Thursday, October 4, 2012


(W) Grant Morrison
(P) Travel Foreman
(I) Travel Foreman

Superman and The Phantom Stranger? For Grant Morrison in the 'New 52', nothing is off limits and nothing is too 'out there', including a Halloween-themed issue nearly a month early, in a series that really has no connection to Halloween at all. Then again, Action Comics #13 is a fantastic, incredible issue that not only gives a whole lot more information on the Phantom Zone and it's place in the DCnU, but also features the Phantom Stranger! With the upcoming "H'el on Earth" crossover, it was as good a time as any to introduce the the Kryptonian prison dimension populated by disembodied criminals all speaking at once. And really, how cool was it to see "KNEEL BEFORE--" knowing full well that means Zod is coming to the 'New 52', sooner or later? Can. Not. WAIT.

Action Comics #13 tells the tale of Xa-Du, the first Kryptonian to ever be imprisoned in the Phantom Zone after it was discovered by Jor-El. While Xa-Du's sentence was to be reviewed once every two decades, it was on this first 20-year mark that Krypton died, thereby leaving the prisoners in the Phantom Zone stuck for eternity. It's a pretty raw deal - in the Zone, you can't see, hear, or feel. There is no up or down, ground or sky. You don't age at all because time doesn't move. There are no walls, no buildings. There is only the whiteness. And if you could see, if you could hear, you'd know that the Phantom Zone is parallel to our own, meaning they can see everyone around them, living their lives in happiness while the criminals waste away by not wasting away forever.

Flash to the present, and one of Superman's Kryptonian relics has gone off unexpectedly, causing Clark to become a bit suspicious of this Fortress of Solitude. Xa-Du has already escaped the Phantom Zone using an ecto-technological suit capable of letting him interact with the physical world. Being the Zone's oldest inhabitant, Xa-Du knows a thing or two about it's workings, and is able to send Superman through, trapping him in the Phantom Zone with a veritable legion of Kryptonian criminals. It's been over 40 years (which feels infinitely longer in the Zone) since Xa-Du felt anything real, so the sudden experience of yellow sun rays and a breakable world kind of cause him to go crazier than he already was, going on about destroying the planet, mostly because he just wants to.

The most interesting part of Action Comics #13 is Superman's meeting with the Phantom Stranger, a character who usually interacts with the more mystic and magical characters in DC's lineup, but plays a crucial and seemingly understated role in Superman's success - the Stranger was somehow trapped in the Zone by Xa-Du and his ecto-technology. We're also introduced to Superman's best pal, Krypto. And while the white dog has been a forced issue in the past (on more than one occasion), Grant Morrison found an effective, emotional way to bring Krypto into the fold, an achievement if there ever was one. Since the Phantom Zone is a somewhat time-neutral place, Krypto has been stuck there for nearly 20 years waiting for a way out. So, it's Superman, Phantom Stranger, and Krypto: The Superdog in a fight to stop a criminally insane Kryptonian scientist on track to lay waste to humanity. This sounds perfectly normal, right?

Of course, all three of our heroes escape at the end and Xa-Du is banished back to the Phantom Zone. Grant Morrison took a bit chance this month, especially after "Zero Month", which caused a lot of titles to lose momentum in their ongoing arcs. "The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude" accomplishes three very important goals. First, it introduces the Phantom Zone, a mainstay of the pre-'New 52' universe, and something that looks like it's going to be very important for the future of DC. Second, is the inclusion of the Phantom Stranger, not only signifying a greater cohesion of DC's titles, but also that the old rules concerning these characters is gone - when would the Stranger ever had been this tightly-knit with Superman as to travel to the Phantom Zone? And third, is the quality introduction of Krypto, a character that's been lampooned almost as much as Aquaman over the years. Fortunately, Morrison made Krypto's story one of emotion over convenience, and it paid off. Sholly Fisch's "A Boy and His Dog" pushed the tear-jerker factor to ten with it's story about Krypto - stuck in the Phantom Zone -  following Clark through the stars to Earth, and being with him (even as a ghostly spectre) growing up and becoming the hero he was meant to be. Action Comics #13 is a perfect example of how to make a single issue a story in its own right, while still contributing to the larger character history and narrative.


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