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.