This book contains black and white reprints of Showcase #80 and the Phantom Stranger issues 1 to 21, which were originally published between 1969 and 1972. I bought this last year and had been looking forward to reading it for a while, as I quite like horror comics and know very little about the Phantom Stranger, but unfortunately I found this a real struggle to get through.
I did quite enjoy the first few comics reprinted here, including Showcase #80. These issues seemed a lot more old-fashioned than the rest of the book and I found out after I finished reading it that this is because these issues mostly consisted of reprints from the fifties, with newer framing sequences added. These stories usually involved the Phantom Stranger and his foil, Dr Terrence Thirteen: The Ghost Breaker, encountering some mystery and trying to explain it away by referring to some of their earlier adventures (cue fifties reprints). In these issues, the Phantom Stranger is more mysterious than in later stories, clearly a supernatural character but not explicitly so – there is more of an ‘is he magic or isn’t he?’ thing going on – while Dr. Thirteen is a one man Scooby-Doo gang, an arch-cynic who has dedicated his life to proving that there is no such thing as magic, so most of his stories involve him uncovering elaborate plots in which someone pretends to be a ghost in order to gain an inheritance, etc.
Once the newer (1960s) stories begin, the Phantom Stranger’s powers become more obvious – we never really find out much about him, but I suppose that’s fair enough with a character called the Phantom Stranger – and his adventures become more entangled with those of Dr Thirteen, who I liked a lot in the fifties reprints but here he quickly became very annoying. I mean, I am as cynical as it gets – I don’t believe in God, the supernatural, or even Santa Claus – but if I saw some of the shit Dr Thirteen was witness to in this book, I would be down on my knees praying to the baby Jesus every day of my frigging life. But not Dr Thirteen. He attempts to explain everything away as a trick of the light or hypnosis (in one particularly lame later issue, he reveals that one particular haunting is not the work of spirits at all, but merely the work of aliens, which wouldn’t make me sleep any sounder at night) and it gets boring very quickly.
Worse still, in a bunch of early issues written by Robert Kanigher, not only do the Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen keep bumping in to each other, they also keep bumping in to a bunch of annoying teenagers called Spartacus, Attila, Wild Rose, and Mister Square, whose names alone should give you a pretty good idea how hopelessly dated their ‘hip’ lingo seems now (and probably even seemed then). I wanted them all to die horribly, and thankfully they disappeared when another writer took over. This book is the work of multiple writers and artists, but most issues are either written by Robert Kanigher or Len Wein, who writes most of the later issues. Those aforementioned Robert Kanigher issues were probably the worst issues in the book, but the Len Wein issues were pretty tedious, too. Wein wisely separated the Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen in to their own stories again but his issues were horribly overwritten and as I got nearer the end of the book I found myself skim-reading most of the captions, and even some of the dialogue, and the adventures themselves were pretty repetitive. I might have enjoyed Wein’s issues more if they had been nearer the beginning of the book, but under the circumstances I just found them boring and couldn’t wait to finish this and move on to something else.
On the plus side, this book does contain some great art. At least half of the book is drawn by Jim Aparo – one of my all-time favourite comic artists – at his Silver / Bronze Age best, but there are also a few issues drawn by Neal Adams and I really liked Bill Draut’s art in the early issues. Had I just read those early issues, and then made do with enjoying the art only on the later issues, I probably would have appreciated this book a lot more.
This has a recommended retail price of £10.49 / $16.99. You can get it for a bit less than that from all the usual online retailers but I bought my copy from a bloke I met through eBay for £5.00. No postage because he lives near me and I collected it in person and I also bought a whole load of other Showcase and Essential books from him for the same price. Kind of wish I hadn’t bought Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger Vol.2 now, though, as the art in that seems a bit more variable – not much Jim Aparo – and I can’t ever see myself managing to work up the enthusiasm that will probably be required to slog my way through it.