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Saturday, 29 April 2017

Phantom Stranger 16 - the wax museum, and a ghost asks Dr. Thirteen for help

Phantom Stranger #16 (Nov/Dec 71) has two great stories and an excellent Neal Adams cover. Only the Mark Merlin reprint is lame. But what are you going to do? It's a Mark Merlin reprint, after all.

Len Wein scripts both of the new stories in the issue, and Aparo does the art on the Phantom Stranger outing. The story deals with a wax museum, run by a wheelchair bound man. Two thugs show up to rob it at the start of the tale, but we see them somehow transformed into wax mannequins. The old man may look helpless, but clearly he is not. I like Cain's cameo as one of the figures in the wax museum.

The Phantom Stranger saves a young woman from a mugger. She has no idea who she is, and is haunted by dreams in which she is an ancient Egyptian princess, who is to be turned into a wax figure in order to maintain her beauty forever. When she and the Phantom Stranger run into her boyfriend, she does not recall ever having met him before, but it's clear the guy is not lying, and is madly in love with her.

The Phantom Stranger leads the couple to the wax museum, he feels there are answers for her there. The wax figures come to life and take the girl away. The old man reveals himself as the ancient Egyptian priest, and insists that the girl, Dalia, is an ancient princess.

The Phantom Stranger manages to defeat the old man, and they escape the burning wax museum with Dalia. But it proves to be of no use. The old man was right, Dalia was made into wax centuries earlier, and she melts away in front of them.

Wein and De Zuniga turn in a clever Dr. Thirteen story, which opens with a ghost begging Dr. Thirteen to solve his murder. Terry can find no obvious tricks to explain the ghost, and goes to visit the dead man's wife. The death was ruled a suicide, but the wife tells Thirteen about a scientist that the guy fired, who might have wanted revenge.

Going to see the scientist, Terry arrives just as the man kills himself. It all seems cut and dried, but the corpse is unusually cold, and Thirteen examines the equipment in the room.

Thirteen deduces that the scientist was murdered, and what he watched was a hologram. He uses the same hologram tricks to save his life when the real killer, the supposed ghost who begged for his help, comes to kill him. He had been planning to use Thirteen as the perfect cover for his crime. The guy shoots wildly at the holograms, and winds up killing his own wife accidentally. Both stories have downer endings, but that just makes both work so much better.

Phantom Stranger 15 - the Phantom Stranger in Africa, and Dr. Thirteen walks into the sea

Phantom Stranger expands in size with issue 15 (Sept/Oct 71), although the additional pages are all reprints. Mark Merlin stories, from House of Secrets, would appear in all but one of these larger issues.

The story that goes with the Neal Adams cover is by Joe Orlando and Len Wein, with art by Jim Aparo. It's a very moody piece, set in Africa, that gives a smaller role to the Phantom Stranger, while it centres on a man who left his tribe to study in the US. He has become a scientist and an inventor, and is not impressed with the superstitious way of life of the other members of the tribe. He returns to Africa, along with his girlfriend, but learns of an oil company, supported by the government, which will do anything to get rid of his people so that they can drill the land.

Since the people of the tribe won't listen to him, he constructs a robot, and claims it is their god. The robot can not only speak, it also has a consciousness, which grows as the tale progresses. At first, it is content to rouse up the people and train them for warfare, but eventually it begins to fall in love with the girlfriend, and resent taking orders from its creator.

The robot refuses to take part in the big battle, but does come back to kill its maker, figuring the girlfriend will then fall in love with him. Dumb robot. When the tribe learns that their "god" is a phony, and a killer, they turn on it and destroy it. The Phantom Stranger functions mostly as an observer of the whole tragedy.

Tony DeZuniga does some great art on Robert Kanigher's Dr. Thirteen story, which is good. It's a darn silly tale, and only the art carries it along. It begins as we see a musician lead a group of parties down into the sea. This scene is really the core of the problem, as we observe it objectively. Later, Dr. Thirteen is wandering along the beach and finds an old man coming out of the water, barely alive. He is a millionaire who had hired the band, and explains how the lead performer lead them all into the water. He only survived because a riptide pulled him back to shore.

Dr. Thirteen accompanies the man back to his house, which he finds filled with party guests he doesn't know, as well as the musician. They insist that nothing like the man described actually happened. Dr. Thirteen is suspicious, but decides to join the party. Later, the musician starts to lead them all down into the sea. Dr. Thirteen finds himself pulled along against his will.

Once under the water, he figures out that the beads he has been wearing, which the partiers placed on him, are giving him hallucinations. He pulls them off, and rescues the old man again. I guess we are meant to think that the musician never really lead the rest of the guests into the water, that it was all hallucinations, but the very first page basically contradicts this. The explanation gets increasingly absurd when we find out the musician is the old man's son, who got plastic and vocal surgery, and developed the hallucinatory beads, all to get his inheritance. How much would that all have cost him? Probably about as much as he would have inherited anyway.

Phantom Stranger 14 - stealing the Phantom Stranger's heart, and the swamp creature

Well, that sure looks like Swamp Thing on the cover of Phantom Stranger 14 (July/Aug 71), doesn't it? But nope, it's not. And despite the image of the Stranger, the Adams cover actually pertains to the Dr. Thirteen story in the book.

Len Wein scripts both of the stories in this issue. The Phantom Stranger tale, with art by Aparo, opens in quite a shocking fashion, with the character being invoked by Broderick Rune, and taken prisoner. Rune then promptly dies himself, from a heart attack, and his faithful servant oversees an operation that replaces Rune's heart with that of the Stranger.

The Phantom Stranger visits Rune to warn him about this unwise course of action in a dream, and then continues to haunt the man.

It's all very creepy, and quite different from the stories that have run in the book so far. The Phantom Stranger returns by the end of the tale, none the worse for wear, and Rune dies again. In the autopsy, it is discovered that he has no heart at all. Oooooooh, spooky!

Although we do not see Rune again, him being dead and all, he will later on be revealed to have been involved with the Dark Circle.

Tony DeZuniga does the art on the cover story, in which Dr. Thirteen and his wife Marie head to the Louisiana bayou to investigate rumours of a swamp creature, which has been carrying people off.  Terry heads out alone to check this out, and becomes the swamp creature's next victim.

When he doesn't return, Marie gets the sheriff to lead her out, and they find a weird domed village deep in the bayou. The swamp creature is the leader of the dome, just a man in a costume, but a scientist with a weapon that accelerates swamp growth. He uses it to take out the sheriff.

The guy has been assembling a society under his control, which will survive the outside world, which he feels is heading towards destruction. He orders a hypnotized Dr. Thirteen to kill Marie, but Terry breaks free of his programming and fights back. The dome gets damaged, and the accelerator causes the plants to go wild and crush it completely, killing the guy.

My brain is telling me that this domed place does return in an issue of Swamp Thing, but I might be wrong about that, combining a different location with this one.

Phantom Stranger 13 - the boy who killed with a toy gun, and the haunted clock

I just love the Neal Adams cover for Phantom Stranger 13 (May/June 1971). More than the Kanigher and Aparo story itself, really.

Except for the helmet, the picture conveys the opening scene, as a young boy living in a remote government lab kills his grandfather with a toy gun. Later, we see him do the same thing to another scientist. The deaths draw the attention of the Phantom Stranger.

When he shows up, another of the scientists attacks him, but only winds up injuring himself. A lot of the story deals with the rivalry between those working on the atomic weapon testing, each juggling to be in charge. 

There is so much of that that it feels like it will be central to the resolution of the tale, but it isn't. There is a French woman scientist, who is the only one to survive facing the boy and his gun, a hint that something more is up with her.

The conclusion of the story heads into completely different territory, as we find out the boy is not a child at all. He is a mutant, and millions of years old. He and others of his kind live in caves below the Earth. They are distressed at all the warfare, so he came above ground and got adopted to infiltrate the lab and kill the scientists to prevent the weapons from being developed. Sounds like a bit too elaborate a plan to come off.

The French woman turns out to be Tala, although as usual she doesn't really have much of a function in the story. Might have worked better if she had taken on the role of the boy's adoptive mother, rather than just meeting him once he was already at the lab. The boy winds up getting killed accidentally when he runs into a minefield.

Tala returns a couple of years down the road.

Kanigher also scripts the De Zuniga Dr. Thirteen story, which opens with an auction of supposedly haunted items.

One of these is clock. We see the man wind the clock, and the demonic figure in it come to life and kill him.

Dr. Thirteen comes to investigate, and tries winding the clock himself. He has the same vision as the dead man, but fights off the killer. It was all a scam to kill the guy for vengeance. Weird that the killer would go through all the hassle of rigging the clock with a hallucinogenic gas and dressing up to kill the man, and then try it a second time to cover his crime.

Phantom Stranger 12 - the wife in the coffin, and Dr. Thirteen solo stories begin

With Phantom Stranger 12 (March/April 1971) Dr. Thirteen splits off to have his own back-up series in the book.

Neal Adams once again provides the cover for the Phantom Stranger tale, by Kanigher and Aparo. It's  a decent enough outing, although very predictable. The story centres on a newly married  couple. The man had been married once before, and his wealthy wife had died. She had made it a condition of her will that he bring her corpse (in the coffin) with him wherever he went.

This creeps out the new wife, and the guy is clearly haunted by the situation as well, sleep walking and imagining that he sees her. The Phantom Stranger's role in the story is fairly small, and actually fulfils much the same purpose as the dead wife, stalking the guy and bringing out his feelings of guilt.

It's no shocker to learn that he allowed his wife to die, refusing to bring her her medication. At the end the new wife convinces him to have the coffin taken away, but the guy gets run down and killed by the car that comes to do this.

Jack Oleck and Tony DeZuniga give Dr. Thirteen his first solo story since the late 40s. Marie Thirteen has a very small role in this one, as Terry deals with superstitious townspeople who think a ghostly monk is killing people using sound.

Dr. Thirteen examines the clock tower, which is the apparent source of the deadly emanations, and the graveyard where the mysterious monk appears. He unmasks the man as the old town doctor, who was using a sonic weapon to kill the people who had brought in a new, younger doctor to replace him.

Phantom Stranger 11 - Tannarak returns

Another Adams cover for Phantom Stranger 11 (Jan/Feb 71), as Conway and Aparo do an entire story without Dr. Thirteen!

You really don't even miss him. This is a strange tale, though, right from the outset. Crazed violence and anger is raging around the world. One of the early scenes of this involves radicals taking over a spaceship, and trying to crash it into Washington DC. I find it really impressive that they could somehow manage to take over the craft, but not really surprised at their failure to use it as a big bomb.

The Phantom Stranger hunts for the source of this violence, and it leads him to Israel. Along the way he befriends an American girl who is moving to Israel. Her brother is already there, helping build a school and such. She talks about how important it is to create peace, but once she arrives her brother gets blown up by an Arab bomber, and she butchers the guy with his own knife. It looks like she dies as the result of a grenade, but her body disappears.

The Phantom Stranger finds a strange cult who dress a bit like ancient Egyptians, but also use a lot of computers and high tech stuff. They are lead by Tannarak, who was saved from the statue crushing in the previous issue by the gods of hate, to work as their operative on Earth. He has been collecting people and drawing power from their hate, which is then channelled out into the world to increase it overall.

The girl has been brought here, but aside from the whole killing-the-guy-who-killed-her-brother thing, is not consumed by hate the way others were. The Phantom Stranger rescues her, and fights off Tannarak and the gods of hate, who seem to control the banks of computers. The girl survives, but her mind is mush by the end, so it's not a great victory. Tannarak appears to die when his entire base explodes, along with the computers, but will return the following year. And not having Dr. Thirteen around to yell at the Phantom Stranger didn't hurt this odd tale one bit.

Phantom Stranger 10 - Tannarak debuts, and the crocodile

There are three stories in Phantom Stranger 10 (Nov/Dec 70), but none of them, not even the reprint, have anything to do with the great Neal Adams cover.

Gerry Conway joins Aparo for the lead story, which introduces a new villain, Tannarak. He makes a dramatic entrance, approaching a woman at a disco and acting all seductive, then draining her life force and leaving her to collapse dead in front of her friends. Dr. Thirteen is on the scene, and the Phantom Stranger shows up just after the woman in pronounced dead.

They go off after Tannarak, who grabs another woman, and brings her back to his lair. With three stories, none are very long, so there is no time for Dr. Thirteen to tell a tale about how great he is. Instead, we learn that Tannarak is into alchemy, and hunting for the lost love of his childhood. It's not too clear how many years ago that was. He claims to have immortality, thanks to a golden statue he created.

While Dr. Thirteen keeps barking about everything being a hoax, the Stranger confront Tannarak, and brings down the statue on him. They all act as if Tannarak is dead, although no body is shown, and he comes back in the next issue.

Conway and Aparo also contribute a short tale, narrated by the Stranger, which is both fun and gruesome. A harried man responds to an ad and buys a plastic crocodile in order to murder his wife. The crocodile comes to life when put into water, like their swimming pool.

His plan works, and he goes on with his life. Later, while throwing a party, his friends find the crocodile and inflate it, leaving it in the pool. So the guy winds up dying the same way. Oh, the irony.

Phantom Stranger 9 - Obeah Man

Sekowsky scripts the Aparo story in Phantom Stranger 9 (Sept/Oct 70), with a Neal Adams cover.

Dr. Thirteen is down in the Caribbean, and is called on to help the president of that country, after his assistant is killed and voodoo threats are being made.

The President brings Thirteen out to the area where the Obeah Man and his followers are holding their rituals. Dr. Thirteen uses the ride to tell his own story, about a man who believed he was under a voodoo curse, but was really being manipulated by his greedy nephew.

Along the drive, Dr. Thirteen spots the four kids. You thought they were gone, didn't you? Nope, they are back to just kind of hang around throughout this story. They do work well to distract Thirteen and the president, though, allowing the Phantom Stranger to suddenly appear in the limo.

Other than that, this is a really straightforward tale. The good guys head out to the voodoo camp. Phantom Stranger confronts the Obeah Man, who is being aided by Tala. Her appearance is as unneeded as the kids.

I think my favourite panel of the entire story is the final one. The Phantom Stranger defeats the Obeah Man and vanishes. The president of the island nation credits the Stranger, not Dr. Thirteen, and Terry is left futilely cursing the Stranger.  Tala takes a few issues off after this story.