In August, 1970, DC Comics retired the logo that had, with minor adjustments, appeared on the cover of their publications since 1949. (For the record, the red lettering had been added in 1954.) It was replaced by a new branding approach that basically consisted of the letters “DC”, the comic’s title, and a graphic representing the comic’s subject matter. That approach gave us a few imaginative and distinctive new logos, such as the eagle-and-shield emblem that graced the Justice League of America’s covers for a couple of years; for the most part, however, the publisher’s books defaulted to a simple formula of “DC” + title + image of the headliner(s), often with some or all of those elements enclosed within a circle. The end result was that every series seemed to have its own individual (if not necessarily memorable) logo, with even those comics that were part of a larger “family” of titles — such as those starring Superman or Batman — standing on their own, with little sense of a shared identity.
There were a couple of exceptions, however, both of which involved anthology titles that didn’t have continuing characters who starred in every issue — specifically, DC’s romance and mystery comics.
As best as I’ve been able to determine, all of the romance comics published during this era* carried some variation of a pink heart in their logo, while the mystery books featured a bat silhouette (which was so heavily stylized that no one would be likely to associate it with DC’s famed Caped Crusader). I’m inclined to believe that either Joe Orlando or Dick Giordano — both of whom had romance and mystery comics in their editorial portfolios, as well as having backgrounds as working comics artists — came up with the idea of these “shared” logos. But that’s purely speculation on my part; it could also have been the inspiration of editorial director Carmine Infantino (another veteran artist), or of letterer/logo designer Gaspar Saladino, or of any number of other folks.
Regardless of who had the idea, however, these logos each gave the strong impression of representing a specific line of comics within DC’s overall slate of offerings. And while I didn’t have any interest at all in romance comics, regardless of their branding, I did already enjoy a number of DC’s mystery titles, and might have been enticed by that nifty bat logo to give some book I hadn’t read before a chance.
All of which is offered in the way of a possible explanation as to why, in November, 1970, after ignoring Phantom Stranger for almost two years, my thirteen-year-old self finally broke down and bought the eleventh issue.
I’d been aware of the Stranger ever since this house ad for his tryout in Showcase #80 ran in DC’s comics in late 1968. As I recall, I was attracted to the Neal Adams cover art, but I thought the character himself looked too old to be very interesting — plus, the kids-in-jeopardy theme never appealed to me all that much. (In some ways, it’s a wonder that I ever gravitated to the DC mystery titles edited by Joe Orlando, since his covers used that device on a regular basis. But I digress.)
I would probably have been even less interested if I’d known that, at least initially, the series — both in its Showcase tryout and in the first three issues of its own title — was largely a reprint book, recycling stories that had originally appeared in the early 1950’s within a framing sequence of new material. Because the Phantom Stranger wasn’t actually a new character — in fact, he’d previously starred in six issues of his own title, published 1952-53. Neither, for that matter, was the character who regularly served as the Stranger’s foil in the new framing sequences of the current series — Doctor Terrance Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker — as he also had appeared in his own feature, independent of and unrelated to the Stranger’s, in nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics (and one of House of Mystery) in 1951-52.
Of course, neither one of those features had racked up enough episodes during their relatively brief runs to make a new reprint-based series viable as an ongoing proposition, and so editor Joe Orlando had moved towards relying on all-new content beginning with the 4th issue of Phantom Stranger (Volume 2). Over the next year, an assortment of talents contributed stories and artwork to the title, including Adams, Robert Kanigher, Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, Murphy Anderson, Vince Colletta, and Denny O’Neill. Jim Aparo settled in as the series’ regular artist with issue #7, and Gerry Conway’s first PS script appeared in #10 (which, incidentally, came out just five days after that writer’s eighteenth [!] birthday).
And right after that was where I came in. I picked up issue #11, not really knowing a thing about the title except that it was obviously one of DC’s “spooky” books (as attested to by that bat logo), and nothing about its star beyond what he looked like (and even that had changed, if subtly, since Neal Adams had drawn that Showcase #80 cover). Despite what I said earlier, I probably shouldn’t give all the credit for my purchasing decision to the new(ish) logo — after all, the same logo was featured on Unexpected, and I never got around to sampling that title. Rather, I suspect that Adams’ cover — with its skillful use of color holds, and all that solid purple drawing the eye — was a big part of the draw.
That said, I doubt that I was the least disappointed when I opened the book to the first page and found that the interior art was by Jim Aparo, as I’d very much enjoyed his art on Aquaman.
Not knowing anything about the Phantom Stranger, I don’t think I was surprised to see him directly addressing the reader on page 1 — to all appearances, the host/narrator of the story, a la Cain in House of Mystery or the Three Witches in Witching Hour, rather than its protagonist. If I was aware at the time that the Stranger had already teamed up once with Batman (in Brave and the Bold #89 [Apr.-May, 1970]), I might have expected that he would eventually play an active role in this narrative (as indeed he soon does); on the other hand, I’d very recently read an issue of BatB where the Darknight Detective shared billing with a house, so…
It should be noted that though the credit box (which, having been lettered by artist Jim Aparo himself, is almost more of a signature) on page 2 lists only “Conway and Aparo” as the story’s creators, the letters column later in the issue suggests that Neal Adams also had some role in authoring it (suggesting the basic premise, perhaps?). Regardless of the extent to which the story was “his”, however, Gerry Conway’s script — only his second for Phantom Stranger — would prove to be the young writer’s last for the title. Indeed, it was one of the very last he’d write for DC, period, for several years, as he was jumping ship to follow his dream of writing superhero comics for the publisher’s main competition, Marvel. (His first Marvel story — a Ka-Zar adventure in Astonishing Tales #3 — had in fact already appeared, a whole two months prior to PS #11’s publication.)
By page 4, I at least knew that the Stranger would be interacting with other characters in the story — but since Cain sometimes did that kind of thing too, I still didn’t know how active a participant he’d be.
This is probably as good a place as any to note the changes in the Phantom Stranger’s character design that had been implemented since his revival in Showcase. In the Fifties, the character had been regularly depicted wearing a black suit, a white dress shirt with a black tie, a black trenchcoat, and white gloves; completing the ensemble was a black hat, whose brim often (but not always) shadowed the upper part of his face. This look was carried over into Showcase #80, as well as the first three issues of the ongoing Phantom Stranger series.
Beginning with the first issue devoted to all new material, however, it was no longer necessary to keep the character’s look consistent between new and reprinted story pages; and so, the artist for issue #4, Neal Adams, updated the Stranger’s appearance. The black suit and white gloves remained, but the trenchcoat became a sleeveless, almost cape-like cloak, while the white shirt/black tie combo was replaced by a white turtleneck, accented by a gold medallion on a chain (groovy!). The black hat remained, naturally, but now the Stranger’s upper face was always in shadow, regardless of the lighting, and his eyes were represented as white slits, giving the effect of a mask. Overall, the new look was clearly more contemporary; it also helped the Stranger come across visually less like a private detective/secret agent type, and more like a superhero.
When I was thirteen, I readily accepted the proposition that a couple of terrorists could steal a NASA spacecraft and pilot it to a precise terrestrial destination all by themselves, with no help from ground control; at sixty-three, I’m afraid I’m a bit more skeptical. But, whatever…
As of page 5, my younger self had learned that the Phantom Stranger had the power to suddenly and inexplicably turn up in places he obviously didn’t belong, such as a NASA mission control center. When I turned to page 6, however, I’d discover that that ability did not apparently extent to being able to transport himself from the U.S. to Sudan, thousands of miles away — at least, not under his own power:
This young lady, who introduces herself as Lynn Berg, strikes up a friendly conversation with the Stranger; said convo ends up lasting for the entire long flight, and then some, as the two continue to hang out even after their plane lands in Tel Aviv. (Lynn tells her new companion a helluva lot about herself, if you ask me, considering that she apparently never gets so much as his name.)
The Arab-Israeli conflict was one of those issues I should have known more about at age 13 than I did, I regret to say. I’m not sure I even had an opinion on the subject in 1970, though if I did, I was almost certainly on Israel’s “side”; like my parents, I was a staunch Southern Baptist, and that’s how white evangelical Christians tended to roll (and still do, pretty much, a half-century later). So the relatively nuanced commentary offered via the character of Lynn Berg on page 7 (“I don’t know… if there can even be right or wrong!”) may not have made much of an impression on me.
Though I don’t know how well it registered with me as a young reader in 1970, the line that Conway gives the grenade-thrower — “For my dead father!” — is obviously important, as without attempting to justify the heinous act it accompanies, it nevertheless frames that act as representing something other than purely random homicidal violence; in the process, it grimly underscores Lynn’s earlier remarks about the moral ambiguities of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
By way of historical context, I believe it’s worth noting that in May, 1970 — just a few months before Conway is likely to have scripted this story — twelve Israeli civilians, including nine children, were killed when a school bus was bombed on the road to Avivim, near Israel’s border with Lebanon. Israel responded with artillery attacks against southern Lebanon, in which twenty villagers were killed.
Within just the last three pages, we’ve seen at least two, and maybe as many as three realistically violent killings, making for a very bleak conclusion to the first half of our story.
Yep, those are the Manhattan murderess and the two astro-terrorists from the story’s first few pages, making their return appearance here in page 12’s third panel. But don’t get too attached to them; they’ve all now fulfilled their purpose in the narrative, and — save for an even briefer cameo at the story’s climax –we won’t see any of them again.
And hey, Lynn didn’t die after all, back there on page 11 — but you’d already guessed that, hadn’t you?
Thirteen-year-old me would still have been paying close attention at this point both to how the Phantom Stranger chose to operate, and to what his actual abilities were. Here, I learned that our guy was willing enough to punch his opponents, but that it didn’t do him much good when those opponents had a forcefield.
Obviously, as a brand-new Phantom Stranger reader, I was at a loss here. But even established fans might have felt a bit at sea if they’d somehow managed to miss issue #10, as the terrible Mr. T. had made his debut there, just two months before, in Conway and Aparo’s “Death… Call Not My Name!”.
In that story, Tannarak had been portrayed as something of a psychic vampire — an alchemist who, having managed to imprison “that force which ages men” in a golden statue of himself, contrived to ensure his ongoing survival by draining the life force of ordinary mortals. Tannarak appeared to have met his final, fitting end when said statue fell on him and crushed him — but either Conway or Aparo, or maybe their editor Joe Orlando, must have decided that the villain was too promising a character to throw away so cavalierly, and thus resurrected him more-or-less immediately.
“You’ll upset the very balance of the universe — chaos will rule in the fall of order!” Might young Mr. Conway have been a reader of Michael Moorcock’s tales of the Eternal Champion, and his struggle to maintain the Cosmic Balance between the forces of Chaos and Law, aka Order? My own personal guess would be “yes”, although, whatever the truth of the matter, no other Phantom Stranger writer would do anything more with such a notion until Paul Kupperberg, in a 1987 miniseries, revealed that the Stranger was in fact an agent of the Lords of Order.
Justice and order, delivered at the end of a good left hook. That’s comic books for you, folks!
Up to this point, Conway has walked a finely balanced line — hate is the true enemy, regardless of whose side one might consider to be just in any given conflict — but he seems to falter a bit here, splitting a very fine hair so that Lynn’s earlier act of bloody vengeance can be attributed to “righteous anger”.
Fleeing Tannarak’s throne room, the Stranger and Lynn soon find themselves in a dark, seeming empty chamber. And then…
In 1970, I certainly wasn’t expecting the “Gods of Hate” to turn out to be extraterrestrial invaders, equipped with advanced technology; and it still seems to me to be an effective twist.
If you blinked, you may have missed the final appearance of the three killers (or perhaps just would-be killers, in the case of the spaceship-stealers) we first met on pages 2 through 5, there in panel 3. Their anger wasn’t sufficiently “righteous”, apparently, so the story doesn’t grant them the same mercy that it provides for Lynn.
“And the madness… ends!” And so, too, obviously, does Tannarak — again! (No, I’m kidding, of course. He totally comes back, just six issues later.)
Um, what was I just saying about “mercy”?
If I recall correctly, back in November, 1970 my younger self was both surprised and a little disappointed by Lynn Berg’s final fate. You see, I’d completely bought into the Phantom Stranger’s characterization of her act of homicide as having been motivated by “righteous anger” — which was, besides, “only a temporary, passing thing!” The way I saw it, if it was truly unjust for Lynn to have been forcibly drafted into Tannarak’s “Army of Evil”, as the Stranger claimed, then she didn’t deserve to be punished by being driven insane at the end, either.
Re-reading the story today, however, it seems evident that — regardless of whether or not the creators ever seriously considered giving Lynn a happy ending — when the moment of truth came, someone simply wasn’t comfortable letting a character who’d been shown stabbing another character to death simply “walk”. It’s possible that this storytelling decision was driven primarily by concerns over the Comics Code Authority, which at the time still stipulated that “the criminal [must be] punished for his misdeeds” for a story to receive the Code’s seal of approval (though this is pure speculation on my part).
“Walk Not in the Desert’s Sun…” was an ambitious story for its era, attempting to deal with complex issues in an action-adventure genre context which, perhaps, has never been the most ideal vehicle for exploring moral ambiguity. Its reach may have exceeded its grasp, but a half-century later, I can’t help but be impressed by the effort — especially considering that the story’s writer was only seventeen years of age when he penned it.
That was my first issue of Phantom Stranger. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it represented a first for the series itself, as well, as it was the first issue in which Dr. 13, the Ghost Breaker, hadn’t made an appearance. Having previously been featured in stories with the Stranger (save for the material reprinted from his own ’50s solo strip), Terry Thirteen would, in future issues, go it alone one again, in his own back-up feature — though he would still co-star with the Stranger in the lead story on occasion. And I would know this, because not only would I pick up the following issue, #12, but every one after that, for the remainder of the title’s 41-issue run.
I liked what I’d read in issue #12, in other words. I still might not know who the Phantom Stranger was, or where he came from, or the extent of his powers, but I didn’t care; if anything, those mysteries made him even more appealing as a hero. And he was a hero, without question; what was more, he was a superhero, even if his book did have that bat-logo marking it as part of DC’s mystery line. A weird superhero, maybe, but not that much weirder than the Spectre, or Marvel’s Dr. Strange –and I loved those guys.
So, as you can imagine, it didn’t faze me at all when, a couple of years later, P.S. not only showed up to guest star with the World’s Greatest Super Heroes in Justice League of America #103 (Dec., 1972), but even (kinda, sorta) joined the team. Why not?
Of course, by that time, Phantom Stranger was being written by the same man who scripted that very issue of JLA — Len Wein, who, with Jim Aparo, was then busily crafting a run of stories that, in the opinion of your humble blogger, still stand today as the pinnacle of the Stranger’s 68-year career. As you will probably not be at all surprised to learn, I plan to write about several of those stories in future installments of this blog. So don’t be a stranger, OK?
*The era lasted until May, 1972, at which point DC went back to a unified, company-wide logo — the minimalist number shown at left. Which, if you ask me, bears a rather strong resemblance to the publisher’s current (as of this writing) logo, adopted in 2016, which is shown at right. The more things change, and all that jazz…