirteen have what it obviously another in a long line of arguments about whether the supernatural really exists.

They agree to disagree and try and figure out the curse afflicting this village. In the town square, they see a giant green, winged bug fluttering overhead--the curse!

Both our heroes quickly determine this creature is not real, and the Stranger suddenly appears inside it, knocking out the pilot who was using the creature as a diversion while his cronies robbed the town's bank. Thirteen takes care of them, and the case is solved.

Thirteen then reiterates to the kids that there are no monsters or ghosts, but as he turns to the Stranger, he sees that he has disappeared...again! He swears to the heavens that someday, somehow, he will prove that the Stranger is a phony! The end.
The art for the wraparound sequence, by Grandinetti and Draut, is equally good as the Infantino/Giella combo--there are times when the art is so simplified it achieves a sort of abstract grandeur, like the panel on the far left. I love how simple it is, almost Alex Toth-like.

And the last panel, with its crazy perspective and collage-ish composition is, to me, a real grabber of an ending. If I had read this book at the time, I definitely would've wanted to read more.

Obviously, kids in late 1968 agreed, since The Phantom Stranger--after just this one try-out issue--graduated into his own title, again. Be here tomorrow for kick-off of The Phantom Stranger, Volume 2!


Wings1295 said...

Very interesting. I never knew the Phantom Stranger and Doctor Thirteen interacted this way, much less that they were sort of at odds.

The Groovy Agent said...

The Phantom Stranger is a fantastic blog subject, and you're doing a bang-up job! Keep up the great work--I'm diggin' this the most!

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