Phantom Stranger #24 (Mar.-Apr., 1973)

In recent months, we’ve followed the Phantom Stranger’s crusade against the secret society of sinister sorcerers called the Dark Circle, as chronicled by writer Len Wein and artist Jim Aparo.  That crusade finally comes to an end in the 24th issue — so after pausing just long enough to admire Aparo’s typically fine, mood-setting cover, let’s turn to the first page and get right to it, shall we? 

If anyone reading this blog still has any doubts that Jim Aparo — who pencilled, inked and lettered this story — was at the top of his artistic game in the early 1970s, the preceding full-page splash should surely help settle them.

Regular readers will likely recall how our normally solitary hero came to be joined in his struggle by not just one, but two companions… but just in case, here’s a quick recap.  In issue #22, the Dark Circle had kidnapped the Phantom Stranger’s “friend” (and fledgling romantic interest), the blind psychic Cassandra Craft, whom he’d first encountered back in #17.  After rescuing Cass, the Stranger had allowed her to remain at his side, ostensibly to keep her safe.  Then, in #23, the two had followed the Circle’s mystical trail to Paris, where they’d encountered the Stranger’s old enemy Tannarak, last seen (and presumed dead) in the aforementioned #17.  Tannarak had since joined forces with the Circle, but the Stranger convinced him that the group was only using him and would betray him once he’d served his purpose.  The magician-alchemist proceeded to turn on his former comrades, helping the Stranger and Cassandra to foil their scheme; and now, the three unlikely allies are turning over the Dark Circle’s abandoned Paris headquarters, search for a clue as to where the evil organization will strike next.

But since conventional means of investigation are getting them nowhere, Cassandra offers to hold a seance, so as to probe for answers in the immaterial realm. The Stranger protests, concerned about the emotional toll such efforts always take on her; but Cass insists, and so, presently…

The face of the laughing woman that appears in the crystal ball once our intrepid trio have made their exit didn’t ring any bells of recognition for me when I first read this page back in January, 1973 — but that’s probably because I’d only started reading Phantom Stranger with issue #11.  I strongly suspect that many fans who’d been around a year or so longer than I had were already prepared to hazard a guess as to who this mysterious woman was.

Like many a comics artist before and since, Jim Aparo clearly enjoyed working unexpected cameos into the backgrounds of his drawings.  In the previous issue, he’d made the House of Secrets the subject of a painting in the Louvre; in this one, he’s included Cain, the caretaker of the House of Mystery, among the celebrants of Carnival in the first panel above.

Masks or no, the defeated Dark Circle members aren’t in any shape to provide information as to the group’s plans in Rio.  Fortunately, that’s not the case for their intended victim: Miguel, the young man we first met back on page 2…

Soon, the mysterious carriage brings our brave little band — now a quartet — to the mountainside portal that leads to the Dark Circle’s hidden lair.  Quickly, the four exit the conveyance…

As I mentioned earlier, I’d only started reading Phantom Stranger with its 11th issue, so I’d missed most of the previous appearances of Tala, Queen of Darkness.  Created by Robert Kanigher and Neal Adams, the sultry demoness had made her debut in issue #4, then gone on to bedevil (and on one occasion, assist) the Stranger in every following issue through #9.  Meanwhile, Doctor Terence Thirteen, “the Ghost Breaker”, having already served as a foil to the Stranger since issue #1, now became the third contender in a tri-cornered conflict that, with the addition to the mix of four meddling teenagers (yes, really) essentially served as the series’ regular formula until issue #10, at which point new scripter Gerry Conway dumped Tala as well as the kids (and, incidentally, also introduced Tannarak).   Conway only hung around for a couple of issues, however, before decamping for Marvel Comics; Kanigher then returned for two more stories, the second of which featured a return appearance by his co-creation, Tala.  This, then, was my younger self’s first (and only) exposure to the character prior to PS #24; but, as she was in disguise through most of the tale, only coming clean on its penultimate page (see right) — and then only hung around for a couple more panels after that — she didn’t really have much of a chance to make an impression on me.  Then, with the next issue, #14, Len Wein began his run as the feature’s regular writer, and he opted to keep Tala completely out of the picture… until now, obviously.

To be honest, I’m not sure that any reader in 1973 had been wondering all that much about the identity of the Dark Circle’s supreme leader, or had even assumed that there was such a person; prior to this issue, we hadn’t had any of these mysterious murmurings about “the One”.  Nevertheless, the surprise had real dramatic impact, tying as it did the current ongoing narrative back to the title’s earlier days.

Speaking of dramatic impact, the Phantom Stranger’s reappearance at the bottom of page 11 certainly delivers it.  Still, our hero’s idea to beard the enemy in their den all on his lonesome may not have been the most brilliant tactical move, as, despite a valiant struggle he’s quickly overcome by the sinister sorcerers’ superior numbers.  As the Stranger falls unconscious, Tala remarks regretfully on her nemesis’ eternal obstinacy: “A pity… for he is beautiful!”  …which is Wein’s only nod in this tale to the Queen of Darkness’ near-constant attempts in her earlier appearances to sexually seduce PS to join her side, as chronicled by Kanigher and others.

When he returns to awareness, the Phantom Stranger finds himself bound to the Dark Circle’s sigil that’s mounted on the cavern wall

Hmm… maybe it wouldn’t have made that much difference if the Stranger hadn’t gone it alone, after all…

And so, the Phantom Stranger’s two most significant recurring antagonists, Tala and Tannarak, simultaneously meet their ends, never to be seen again in the pages of a DC comic… nahh, I wouldn’t believe me either.  Tala would make her comeback around five years later in DC Super-Stars #18 (Jan.-Feb., 1978), in a tale which had her going up against both PS and his fellow spooky-type hero, Deadman.  Tannarak, meanwhile, would have to wait a while longer for his resurrection, but ultimately returned to again battle the Stranger in a backup story that ran in Saga of Swamp Thing #4 (Aug., 1982) and #5 (Sep., 1982).

Presumably, both baddies are still around in some form, despite all the reboots DC continuity has seen over the past 40 years… although as best as I can determine, Tala hasn’t made an actual appearance since Books of Magic (1994 series) #39 (Aug., 1997), so maybe her status should be considered questionable.  Tannarak, on the other hand, has turned up as recently as Batman vs. Robin #2 (Dec., 2022) (as was previously pointed out by my good friend DontheArtist, etc., in a comment on my PS #23 post).

As I’ve written on previous occasions, I was raised Southern Baptist, and when I first read this story back in 1973, its Christian imagery and symbology made a huge impression on my very devout fifteen-year-old self.  Fifty years later, those aspects of the story have much less personal meaning for me; nevertheless, I can still appreciate the relative subtlety with which Len Wein (who was himself Jewish, at least culturally)  let readers know by implication, rather than any overt narrative declaration, that the Dark Circle had ultimately been defeated not by the efforts of the Phantom Stranger and his cohorts, but rather by the divine intervention of Jesus Christ.  (Though, seriously, it stands to reason — if you’re going to go around invoking the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations, you shouldn’t be surprised when things get even more Biblical [or, to be a bit more precise, New Testament-ical] pretty damn quick.)

Several of the other plot elements in “Apocalypse” haven’t aged quite as well, I regret to say.  The largest offender is probably  the Dark Circle itself, which must be one of the most generic, and least effectual, evil magical organizations ever to appear in comics.  Wein never gives us a sense of the group’s origins, or of how many members there are, or of just how long they’ve been trying (and failing) to conquer the Earth; they’re just a vague bunch of indistinguishably bad people (human and otherwise), who do bad things.  That sort of thing was already becoming trite by 1973; in 2023, it’s the very embodiment of cliché.

Another bit that rankles five decades after the fact (as well as disappoints me every bit as much as it did in my youth) is how Wein writes Cassandra Craft out of the picture.*  Perhaps the author, realizing that he was going to be leaving the series in a few months, felt that he needed to wrap up the romantic subplot he’d initiated back in issue #17 before his successor came on board.  Whatever the case, this development feels abrupt and arbitrary; and the suggestion that the Stranger has actually done right by Cass by means of setting her up with a potential new boyfriend arguably makes things worse.

All that said, there’s still plenty to enjoy in “Apocalypse” — and I’m not just talking about Jim Aparo’s art, splendid though it is.  Beyond the effective implementation of religious themes and imagery I mentioned earlier, Wein also makes good use overall of the atmospheric setting of the streets of Rio at Carnival time, as well as of the imposing mountain Corcovado and its famous statue.  Then there’s the amusingly sardonic dialogue Wein gives Tannarak (even if this particular characterization of the villain seemed to come out of virtually nowhere in PS #23), as well as the appropriately shuddery moment when the agents of the Dark Circle we’ve assumed are merely disguised as Carnival revelers are revealed not to be wearing masks.  Finally, there’s the romantic tension between the Stranger and Cassandra, which never loses its appeal, even as we wish that Wein would give it just a little more room to breathe.

That last statement might actually be usefully to applied to the “Dark Circle” saga as a whole — it probably could have used more room, i.e., a few more issues, to more fully achieve its potential.  But even if we can readily imagine a more artistically successful iteration of this storyline, what Wein and Aparo actually gave us a half-century ago still has a lot going for it.


The second story in Phantom Stranger #24, like the first, presents the latest chapter of an ongoing storyline; in this case, the second installment of writer Marv Wolfman and artist Michael W. Kaluta’s “The Spawn of Frankenstein”:

As discussed in our PS #23 post, “The Spawn of Frankenstein” can be seen either as a straight-up replacement feature for “Dr. 13, the Ghost Breaker”, which had previously held down the back pages of Phantom Stranger on a semi-regular basis… or as a mere refurbishment of that earlier strip, since Terry Thirteen will continue to appear within it — only now as the nemesis of the feature’s titular star.

Of course, as you’ll recall, Terry is dead wrong in blaming Frankenstein’s Monster for his beloved wife Marie’s comatose state, just as Rachel Adams is in blaming him for her husband Victor’s death; it was Victor’s own malfunctioning lab equipment that killed him and injured Marie (and probably would have killed her, if the Monster hadn’t smashed it in time).  What’s more, he saved both Terry and Rachel from being crushed when the lab started to fall in on everyone, but does he get credit for that?  Nooo, he does not…

In the feature’s previous episode, the Monster’s skin was colored green; here, it’s yellow (with occasional green highlights), which is more accurate to Mary Shelley’s description in her 1818 novel Frankenstein.  But someone at DC either didn’t care for the revised look, or simply lost track of the change, as the big guy would be back to green with the following installment.

Regardless of coloring, however, Michael Kaluta’s visualization of the Monster — based on Shelley by way of his friend and fellow artist (and Frankenstein mega-fan) Bernie Wrightson — continued to be one of the eeriest and most convincing in comics, as well as one of the most faithful to its source material; a position I would argue it has maintained to this very day.

Marv Wolfman has made some interesting storytelling choices here.  By giving us a personal detail or two about the two unfortunate policemen, he’s made them more than ciphers, and increased our empathy with them. Up to this point, however, he’s also worked to ensure our sympathy with the Monster, who since being resuscitated by Victor Adams, has done nothing that could be seen as even remotely evil… until nowy.

So, are we to believe that the so-far-blameless Monster has outright killed Jackson and his partner, or merely painfully incapacitated them?  What do you think, faithful readers?

With the killing of Pete and Gink, our protagonist has clearly crossed a moral line (assuming that he didn’t kill the cops in the previous scene); the death penalty is surely too severe a punishment for the crime of attempted grave robbing, after all.  On the other hand, it’s kinda hard to feel much sympathy for these two lowlifes… or, at least, it is for your humble blogger.

In any event, we’ve come to the end of the second chapter of our story — and the next-to-last that would be produced by the current team.  And while we’re not currently planning to devote a whole post to Phantom Stranger #25, which features the last episode of “Spawn of Frankenstein” by Wolfman and Kaluta, we’ll definitely be hitting some of its highlights in our scheduled May, 2023 post about issue #26 — which, in addition to being the very last issue of Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s run on Phantom Stranger, features the first (and only) team-up between the Stranger and Frankenstein’s Monster, as co-written by Wein and Wolfman, and featuring a classic cover by Michael Kaluta.  So be sure and come back in four months for that one, y’hear?

*Like Tala and Tannarak, Cassandra Craft would eventually return.  She reentered the Phantom Stranger’s in issue #40, in a storyline (incidentally guest-starring Deadman) that continued into the following issue.  The final page of #41 (Feb.-Mar., 1976) showed PS and Cass in a tender embrace… unfortunately, that was the last issue of Phantom Stranger for a long, long time.  The next time Cassandra showed up in the DC Universe, in Superman #344 (Feb., 1980) it was clear that if she and the Stranger had become a couple following the cancellation of his title, they weren’t any longer.  Ah, well.

Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, some of this history became rather dicey; and post-Flashpoint, the character of Cassandra Craft was extensively revised.  Given the multiple multiversal reboots that have occurred since then, it’s anyone’s guess as to which, if any, version of Cass remains extant… that said, I wouldn’t bet against her resurfacing one of these days, in one form or another.

16 comments

  1. FRED A AZBELL · 19 Days Ago

    By 1973, I had abandoned collecting comics and the original series was when I was three years old, so I missed that one, too. Interesting concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · 19 Days Ago

    After all of the insanity in the world through-out the twentieth and twenti-first centuries, my first question of any story featuring someone who wants to rule the world is “why?” Why in the world would anyone want to assume responsibility for the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? At least Tala just wants to up and End the World, though correct me if I’m wrong, she never really says why, other than the fact that she’s E-E-E-Bwa-ha-ha-ha-VIL and all that. Obviously, Tala assumes she and the Dark Circle will be around after the world ends, so it would be nice to have had some idea what she had planned for it. Ah, well, meanings and motivations were still not big parts of most comics stories in those days. Evil was just evil for it’s own sake and Good was just good for it’s own as well and that’s all there was to it.

    Aparo’s art is beautiful here and he really is one of the unsung heroes of this stage of DC’s history. As for Wolfman’s story, he’s obviously aware that his time on PS is coming to a close and is wrapping up his storyline with no subtlety whatsoever. From the way Miguel and the Dark Circle guys just show up in front of PS and company so “coincidentally” durning Carnival (and how did Miguel get from the mountains all the way into the city anyway?) to Tannarak’s uncharacteristic sacrifice to the Stranger fridging himself (sort of) in order to motivate Cass to go on and live her life without him, it was obvious Wein was jumping over the more subtle parts of the story to get to the big finish so he could leave the slate clean for whoever came in to take the book over next. Like you Alan, I wish the Stranger’s relationship with Cassandra had been allowed to breathe, but in those days I also wished Superman’s relationship with Lois had been allowed some air as well, so obviously the love lives of our heroes was not a priority for DC at that time.

    As nice as it would be if DC would have given the writers and artists a schedule that would allow their books more time for stories to develop and characters seem more real, Wein and Aparo did the best with what they had at the time and this story is pretty darn good because of it. Thanks, Alan!

    Liked by 2 people

    • frasersherman · 19 Days Ago

      Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible” has a great bit where the villain complains that the hard part isn’t conquering the world, it’s the work involved in locating Melanesian islanders and Amazonian tribespeople and explaining they’re under a new world order.

      Liked by 3 people

      • DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · 19 Days Ago

        I’ve read that book. Great stuff and it was definitely on my mind when I made my comment.

        Like

    • Having witnessed the antics of Donald Trump and Elon Musk and other power-hungry figures like them over the last several years, I imagine that the motivations of would-be world-conquering supervillains are similar: they are narcissistic egomaniacs, the world is just sitting there, and they want — indeed need — to have it, because they believe they are entitled to it. I expect that, much like Trump and Musk, if most of these comic book bad guys DID actually succeed in finally conquering the world, they would probably no idea what to actually do with it, they’d find that doing the necessary work of running it was a huge pain in the rear end, and ultimately they’d still find themselves unfulfilled.

      Liked by 2 people

      • DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · 18 Days Ago

        My sentiments exactly, Ben.

        Liked by 1 person

      • frasersherman · 18 Days Ago

        I have similar thoughts about the “why do they reveal their evil plans when they capture the hero?” criticism. Even people who aren’t narcissistic egomaniacs love talking about themselves — I have no trouble believing that with a captive audience, the average villain would give in and brag.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Chris A. · 19 Days Ago

    Cristo Redentor ( Christ the Redeemer) is a powerful, iconic image in Brazil and worldwide. As I shared in your post about Swamp Thing #1, Len Wein was very “pro-God” in that series, and also elsewhere—-to which I say, then and now, Amen to that!

    Kaluta’s Frankenstein monster seems even grimier this time around, but it suits the creature well.

    It would be funny to see a mash up of the monster breaking into the clothing store at the same time the Swamp Thing tore open a similar metal grating to don a trenchcoat and fedora in Swamp Thing #7. 😉

    Both had subsequent police problems.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. frasersherman · 19 Days Ago

    I remember being unsatisfied with the quick wrap-up and the departure of Cassandra too. Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory shows them as a couple but with the Stranger just up and disappearing a lot.
    That the divine intervention is relatively minor — it frees the Stranger but doesn’t stop the Dark Circle — keeps it from being annoying.
    I agree the Dark Circle lacks ooomph. It reminds me of Dragon Fire in Morbius’ Vampire Tales series: the cult doesn’t seem to have any agenda other than fighting Morbius.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Henry Walter · 18 Days Ago

    Happy New Year! Great write-up! I really appreciate the effort you put into these posts! I have learned a lot from you and the commenters about these books that came out (now slightly) “before my time”. I agree that this is another great issue by Jim Aparo! Aparo drew so many characters well and PS is near the top of that list! Yes, the Dark Circle is not given much back story and the whole arc seems to fizzle out too soon. You mentioned in your footnote that Wein wrote Cassandra out of the picture here, but she returned in Superman #344. I believe Len Wein wrote that issue of Superman so maybe he took the opportunity a few years later to add a little more meat to the PS/Cassandra story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Considering how often the forces of Hell seem to be rampaging about the landscape of superhero comic books unopposed, I do appreciate the occasional story where there’s some sort of divine intervention to help balance the scales.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. B Smith · 14 Days Ago

    I daresay it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Cain gets a cameo appearance, since his look was based on that of scriptwriter Wein.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Stu Fischer · 13 Days Ago

    I don’t really remember this story, but one part brought back long buried memories–Tala. I had forgotten about her for decades, but when I first read Phantom Stranger stories with her (1969?), I was very taken with the character. I now remember that when the character of Talia was introduced in the Batman series afterwards, I wondered if she was somehow related to Tala (and why D.C. would come up with a character so similarly named). So this was a good trip down memory lane and an excuse to see if D.C. Universe has old Phantom Stranger stories online to read.

    I actually have no objective complaint about how the Phantom Stranger faked his “death” to “break up” with Cassandra. It makes perfect sense to me. While PS certainly began to have feelings for Cassandra, he never really acted on those feelings. His stated reason for bringing her along on his quest to destroy the Dark Circle was to protect her from the Dark Circle (which I know sounds a little contradictory, but better than leaving her alone if they came along). Now, with the Dark Circle destroyed, that reason no longer is operative.

    More to the point though, where was the “relationship” going? When it started, there was the hope that we would learn more about PS’s origin, motivations, reason for being, etc. However, none of that happened through Cassandra’s presence. PS remained a cipher (we don’t even know if he’s human or alive) and while there was certainly an excellent opportunity to explore the difficulties and wisdom of a relationship between two different beings (see, e.g., Scarlet Witch and the Vision), Wein never got past square one. All we would see is PS telling Cassandra to stay out of danger (which any super-hero does for any mortal, especially a male super-hero to a female back then) and Cassandra trying to do the same for PS. In fact, that seems to be all Cassandra basically did: call PS affectionate names like “darling” and “sweetheart” (which PS never remarked upon or reciprocated) and worry (although she did occasionally positive things like the seance). It seems Alan that you and the commenters mourn what COULD have been between PS and Cassandra, however the fact is that Wein never was letting it go anywhere at any time, so it was a good excuse to pull the plug this way and a perfectly reasonable and logical way and time to do it (with PS realizing that the relationship had no future).

    My main question with the story is as follows: while Aparo’s splash page on page 3 IS magnificent, if the Four Horsemen aren’t able to come out and penetrate our world until later, how can they show up on page three? Why don’t they hang around then? I know, I know the answer is because if you did it logically you would not have the great splash page and, you know, that reasoning is perfectly fine with me. OK, yeah, I also wonder how Miguel gets back to the carnival so quickly. Also, I too find Tannarak’s way of speaking to PS extremely annoying and unrealistic. I thought I was watching Percival from the Howling Commandos.

    As for the Frankenstein story, I have to confess that I always hated Frankenstein and Dracula stories in the comics (although I did like “Werewolf by Night”) regardless of the company that did them and re-reading this one does not make me feel different. However, I wholeheartedly agree that Kaluta’s work on the monster is terrific and the best in the genre for “Frankenstein” as far as I know. I don’t think that there is any question that the monster killed the cops and I think that the only reason it isn’t explicit was likely to avoid potential problems with the Comics Code in those days. The monster felt that he was being attacked and he kills people that attack him.

    I was glad to see that the original stated reason for creating the series, namely to give Dr. Thirteen something to do, was thrown completely into the background in this installment after page 1. When I read Dr. Thirteen stories when they originally came out, I actually liked them. However, unlike the Deadman storyline which I love just as much as when I first read it starting when I was seven years old, Dr. Thirteen hasn’t aged well for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • frasersherman · 13 Days Ago

      Dr. Thirteen was never a good fit for the Phantom Stranger. There’s a need for good ghost-breakers in the DCU — plenty of grifters fake supernatural events, just like our own world — but matching him with someone who’s really supernatural just makes Terry look like an idiot.
      “PS remained a cipher (we don’t even know if he’s human or alive)” I don’t think of him as a cipher as much as an enigma. And I like him that way. A definite origin would kill some of his charm (they gave him one in the New 52 and it did).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stu Fischer · 13 Days Ago

        I agree with you frasersherman regarding liking PS as an enigma (which sounds like a good description to me). I always enjoyed PS as a character when I was reading the series as a youngster. However, I think that D.C. could not have it both ways–a romantic relationship with an enigma really doesn’t have very much room to grow. I think a much better choice would have been for PS to have a mortal sidekick (a la Dr. Watson) to interact with rather than a romantic interest.

        Liked by 1 person

        • frasersherman · 13 Days Ago

          I suppose the young adults he kept running into in earlier issues might qualify as that. Except they were more to provide a mundane POV than real sidekicks.

          Liked by 1 person

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