Phantom Stranger #23 (Jan.-Feb., 1973)

Artist Jim Aparo’s dramatic cover for Phantom Stranger #23 depicts a scene that unmistakably calls back to Gaston Leroux’s 1909-10 novel Phantom of the Opera, or one of its several film adaptations; meanwhile, a blurb at the top plugs the opening installment of a new back-up series, “Frankenstein”.  A prospective buyer eyeing this one in the spinner rack back in November, 1972, might well have wondered:  didn’t the comic’s publisher, DC Comics, know that Halloween was last month?  Why were they releasing this kind of Double Creature Feature now, after the spooky season had already passed?

On the other hand, this was the latest issue of Phantom Stranger — and “spooky” was what this comic book title was all about, not just in October, but all year long.  So I suspect most fans probably didn’t think twice about the double dose of classic horror stars, half a century ago; in any event, I’m pretty sure I didn’t, either when I first eyed the cover, or when, after buying the book and taking it home, I finally turned to the first page… 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame?  Um, better forget what I said earlier about a Double Creature Feature, and make that a Triple

As regular readers of this blog may recall, in the issue immediately preceding this one the Phantom Stranger had become reacquainted with the blind psychic Cassandra Craft (whom he’d first met in issue #17), when the sinister society of sorcerers called the Dark Circle had kidnapped her to use against him.  But though the end of that adventure had seen Cassandra transition from calling our nameless hero “friend” to addressing him as “darling”, PS is clearly still holding his “feelings” at one remove, unwilling to acknowledge (let alone act on) the depth of his affections for Cass… even in Paris.

OK, maybe I’m being too hard on the guy; after all, it’s not like he doesn’t have important work to do, what with the Dark Circle trying to take over the world and all.  So I suppose we can cut him a break for leaving the lovely Ms. Craft alone in their hotel room while he steps out into the Paris evening in search of intel…

Alas, Marcel hasn’t heard the barest whisper about any Dark Circle, and so the Stranger departs his old friend’s shop no wiser than when he entered… though before he does, he magically repairs the “confounded contraption” Marcel has been struggling with, a kind gesture the latter man discovers only after his visitor has gone.

Has the Phantom Stranger been drawn to the Paris Opera house by some mystical premonition?  Or is he there because Cass’ sixth sense picked up on some weird vibes?  One or both of those options would seem to be likely, though Wein doesn’t tell us either way.  As we’ll see on the following page, Cassandra is indeed in attendance; but for all we know, she and PS just decided to have a nice evening out while they waited for the Dark Circle to show its hand.  Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances that led to this moment, it’s on, now, baby.

But by the time the Phantom Stranger finds secure footing on the rooftop, poor Marcel’s murderer has vanished.  The next scene reveals just where “Quasimodo” has gone…

This is Tannarak’s fourth go-round in Phantom Stranger, his having previously shown up in issues #10, #11, and #17 (the latter occasion being where he previously met Cassandra Craft, naturally).  In all three of those appearances, he’d died at the end (or at least had certainly seemed to) — which is sort of fitting, in a way, given that the guy’s whole thing is his neverending quest for immortality.  (I mean really, just based on the evidence, doesn’t it seem like he must already be most of the way there?)  Anyway, you can understand why PS is hardly surprised to find that Tannarak has once again survived their latest encounter…

The Hellraiser films’ Pillar of Souls.

While preparing to write this post, I wondered whether Len Wein had based the “Pillar of Souls” on anything; no, I didn’t believe that it was an actual sculpture owned by the Louvre, for reasons that’ll be clear by the end of the story, but I still figured that Wein might have picked up the unusual and memorable phrase from somewhere other than his own head.  But the only other “Pillars of Soul” that Google seems to know are a spirit-imprisoning sculpture that appears in the horror films Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), and a 2021 song by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo de Augustine clearly inspired by said artifact.  So it would seem that not only does Mr. Wein deserve full credit for coming up with the Pillar of Souls as both phrase and concept, but also that one or more of the filmmakers involved in the Hellraiser franchise — maybe even its creator, noted horror author/artist/director Clive Barker — are likely to have been Phantom Stranger readers back in the day.

Given this story’s Paris setting, and its callbacks to French literary sources, I’ve wondered if Jim Aparo’s gorgeous airship design might owe something to some earlier artist’s illustrations for a Jules Verne novel (Robur the Conqueror, perhaps); my very limited research hasn’t turned up much of anything thus far, however.

Recognize the house in the painting in the second panel above?  No?  Well, I wish I could tell you more about it, but I’m afraid that’s a secret.

I’m inclined to think that Tannarak is laying the “old chum/pal” bit on a little thick here, considering that he and the Phantom Stranger have had only three previous encounters — all relatively brief, and all occurring within the past twenty-six months of real-world time, besides.  But, whatever; after all, Tannarak is the closest thing PS has to an arch-foe at this point, with the exception of one other character who will in fact be appearing in the very next… nahh, no spoilers.

The two unlikely allies pursue their quarry into the airship’s cabin, where “Quasimodo”‘s lackeys put up little resistance.  Tannarak seizes his former comrade’s magic staff, which causes the latter man to lose his balance; he falls from the airship, but manages to grab onto the stature still hanging below…

So much for Quasi, as well as for the OG Pillar of Souls…

“Not the end!”  No, indeed; rather, for the conclusion to the Phantom Stranger’s crusade against the Dark Circle, you’ll have to come back in two months’ time, when we’ll rejoin our intrepid little threesome of supernatural adventurers as they depart the City of Lights for another of the world’s most colorful metropolises, Rio de Janeiro.  (And forget about the calendar saying it’s January — we’re going to Carnival, people.)


Of course, the phrase “not the end” may easily be applied to PS #23 as a whole, as well as to its lead story; after all, we’re sixteen pages into the book, and we’ve yet to meet anyone that might answer to the name “Frankenstein”.  But, naturally, that’s about to change.

“The Spawn of Frankenstein” is something of an outlier for DC Comics circa late 1972, or so at least it seems to me.  While the publisher’s arch-rival, Marvel Comics, had responded to the 1971 relaxation of the Comic Code Authority’s rules regarding the depiction of horror by launching one new monster-starring series after another, DC had pretty much gone on in the same manner as before, continuing to focus their horror-related energies on the “mystery” anthologies (House of Mystery, Witching Hour, Unexpected, etc.) that had been good sellers for them since the late 1960s.  It’s true that their single supernaturally-oriented title featuring a continuing character (Phantom Stranger, what else?) had been joined by a couple of others in recent months (The Demon and Swamp Thing); but other than a very occasional one-off appearance by a vampire or a werewolf in one of the aforementioned anthologies, the “classic” monsters would by and large remain absent from the pages of DC’s comics — that is, until PS #23, and its introduction of a new version of the Frankenstein Monster.

In a remarkable coincidence, this first installment of “Spawn of Frankenstein” reached newsstands on November 7th — exactly two weeks after Marvel had debuted their new Frankenstein title.  And the synchronicity didn’t stop there, as the opening scene of DC’s new strip, showing the Monster being recovered from Arctic ice, closely echoed the corresponding scene in Marvel’s book — the main difference being that the two scenes were set seventy-four years apart…

Editor Joe Orlando’s creative team for the new feature was composed of writer Marv Wolfman and artist Mike Kaluta — two talents whose most visible efforts of late had been for DC’s line of books based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with Wolfman scripting “John Carter of Mars” (first for Tarzan and then for Weird Worlds) and Kaluta drawing “Carson of Venus” (for Korak, Son of Tarzan).  Ironically, within one month of the debut of “Spawn of Frankenstein” Wolfman would begin writing a series based on the other classic monster of 19th century English literature, as he took over the scripting duties for Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula — a gig that would end up lasting some six years longer than “Frankenstein”, though it’s doubtful anyone could have guessed that at the time.

We don’t learn the surname of the would-be successor to Victor Frankenstein in this installment, but the next issue will clue us in that it’s Adams.  Giving the character the same first name as the Monster’s creator, along with a last name that evokes the moniker of the Bible’s First Man, is perhaps a bit too on the nose — though I suppose it beats calling him Joe Smith, or whatever.

With Rachael Adams’ phone call to “Terry Thirteen… the Ghost Breaker“, we regular readers of Phantom Stranger learn that, on one level, “The Spawn of Frankenstein” isn’t a new series at all — rather, it’s an overhaul of the existing “Dr. 13” strip that’s been running semi-regularly in the back of this title since issue #12.  Evidently, while Joe Orlando was quite keen to make a major change in Phantom Stranger‘s backup slot– according to an article by John Wells in Alter Ego #41 (Oct., 2004), the editor had two Dr. 13 stories in hand, complete and ready to go, that he chose to consign to inventory in order to launch “Frankenstein” — he still wasn’t quite ready to kick Terry and his wife Marie all the way to the curb.  After all, both Thirteens had been part of the revived “Phantom Stranger” feature since its tryout in Showcase #80, back in 1968, and might by now be considered part of its essential fabric, at least by some.

In 1972, Michael Kaluta’s visualization of the Monster hewed more closely to the descriptions given in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel than had most others before it, in any medium — or at least those that had appeared since James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein had cemented the Boris Karloff version in the popular imagination.  For that, we evidently owe thanks to Kaluta’s good friend and fellow artist (and lifelong Frankenstein enthusiast), Bernie Wrightson.

Illustration by Bernie Wrightson for an edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1983.

As Wrightson explained to Roy Thomas in an interview for Alter Ego #41:

When Mike got that job, I remember he called me and said, “What does the Monster look like?”…  And I described the Monster for him, and he drew it exactly the way I described it, which is why Michael’s Monster looks like mine.

Twelve years later, Kaluta himself offered further details in an interview with Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Creator #13 (Fall, 2016):

I said, “Wrightson, I’m doing this ‘Spawn of Frankenstein’ thing.”  “Yeah?”  I asked, “Where are the stitches? Like where on the body are the stitches, if there are any stitches?”  He said, “Oh, there’s stitches all over Karloff’s.  That’s in the movie, but he wasn’t made out of body parts stitched together like in the movies.  He’s put in a vat and boiled out and it’s just skin.  It just stretches over the framework so he looks weirdly desiccated.”  I went, “Thanks,” and I drew that…

As we discussed in last week’s post about Marvel’s Frankenstein #1, Shelley is less than specific in her novel about the tools and methods Victor Frankenstein uses to animate his creation.  But ever since the 1931 movie, “electricity” has been part of the process in most popular treatments of the theme (though not, it should be noted, in Marvel’s adaptation of the novel).

“He doesn’t have mind enough!”  Sigh… it’s not the first time Terry has leapt to firm conclusions from scant evidence — and it probably won’t be the last, either…

And so, a new story of the Monster (aka the Spawn) of Frankenstein begins, with Dr. 13 taking the “Lt. Gerard” role to the Monster’s “Richard Kimble” in a take obviously beholden to The Fugitive (and through it, of course, to Les Miserables).  So, maybe not so new, after all — still, it’s a time-tested as well as a time-worn premise on which to build an episodic narrative; and even if Wolfman’s storyline still needs to prove itself, Kaluta’s splendid artwork rewards one’s attention all on its own.  Where will things go from here?  I hope you’ll return in January for our look at the saga’s next chapter, in Phantom Stranger #24.

14 comments

  1. B Smith · 29 Days Ago

    Top review, old sport (if you’ll pardon my Tannarakspeak) – a couple of observations…

    Jim Aparo did his own lettering as well as inking, so it’s interesting to see on the first two pages, with the Notre Dame guards, that there’s been some altering or adding to the script – I could be wrong, but “You search the pews…”, “Rene! B-but I just left…” and the caption “For a moment…” has lettering that is clearly not Aparo’s. Presumably corrected after Aparo submitted the finished work, but one might wonder if the changes were made by editor or writer…?

    Aparo was also known for slipping real-life figures into his crowd scenes, and I’m presuming the fellow prominent in the 747 disembarking panel is someone…my guess is Hugh Hefner (but I’m willing to be wrong on that).

    Also intriguing was the Marcel character. Now I didn’t start reading the Stranger’s comic till #27, so I can’t say for sure, but is this the first time we’ve seen a civilian (for want of a better word) with whom the Stranger has a past history, even if we’ve never seen it? It’s interesting, as it shows that whereas the Stranger, in previous appearances anywhere, seems to know everything about everything – or enough to get him through his various adventures…here for once we see him seeking out somebody – with whom he’s dealt before – for information. Like Batman and Spider-Man, it’s suggested the Stranger may have his own network of information retrieval, and thus not necessarily be as all-knowing as we might have believed till now.

    As for the “Frankenstein” back-up, my only inquiry is how well-known or used the term “cloning” was before this. A quick look on Wikipedia would indicate that in fiction the process was familiar enough, but the term itself may not have been in the vernacular. I’d never heard of it till the 1975 Spider-Man clone thing happened in the #140’s of his own title*, and the word hit the public seam in 1978 with David Rorvik’s “In My Image”….so could this have been nigh-on the first use of the word in comics?

    Anyway, congrats on another top job, and I look forward to further entries down the line.

    *having missed entirely the Goodwin/Simonson “Manhunter” strip in ‘74

    Liked by 2 people

    • Marcus · 29 Days Ago

      To B. Smith: about cloning, you forgot about the Project in Kirby’s run in Jimmy Olsen starting in 1970, though I don’t remember when I first came across the concept.
      Nice to see Cassandra got a wardrobe change.

      Liked by 1 person

    • mwgallaher · 20 Days Ago

      I think we can deduce the reason for the lettering changes. I bet that in the original script that Aparo lettered, Wein forgot to explain that the two gendarmes separated, so it was jarring when Jacques ascends and finds his colleague hanging. A reader would otherwise assume that he and Rene had been together the whole time, leading to confusion. So Wein or Orlando went back and added in a balloon–lettered in-house–to establish that Rene had parted to explore a different area than Jacques, then they altered the second balloon to re-affirm why Jacques is shocked.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · 29 Days Ago

    No doubt about it, when Aparo was at the top of his game, which he was at the time we’re talking about, he was one of the best comics artists around. His work may not have been as flashy as Kirby or Adams or Kane (the Holy Trinity, as far as I’m concerned), but there was a grace to it; an attention to detail, that very few artists could come close to. The work here is beautiful and atmospheric and totally evocative of the story being told. Even the garish color choices of the time couldn’t get in the way of Aparo’s work and every month it was a pleasure to see.

    As for the story, Wein is also in fine form here. His pacing is good, the story builds in the haunting manner you’d expect, but still…I wonder whose idea it was to keep Cassandra Craft around? Surely, she made it easier for PS to have someone to talk to; to explain his deductions to and take the reader’s POV, but Wein never really knew what to do with her. PS was protecting Cassandra from the Dark Circle, all right, right up until the moment he decided to go off and do something else. Then, he left her at the hotel, stranded in the desert or wherever, until the Dark Circle, sensing his inattention to her safety, swoop in and make off with her…again and the story stumbles forward. Part of this was because Cassandra’s abilities, while powerful, were passive and of no use in the kinds of physical derring do the Stranger seemed to find himself in once or twice an issue. Time after time, she’s forced into the background in the Damsel in Distress role and very seldom has any agency in her own story. We can’t really blame Wein for this all together, after all, most girl friends and gal pals of the day; Lois Lane, Gwen Stacy, Karen Page, et al, were also reduced to victims time and time again. It just seems that Cassandra really go the short end of the stick. Even after four or five issues, we still know nothing about her, other than that she’s blond, blind and psychic and that’s a tremendous injustice to the character. What a shame.

    As for The Spawn of Frankenstein, Kaluta’s artwork is lovely, as you’d expect, with the mood heightened by the use of blacks and darker blues to create a mysterious palette that serve the story well. I’m surprised by the addition of. and total change of mission for Terry Thirteen here. No more ghost-breaking, I assume, but only full-time monster hunting, until I guess at some point he discovers that the Creature didn’t attack Marie at all, but instead tried to help her. How tragic. I have no memories of this strip at all, but look forward to seeing where it all goes, as I do with the rest of Phantom Stranger’s adventures. Thanks, Alan!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. frasersherman · 29 Days Ago

    Loved that issue. I think Tannarek’s “old chum” and the like is said in a mocking tone of voice.
    And yes, the art is first-rate for both stories.
    I seem to recall an earlier (though post DNA Project) story where Man-Thing encountered a clone too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve McBeezlebub · 28 Days Ago

      ‘Old chum’ could have been meant to hint at a longer history between the adversaries than we’ve seen. You could even argue that the Stranger’s trust in Tannarak suggests he has experience with doing so and knows he won’t be betrayed mid-mission. (Yes, I know it’s a plot necessity but head canon is a thing)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. frednotfaith2 · 28 Days Ago

    Nice pair of stories. Fun in retrospect to realize that Marv Wolfman was, as far as I know, the only writer to work on stories involving takes on the Unholy Trinity of Universal movie monsters, Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman aka Werewolf. Great artwork by Aparo and Kaluta. Was disappointed, I confess, by the ending of the Frankenstein story, resorting to the by now creaky trope of the “monster” being erroneously blamed for deaths or serious injuries and a heroic figure vowing vengeance against the creature without first figuring out what really happened but instead jumping to conclusions. Too similar to the ongoing scenario in the Swamp Thing series.
    Anyhow, comparing Kaluta’s Frankenstein to Ploog’s as well as to Wrightson’s, I liked all of them, although Ploog has a somewhat more cartoony style but still effective for his stories. My favorite work of Ploog’s is his run on Man-Thing. I just ordered Wrightson’s version — I’ve seen many images of his work but never read it so I’ll be rectifying that lapse soon. But I think of those I’ve seen, Wrightson’s is the definitive graphic version.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Chris A. · 28 Days Ago

    I was disappointed when Kaluta left “Carson of Venus” before the storyline concluded, and likewise with “Spawn of Frankenstein,” as he only drew a handful of these before Bernard Baily took over. I suppose in each case one strip took precedent over the other, so when the offer to draw The Shadow came up, off he went…but even there Kaluta only drew numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6, along with an additional cover or two. It seems he focused on single illustrations for a number of years after these, and only came back to a continuous feature of any length when he drew “Starstruck” for Heavy Metal magazine in the 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Henry Walter · 28 Days Ago

    Really enjoyable review! I picked up this issue of PS years after publication after discovering the well-matched combination of Jim Aparo’s art and the character of the Phantom Stranger. It has been at least 25 years since I read this issue. Both stories are enjoyable. Aparo’s art is excellent and the story moves along nicely. I agree that arch-enemy Tannarak has become far too chummy in this issue, even if it is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. I feel that the art is somewhat inconsistent on the Frankenstein story. Some of the panels, after the first few pages, feel rushed.

    A couple musings: I wonder if Len Wein was referring to a travel book of Paris when he wrote this story. He incorporates the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, Orly airport (this story predates CDG), the sewers, the Louvre, the Paris Opera House, the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame all in just 16 pages. The first time I read the story I had not yet been to Paris so I might not have picked up on all these references.
    How does PS “deal with customs” on page 3? Does he have a passport? Does he wave his hand and say, ”we are not the travelers you are looking for?”.

    After seeing the Maine setting in this Frankenstein story and another one a few weeks ago in one of the Vampirella stories you reviewed, I wonder if some of the writers of the time were influenced by the Maine setting of Dark Shadows and so began to think of that as a good location for their own gothic horror-inspired stories. Also, Dark Shadows had one their own riff on the Frankenstein monster. Thanks for the spotlight on The Phantom Stranger!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris A. · 27 Days Ago

      Stephen King certainly used Maine as a common location in his horror stories. Of course, he is a lifelong resident there.

      Like

    • B Smith · 26 Days Ago

      Mentioning Orly Airport might have been a throwaway reference to Chris Marker’s 1964 film “La Jetee.”

      Like

  7. Fred Key · 26 Days Ago

    I’m more impressed by Aparo’s work now than when I younger, especially that he was his own inker at this time. Look at the details on those chandeliers! He had to draw each crystal in pencil, then again in ink!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cornelius Featherjaw · 26 Days Ago

    Looking forward to seeing how Dr. Thirteen explains away this one! 🙂

    Like

  9. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · 24 Days Ago

    I knew the name Tannarak rang a bell with me when I read this post, but thought it was just because I remembered him from back in the day. Turns out, the character just appeared in issue o#2 of Batman Vs Robin as a minion of the Devil Nahaz! How about that! I guess old characters never die, they just get rebooted.

    Liked by 1 person

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