Last November, we discussed Phantom Stranger #17, the fourth outing on the title for writer Len Wein. In that issue, Wein and his collaborator, artist Jim Aparo, showed us a more human side of the mysterious titular hero than we’d seen previously, largely through the introduction of a potential romantic interest. But the Phantom Stranger bid farewell to that interest — a beautiful blind psychic named Cassandra Craft — at the end of #17; and the potential for more characterization-rich storytelling (and perhaps even a touch of issue-to-issue continuity) that Ms. Craft’s advent had seemed to signify wasn’t followed up on in the next couple of issues, both of which featured standalone adventures in which the Stranger operated as solitarily as he had before.
Things took a somewhat different turn with the two subsequent installments, however. In Phantom Stranger #20, our hero encountered an evil wizard named Kamset, who was plotting to usurp the authority of the rightful High Lama of a Buddhist temple in Asia; while in #21, he became involved with the scheme of yet another wicked sorcerer named Cerebus (no, not that one) to use a resurrected murderer named Johnny Glory to assassinate the spiritual leader of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. These two seemingly separate situations ultimately turned out to be linked, as Kamset, Cerebus, and Glory were all revealed to be members of (in Kamset’s words) “a Dark Circle of wizards and sorcerers that touches the four corners of the Earth!” And though the Stranger was ultimately successful in thwarting these specific enemies and their plans, there could be little doubt that neither he nor we had seen the last of their sinister organization, the Dark Circle.
Having introduced this fresh element of continuity into the series, Wein had only to combine it with the new emphasis on characterization he’d first offered up in #17 to take the Phantom Stranger feature in an intriguing new direction. And with issue #22, he’d do just that, by way of a plot development heralded by the comic’s moody cover by Aparo (the artist’s third for the title, following an unbroken 17-issue run by Neal Adams) — the return of Cassandra Craft.
Readers with especially good memories may recall that Cassandra Craft was wearing the exact same ensemble of powder-blue cloak and hot-pink jumpsuit when we first met her in issue #17; this outfit will continue to serve as the character’s “costume” throughout the current multi-issue storyline.
While the Phantom Stranger never became aware of Cerebus and Johnny Glory’s association with the Dark Circle during the events of issue #21, he was definitely around for Kamset’s description of the group in issue #20. So it’s a little odd that in the very next panel, he acts as though he has no idea who they are; but, hey, maybe he’s just being cagey about how much he already knows, in the hopes of gathering more intel…
As you may have noticed, the third panel above cites another previous adversary of the Phantom Stranger — Broderick Rune, who in issue #14 (Len Wein’s debut as writer), had attempted to make himself immortal by having the Stranger’s heart surgically transplanted into his own body. (Needless to say, that hadn’t worked out so well for Mr. Rune.) For the record, your humble blogger didn’t forget to mention Rune in my earlier rundown of the Dark Circle’s appearances; rather, the fact of the matter is that that particular bad guy’s membership in said organization hadn’t been mentioned in Wein’s script for that story (presumably because the writer hadn’t invented the group yet). When it came time to write “Circle of Evil!”, however, Wein evidently decided that retroactively looping in the villain of his very first PS tale into his new storyline would enhance the overall sense of continuity. And what do you know, it works.
So that’s that for the Phantom Stranger, I guess — he’s all burnt up. Or is he?
The scripting is a little inconsistent, here — the dialogue at the end of page 7 implied that Dorian and Cassandra were all done with the Stranger, and moving on to “other things” — but that’s not quite true, obviously.
Dorian quickly does a fadeout, leaving the Stranger to be finished off by the mind-controlled Ms. Craft…
Perhaps because of his long association with Batman — a relatively grounded character, at least as far as comic-book superheroes are concerned — Jim Aparo is probably not the first artist that comes to mind when one thinks about mystical battles waged in otherworldly realms. But, in this multi-page sequence, the artist definitely delivers the goods.
PS would seem to be physically outmatched by Morgg; but he’s a clever fellow, and by swinging his cloak like a bullfighter’s cape, he sends the big lug charging headfirst into a wall. Morgg responds by switching targets, announcing he’ll take out Cassandra, instead…
I’d love to know where Wein dug up the notion of “an ethereal fluke”, as my own research hasn’t uncovered any definition for the latter word that doesn’t involve luck, flatworms, or various aquatic creatures, none of which quite seem to fit; I suppose the writer may just have come up with the idea out of his own imagination. (I did find a reference to an ethereal fluke that appears in the fantasy tabletop game RuneQuest, but since that game wasn’t published until 1978, it seems unlikely to have been Wein’s source here.)
Caught in Morgg’s back-breaking grip, the Stranger responds by pulling off his medallion and wrapping its chain around the fluke’s neck…
Aaannnd we’re off! As the Phantom Stranger and Cassandra Craft walk hand-in-hand into the sunrise, the Stranger’s series itself begins a journey into previously unexplored territory. Where will Wein and Aparo take the couple — and us readers — next? I hope you’ll come back in November to find out.
Along with the sixteen-page lead feature, Phantom Stranger #22 also included an eight-page installment of the title’s semi-regular backup strip featuring “Dr. 13, the Ghost Breaker”. This was the ninth such story to appear in PS, not counting reprints; it would also prove to be the last for a good long while, at least in the feature’s present form.
I haven’t talked very much about Dr. Terrence Thirteen on the blog prior to this, mainly because the two Phantom Stranger issues I’ve previously posted about both featured full-length PS adventures in which he didn’t appear. But the Ghost Breaker had been a fixture of the title since the Stranger’s tryout in Showcase #80 (Feb., 1969), appearing in some form or another in every issue of the series, with the sole exception of #11.
Like the Phantom Stranger himself, Dr. 13 had gotten his start a whole two decades earlier; though never holding down a title of his own in the way his future frenemy had, Terry had nonetheless done his thing in nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics (plus one of House of Mystery) published in 1951-52. Seventeen years later, when DC got the idea to revive the Stranger feature, Terry Thirteen became part of the package — which, in its original form, would place both the Stranger and Terry in a contemporary-set story that framed reprint episodes from each of their respective series. Of course, since the Doc’s whole shtick was based on the idea that ghosts, magic, and the like were nothing but humbug, he neither trusted the Stranger nor appreciated his efforts, despite both men being essentially on the same side.
Eventually, editor Joe Orlando phased out the reprints in favor of all-new material; but Dr. Thirteen (usually accompanied by his long-suffering wife, Marie) continued to appear in the Stranger’s new adventures as a supporting cast member, becoming enough of a mainstay that, when the Stranger made his inevitable trip to Gothan City for his first team-up with Batman in Brave and the Bold #89 (Apr.-May, 1970), Terry came along for the ride. But there was a very basic and seemingly unsolvable problem inherent in this setup; the character’s “all ghosts are bunk” ethos, which had worked just fine in his own solo stories, clearly didn’t wash in the world of the Phantom Stranger, which was teeming with evil spirits of all sorts. Virtually every PS story in which Doc 13 appeared ended with the latter being proven wrong, and looking rather like an obstinate, close-minded idiot. Besides serving as an irritant to the Stranger, there seemed to be little point to having him around.
The editor of Phantom Stranger, Joe Orlando, seems to have recognized the seriousness of the problem around the time the title reached the double digits. Issue #10 would be the last (at least for now) in which the Stranger and the Doctor would appear in the same story; following issue #11’a Thirteen-less full-length PS tale, Dr. 13 would take up residence in the back of the book, getting back to the business of exposing supposed spooks as frauds, and once again getting it right virtually every time. With the exception of #17 (an extra-length issue published during DC’s “bigger & better” era which included a Dr. 13 reprint from the ’50s), every issue since #12 had featured a new adventure of the Ghost-Breaker (although I’m stretching things a bit in including issue #20, in which Terry was relegated to a single panel in which his floating head introduced a couple of otherwise unrelated short tales.)
The artist for these stories (with the exceptions of #20’s two anomalies) was Tony DeZuñiga, the prolific Filipino artist who in the early 1970s was working at the peak of his powers, at least in the opinion of your humble blogger. The scripting chores rotated among several of the writers in Orlando’s stable; for issue #22’s “Creature of the Night”, the job went to Steve Skeates.
See what I mean about Marie being long-suffering? Not only does she have to schlep all over the country accompanying her husband on his weird cases, but he doesn’t even give her a say in where they spend their vacation. Wotta guy, huh?
Once the couple has checked in to a local hotel, the usually level-headed Dr. 13 begins to sense that “there’s something strange about this town!” Or, as Skeates’ narrative voice slips briefly into second person to observe: “Yes, Dr. Thirteen, though you pride yourself on your disbelief in mystical forces, even you can groove to the vibrations… and here the vibrations are bad!”
The scene shifts to briefly show us three of the “teenage toughs” we met on page one taking advantage of the dark, deserted streets to break into a building, evidently with the intent of causing more trouble for the unfortunate Dustin Mednick. Meanwhile, Mednick himself shows up at the same burger joint where Terry Thirteen has gone to buy his Marie’s dinner. When the counter-man refuses to serve Mednick, saying “we don’t want his kind around here”, Terry attempts to intercede; but Mednick tells him not to bother. “For some reason, the people of this town have been very unfriendly to me lately!” he acknowledges, but then goes on to say, “I have plenty of food at home! I can fix my own dinner!”
While the man who’s been secretly scheming to run Mednick out of town so he can buy his house for a song, Matt Driscomb, didn’t have anything to do with the teens’ break-in at the blood bank, he’s more than willing to take advantage of it for his own purposes…
Huh? The one resident of Santa Elmont who knows for sure that Dustin Mednick isn’t a vampire, Matt Driscomb, suddenly decides to drive a stake through his heart? It makes absolutely no sense in terms of what we’ve been told about Driscomb’s motivations, and neither of the rationales for his behavior suggested by Skeates in the caption of the last panel above is convincing in the slightest.
I kind of like Dr. Thirteen’s refreshingly blunt castigation of the Santa Elmont citizenry (“Are you all that stupid?“) — it’s not the kind of thing you usually hear from DC heroes in this era, at least not this side of Oliver Queen. And the moral points that he (and Skeates) are making here regarding mob mentality, fear of the nonconforming, etc., are of course virtually impossible to disagree with. In addition, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had in admiring DeZuñiga‘s art.
All that said, the story still doesn’t really work — mostly, I think, because of Driscomb’s implausibly sudden descent into temporary (but murderous) insanity, although there are other plot contrivances (the dead dog, the blood bank shenanigans), that, combined with the narrative compression necessitated by the tale’s brevity, mitigate against the violent climax feeling earned, or even credible.
On one hand, it’s a shame that the “Dr. 13” feature reaches its end (for now) on a relatively low note; on the other, it’s not hard to see why Joe Orlando figured it was time for a change. And so, while Dr. Thirteen would in fact return in the very next issue’s backup feature, he’d no longer be the headliner. Who was usurping his place? Ah, well… I’m afraid you’ll have to check back here in a couple of months for the answer to that question. (Yeah, sure, you could look it up for yourself online between now and then. But just humor me, OK?)