Saturday, January 24, 2009

Seven Soldiers of Steve Apocrypha: The Phantom Zone

I've had this post brewing in me for quite a while.

One of the blogs I make a point of checking out as often as possible is Plok's A Trout in the Milk. Always something thought-provoking going on there. Anyway, he once did a series of posts about Steve Gerber's work for Marvel (mostly Defenders, but other stuff too), entitled Seven Soldiers of Steve, in which he (and his intrepid correspondents) argued that Gerber's body of work could be looked at as the first modern graphic novel, and that Gerber was particularly concerned with how people formed communities on the margins of society. (There's a lot more to it than that, but that's my starting point.)

Anyway, if I've ever read a Defenders comic, it's way back in the uncharted reaches of my memory, and I've never been that much of a Marvel guy in the first place, so I didn't really contribute a whole lot to this discussion. However, I have read a Steve Gerber comic, and it's a good one: the Phantom Zone miniseries (PZ, hereafter) that DC published in '81/'82. So why wouldn't I just explore that and see if I could find anything intelligent to say about it?

The first thing I have to explain is just who Charlie Kweskill is. He's Quex-Ul, a Kryptonian guy who was wrongly sent to the Phantom Zone. Later he was freed, but was also exposed to gold kryptonite (which makes Kryptonians lose their powers permanently) and lost his memory. So Superman told him he was Charlie Kweskill and got him a job at the Daily Planet doing layouts. This all happened in a story I haven't read, before the start of PZ.

A quick summary of the plot. The assorted psychopaths in the Phantom Zone concentrate real hard and manage to manipulate Charlie through his dreams. His mind is weak, see, because of his memory loss and false identity. They get him to build a Phantom Zone projector in his sleep. However, Superman arrives just as he's about to switch it on. The shoddy Earth components break down, and the projector blows up, but as it does so it traps Superman and Charlie in the Phantom Zone and releases nine Kryptonian nutcases* on Earth. While Superman and Charlie go on a bizarre odyssey of the mind in order to escape the Zone, the nine Kryptonians raise hell all over the world, throw the JLA satellite into deep space, and finally try to send Earth itself into the Zone. Charlie sacrifices his life to ensure Superman's escape, and Superman (with help from other prominent superheroes) quickly mops the floor with the escapees who haven't come acropper in some other way and sends them back to the Zone.

A couple of comments I want to get out of the way before we move on to the meaty stuff. PZ was one of DC's first miniseries, if not the first, and was almost certainly its first crossover miniseries. At root it was about Superman and Charlie and their long strange trip, but Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Supergirl all featured prominently, and the Justice League was accounted for. And in 1981, who else was there? The DC universe was a lot smaller back then. And it felt like a big deal, too. I had issues #2, 3 and 4 when they first came out, and my ten-year-old self was totally impressed.

Steve Gerber is of course best known as a Marvel guy, but he showed a very deft hand with the DC characters on his palette. All five of the DC heroes in PZ were portrayed to best advantage and like he had been writing them all his life. Batman survives an encounter with the mad Kryptonian prophet Jer-Em with aplomb and gets to act like a detective; Supergirl and Wonder Woman save the world from nuclear war all by themselves; Supergirl survives a murderous assault from four Kryptonians; Wonder Woman easily captures, and shows compassion to, the deformed Kryptonian Nam-Ek; Green Lantern is stalwart and gets hit in the head.

At the start of PZ #4, young Kryptonian nihilists Az-Rel and Nadira visit a Metropolis dive that's home to a more-punk-than-punk-is “musical-cultural movement known as Bizarro. It originated here in Metropolis, naturally, and its basic tenet asserts that anyone born after 1961 is an imperfect duplicate of a human being.” (From captions in PZ #4.) Which... I don't know what Gerber was thinking, but by some strange alchemy he managed to perfectly pinpoint the nature of the Boom/GenX generation gap more than a decade ahead of the rest of the world. I'm quite impressed. (One of these Bizarro guys calls himself “Gee-Gordon Lidd,” which is really more something that a Boomer would choose as a nihilistic alias, but then I'm not coming at this from a 1981 perspective.)

Okay, to the main point. If the other articles in this series are any guide, Gerber is supposed to be all about the margins. And so he is: PZ is quite comparable to (what I understand about) his Marvel work, but inversely (which I'll explain as I go along). First and foremost, the Phantom Zone itself is a margin. It's halfway between reality and nothing at all. Or that's what it's supposed to be, anyway; the events of this miniseries prove it to actually be the margin between reality and the consciousness of a vaguely nasty cosmic being named Aethyr. This is the easy part; it's always been an obvious thing to say about the Phantom Zone.

But Gerber also seems to intend it to stand for a social margin. When Jor-El first demonstrates the Phantom Zone (in a flashback in PZ #1) for some kind of Kryptonian science council, by testing it on Lara(!), he tells them that Lara can see what's going on but can't do anything about it. Then in issue #2, Supergirl is switching identities in an alley. There's a wino taking his ease in the alley, theoretically jeopardizing her secret identity, but Supergirl says to herself that even if he saw anything he couldn't do anything about it. The wino's position on the social margin makes him just as helpless as Lara was while in the Phantom Zone.

And the Zone is just as much of a social margin, in its way, as it is a physical one. Its denizens include outcasts like Zod and Faora, weirdoes like Az-Rel and Nadira and Jer-Em, and guys who just had some bad luck, like Mon-El and, formerly, Quex-Ul. And yet the Zoners don't form the same kind of marginal community that the Defenders did over at Marvel. They hate each other and they want to destroy everything. They're psychos. Not one of them is at all interested in any kind of community, except Mon-El, who will eventually become part of one of the largest and closest-knit superhero communities in all of comics.

I think part of this has to do with the different cultures of the Marvel universe and DC universe. DC is all about the mainstream; Marvel is not. (Things are probably not so clear-cut now, but I think there's still a bit of truth to that statement.) Marvel's heroes are generally characters from the margins of society in some way. Peter Parker is very lower-middle-class and is a struggling freelancer, the X-Men are outcasts, Captain America is a man out of his time... But look at the five DC heroes in this series. Superman is universally beloved and also a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. Batman is stinking rich and a pillar of the community. Supergirl is Superman's cousin and a TV actress**. Wonder Woman is a princess and a military officer. Green Lantern is a test pilot and a space policeman. Hard to get more mainstream than this group.

The implication is that, in the DC universe, the mainstream is where virtue resides. It would be natural for Gerber, coming over from Marvel the way he did, to undercut this, but he didn't. All five heroes are legitimately portrayed heroically, and are also shown to have compassion: Wonder Woman with Nam-Ek, for instance. Also, Perry White (another mainstream figure) is quite concerned about the problems of his employee Charlie Kweskill, when it would be as easy for Perry to think that he was just a screw-up.

Rather than undercutting it, Gerber tries to make use of it. The forces of the Phantom Zone and its satellite realms, we are led to understand, try to weaken Superman by making him uncertain. As a mainstream figure, Superman needs certainty to be fully effective, so Aethyr shapes reality in such a way as to cause Superman to doubt his identity, his surroundings, and his actions. Aethyr wants to keep Superman on the margins by making him think marginal.

Charlie, on the other hand, really is a marginal guy. He's much more of a countercultural figure than any of our other protagonists. He's got a beard, his hair is a bit longish, he speaks in slang, his posture is more slumped, and he dresses like a hippie with a job. Gerber probably wasn't used to writing stories that didn't have any characters like this in them.

Anyway, it could be this side of Charlie that enables him to do the one thing that saves Superman. The two of them are confronting a big dragon-head-in-the-sky manifestation of Aethyr as their final obstacle before returning to reality, and Charlie realizes that Superman is too uncertain and unfocused to win this fight. Charlie and Superman have even switched clothes, suggesting that Superman is the marginal one now and Charlie is the confident one on his home ground. So Charlie figures that there's only one thing that'll help Superman snap out of it, and he attacks Aethyr blindly and recklessly. Aethyr kills Charlie quite easily, and the resulting anger gives Superman the clarity and certainty he needs. From there, it's all downhill, and Superman cleans up the remaining plot points in a matter of pages.

There's only one problem with all of that, and to me it keeps the comic book from being a complete success: I don't believe that Superman was suffering from uncertainty.

All the way through the Zone, he was confident and decisive and acted like he knew what he was doing. He was the leader and Charlie was the follower. I don't see any evidence at all that Superman was suffering any doubts. Charlie tells us that he was, but, well... I'm sure that Charlie was a nice guy and everything. I'd rather believe my own eyes.

One other thing I'd like to get on the record is the nature of Charlie's death. I wrote in my Ferro Lad thing that Ferro Lad's death was of a specific type: flying to your own destruction into a giant thing up in the sky, but accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. I think there are a lot of heroic deaths that fit this pattern and so we should take note of it. We can call it the Divine Wind type of heroic death.

Well, Charlie's death fits nicely into the Divine Wind pattern, but it fits another pattern as well. (We may be on our way to a complete taxonomy of heroic death.) Charlie, you see, is less useful in battle than Superman, who is, of course, Superman, but Charlie is ready to act and Superman is not. So Charlie sacrifices himself as a ploy to get Superman off the dime.

It's far from the first example of this kind of thing. I call it the Patroclus model of heroic death. Patroclus was Achilles' friend during the Trojan War. Partway through the war, Achilles got ticked off about something and wouldn't come out of his tent. So Patroclus took the responsibility on himself to be the champion of the Greek side, and got himself killed. Which in turn inspired Achilles to take his thumb out of his mouth and go kill Trojans like he was supposed to be doing in the first place.

Now, there are a couple of variations on the Patroclus death. There's one kind where the character in question actually thinks he or she has a shot at winning the fight. And there's the other kind where the character knows that he or she has no chance, but is aware of the effect that his or her death will have on the other people on his side.

Other examples of the Patroclus death: I know there are some, but I can't think of as many as I think I ought to. Diarmuid, in the Fionavar Tapestry, almost has a Patroclus death, except that he actually wins the fight that kills him. One that I did think of was the Red Bee (in the Freedom Fighters arc in All-Star Squadron), who smashes a timber upside the head of Baron Blitzkrieg and gets killed for his pains... but his death inspires Uncle Sam to bust out of his manacles and win the fight.

The status quo after PZ was pretty much the same as the status quo ante zonum, except there were fewer Kryptonians around (which was actually not an injudicious move on Gerber's part). It ends with Superman musing on the marginal hell that destroyed Charlie Kweskill, and compares that to the hour of twilight. So in Gerber's big DC series, the margin is not a haven for outcasts and misfits; it's not the home of virtue. It's the source of impotence, the edge of a mad god's peripheral vision and a prison for the worst criminals in the universe, and virtue and safety are to be found in the mainstream.

One could take that to mean that Gerber was contradicting his earlier work, but I wouldn't say so. I'd be more inclined to think that Gerber had some ideas that he used to help himself organize his universe, but took virtue where he found it and wrote the characters that were in front of him.

Summing up: a nice little miniseries, not perfect but well worth your time. Nice Gene Colan art, too; his soft sketchy style isn't really in vogue anymore, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. Take my advice and track down the back issues; they shouldn't set you back too much.

*the nine are General Zod, Va-Kox, Kru-El***, Jax-Ur (the three of whom don't do much other than follow Zod around), Faora, Nam-Ek, Jer-Em, Az-Rel and Nadira
**she was, right?
***Superman and Supergirl's evil cousin. With that name, I fully expect that he was a Jerry Siegel creation

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9 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

First, a couple of minor, tangential comments:
1. Quex-Ul first appeared in Superman #157. Here's his Wikipedia entry. (Incidentally, in the Pocket Universe, Quex-Ul was one of the three villains executed by Superman.)

2. "World of Krypton" was the first DC miniseries, in the summer of 1979.

3. Kru-El first appeared in Action 298, in a story by Leo Dorfman (according to the GCD). The Legion has some sort of cameo in that story, too.

It always makes me wonder how Mon-El spent 1000 years in the Zone without going nuts or being brainwashed by the Zoners. And "thanks for tirelessly working to get me out, Superman!"

Would you consider Ben Kenobi's death in "Star Wars" to be the Patroclus type?

2:46 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, it was pointed out to me that Mon-El would have seen himself come back in time from the 30th century, so he knew pretty well how long he was going to be in there.

As for Ben Kenobi, I think he sacrificed himself more to a) buy some time for Luke and the others, and b) achieve some kind of transcendence that wasn't really followed up in the other movies. So it's close, but I don't think it's really the same.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I miss Gene Colan. :(

I was too young for Gerber's run at Defenders, but I was around for some of DeMatteis' stuff.

-- cleome45

1:09 PM  
Blogger RAB said...

I would have said the topic of this post was plenty Legion-specific, given the prominent role of Mon-El in the story. (And oh, how that appearance made me wish for a Gerber/Colan LSH story back in the day! Can you imagine how awesome their Brainiac Five would have been?)

It's fair to say Gerber is best known for his Marvel work, but it's worth remembering his love of comics was born well before Fantastic Four #1 came along. He was thoroughly steeped in Silver Age DC and had tremendous fondness for those books and their creators. You can see a hint of this in the way he bases every last bit of the Phantom Zone story on previously established lore. I suspect at the time he would really have liked to do more DC work with their mainstream characters and this book was at least partly him showing how he could approach it: bringing his own style while staying true to the characters' rich histories. Not so very different from what Alan Moore eventually did!

(Also note that his controversial Void Indigo began life as a Hawkman miniseries, heavily reworked...and IMHO, one of Gerber's best stories was his one issue of Metal Men. And even at Marvel, Wundarr was a parodic homage to Superman, and his collaborations with Jim Mooney were energized by Gerber's childhood affection for those Supergirl and Tommy Tomorrow stories...)

The above is a great analysis of Charlie's ultimate sacrifice. That's the one part of the story that never entirely worked for me, though I've never been able to explain why. On the page, it felt too much like an abrupt turn for the sake of plot mechanics rather than a logical culmination of his character development. Maybe it just happens too quickly? I've reread the series not too long ago, but it would be worth rereading yet again to give this more thought.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Would you call Mon-El's role prominent? I mean, he was there, but I can't think of a sense in which the story was about him.

I could tell that the bulk of PZ was Gerber's take on stuff that had already been established... but what about Az-Rel and Nadira? For some reason I get the idea that he came up with them himself. Anybody know?

9:16 PM  
Blogger Jim Drew said...

Matthew E. wrote:
Well, it was pointed out to me that Mon-El would have seen himself come back in time from the 30th century, so he knew pretty well how long he was going to be in there.

How many times did Mon-El travel back in time from the 30th century? A few, but not very often. Would Zoned Mon-El have happened to be looking out of the Zone at the right place and time to see those?

Some DC stories indicated that the same person in two places at the same time caused one or the other to become a phantom. What happens when one is already a phantom? I can see it "pushing" the phantom further into the Zone, away from any ability to even see what's going on, much less affect it.

I prefer to think that the nature of the Zone makes it hard for those in it to have a good sense of the passage of time. How long between glimpses out of the Zone for Mon-El -- weeks, months, years? Maybe the Zoners can't tell, they can only infer by changes they see on the outside. Mon-El would know that Superman eventually stopped using the Phantom Zone viewer and that other things changed dramatically indicating maybe years passing, or maybe huge wars and disasters, but the odds of seeing something as concrete as himself and the Legion coming from the 30th century and inferring 1000 years in the Zone doesn't seem that likely to me. Or at least seems easy to handwave into unlikelihood.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I don't know. There's a whole discussion about this stuff in my The Legionnaires: Mon-El article; that's where I got this from. Don't tell me; tell the guy who told me.

But, really, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that Mon would be checking in on Superman fairly often from the Zone.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous plok said...

I'm going to put this in the Seven Soldiers linkfile today, but I still haven't finished musing about Gerber's Phantom Zone, so I won't comment yet besides saying well done, Matthew! A very worthy addition. There's a lot to unpack here, I think: Superman is such a resonant figure for Steve, and the PZ so amazingly fitting an arena for his typical interests...off the top of my head I'd say there's not a lot I would keep adding to the essays from Steve's DC work -- well, though A. Bizarro certainly would fit, damn it! So, gee whiz, you're already making me rethink some stuff...but anyway wherever you've got Superman you've got THE central figure, and yet also at the same time THE marginal figure...Steve's work with Supergirl is an interesting factor here, too.

Hmm, you know, the more I look at this the more I think how much it's worth looking at...

Good work!

7:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. I don't know anything about A. Bizarro; maybe I'll check that out. (Although generally I don't have time or energy for Bizarro-related stuff.) Looking forward to your further thoughts.

8:36 PM  

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