My first Superman comics were pre-Crisis, but they were so close to the Byrne reboot and I was so young, so it’s not like I can tell you that I have a deep history with the Man of Steel’s comics. In fact, it’s been through reading The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told and by finding some Bronze Age Superman books on the very cheap (and sometimes in pretty wretched condition) that I’ve been able to read more of his adventures from my early childhood. Furthermore, it’s because I listen to podcasts about Superman that I have really come to enjoy his comic book adventures, and for this one, I have to give credit where credit is due, which is to Scott Gardner of Two True Freaks. He’s a huge fan of this miniseries and was the reason that when I saw it in the cheap bins, I immediately snatched it up.
I’m not going to disappoint Scott with my appraisal of the series. It’s so great. The basic premise is that a number of Kryptonian criminals escape the Phantom Zone and seek revenge on Superman, first by imprisoning him and Charlie Kweskill (an amnesiac Kryptonian whose real name is Quex-Ul) in the Phantom Zone and then completing said revenge by making a giant Phantom Zone Projector that will send all of Earth into the zone as well. At a glance, it seems a little unambitious of a plan–after all, this was a comic book from 1981 and came out about four to six months after the premiere of Superman II–but it’s a great story about villains not motivated by a desire to rule and conquer but revenge. Furthermore, entry into the Phantom Zone in the movies could not necessarily be controlled via Phantom Zone Projector whereas the villains here can really fight Superman to The Pain.
Steve Gerber (who would also write a follow-up story in the final issue of DC Comics Presents) not only writes this plot well but also writes the core villains with distinct personalities, focusing on General Zod, Faora, Jax-Ur, Kru-El, Az-Rel and Nadira. He plays them as sadistic toward humans–at one point, Faora is caught bathing nude by a random eighteen year old shepherd and she seductively lures him in just to kill him–as well as spiteful toward one another. Furthermore, he pushes Superman to his limits, taking him and Charlie on a journey through hell that has confrontations with monsters and demons.
All of this, by the way, features Gene Colan art that really plays to his strengths. It’s a villain-focused story and Colan brings not only his classic Bronze Age dynamism to it but also the same sort of dark tones I’ve seen in his other work. Curt Swan and Gil Kane were the primary Superman artists at this time and while I have always enjoyed their work on the character, I don’t think this series would have resonated with me had Colan not been drawing it.
I know that this has been collected in a trade (along with, I believe, the DCCP issue) and I might actually buy that if I see it on the cheap, or at least try to find that DCCP issue. It’s easily one of the best Superman stories I’ve read from this era.
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