DC Comics Presents comes to an end with a double sized issue 97 (Sept 86). Sort of billed as a team up on the cover, this is an unusually heavy story. It came out the same month as the two part Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, by Alan Moore. Since that was an Imaginary Story, it makes the Steve Gerber, Rick Veitch and Robert Smith tale from this issue the real finale for the career of the pre-Crisis Superman. Yes, we are post-Crisis already, but the "Crisis wave" was about to hit, and the following month would see the debut of the Man of Steel miniseries, which introduced the post-Crisis Superman.
This story delves back into the discovery of the Phantom Zone by Jor-El, as he tried to find a parallel dimension, in hopes of moving Kryptonians there to escape the destruction of their planet. Although Jor-El had little contact with it, there was a sentience already in the Zone, which will narrate much of the later part of the story.
Much of the narration of the first part of the tale comes from Krypton's executioner, the man who actually operates the machine that sends Krypton's worst villains into the Phantom Zone. We get brief clips of Kru-El, Faora, Jax-Ur, Dr Xadu and others, while many more occupants of the Phantom Zone are mentioned.
Most focus goes to General Zod, and even the executioner comments on how hard it was to send Zod to the Phantom Zone, as he had once been a soldier under Zod's command.
After Krypton's destruction, the central consciousness of the Phantom Zone, shown as a heart shaped diamond, takes on the bitterness and anger of the Zone residents.
Things become more complicated by a Kryptonian mystic who makes a connection with the entity in the Zone, and names it Aethyr. In a strange, somewhat puzzling sequence, it seems the mystic uses Aethyr to destroy Bizarro World.
The mystic also connects with Mr. Mxyzptlk, and merges the imp with Aethyr, massively upping the power level of Mxyzptlk, who was pretty darn powerful to start with.
The latter part of the story gets very dark and heavy, starting as the severed head of Bizarro comes crashing through the roof of the Galaxy Communications Building, falling right onto the desk of Clark Kent and Lana Lang as they deliver the evening news.
Then Mxyzptlk dumps Argo City onto Metropolis, showering the city with the kryptonite corpses of the Kryptonians from there.
The various Phantom Zone villains get free as all this goes on, with Aethyr and the Zone now under the control of Mxyzptlk. But their attempts at vengeance on Superman are cut short as Aethyr pulls them all back into itself. While for so many years Aethyr had simply been affected by the emotions of the Phantom Zone villains, now it is active under Mr Mxyzptlk's guidance.
Superman does not in any way defeat this sentient, powerful, incarnation of the Zone. In a scene not unlike the concluding battle of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Mr Mxyzptlk, merged with Aethyr and the Phantom Zone villains, announces that he is becoming something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. There is no victory to be had in this outing. Makes it a very dark ending for the pre-Crisis Superman saga.