Phantom Stranger #2 (1987)

Phantom Stranger #2 (November, 1987)
“The Soul of the Man!”
Writer – Paul Kupperberg
Breakdowns – Mike Mignola
Finishes – P. Craig Russell
Letterer – John Workman
Colorist – Petra Scotese
Editor – Michael Carlin
Cover Price: $0.75

Revisiting one I’d kind of left sitting… having covered the first issue back in… damn, March (?).  Hard to believe I’ve been at it that long.  I gotta admit, I let it lay because I found it a bit hard to read.  Not bad or anything, and I really enjoyed it for what it was… just wasn’t sure I wanted to read another three issues of it right away.

Anyhoo, figure Boo, Haunted Blog would be as good a time as any to pick it back up… plus (and perhaps more importantly), it was in one of the handful of longboxes I can actually access at this point in my library-overhaul.

Sorta kinda picking up where we left off, we are inside Bruce Gordon’s headspace where he’s chatting it up with his darker alter-ego, Eclipso.  Eclipso is taunting him… almost toying with him, until the Phantom Stranger finally intervenes… momentarily relieving poor Gordon from his waking nightmare.

In Bruce’s apartment, the Stranger brings our man up to speed.  He reminds him that they’d met earlier… and he’d promised him salvation from his evil eclipsed other.  He makes it clear to Bruce that Eclipso is not a dream, but an actual entity in his mind… and as such, he upped his psychic defenses to protect against him for the time being.

He also… changes his mind about actually fighting Eclipso, claiming that it is futile.  He reveals that Eclipso is an agent of the Lords of Chaos… or Darkness… and while they can certainly enter into battle, they cannot win.  This causes the Lords of Order to appear…

They offer the Stranger relief from his obligation to mankind, and applaud his ability to recognize the futility of fighting Chaos.  The Lords of Order believe the world is about to enter an Age of Darkness… and will in turn, emerge into a new Age of Order.  The Stranger takes offense to this, and refuses their offer.  He will not turn his back on mankind in their hour of need.  And so, the Lords of Order strip him of his powers.

We get a bit of a news report that discusses the Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union before checking in on our favorite reporter, James Olsen as he waits for his informant from the Russian Consulate.  He doesn’t get any specific information, but what he does learn is that he is on the right trail.  There’s definitely something going on here…

We move into a montage illustrating crazy amounts of seismic activity going on… causing all sorts of worldwide damage.  We cut to a televised interview with a geological expert who attempts to assuage the viewers’ fears by saying that this is all normal… after all, Mother Earth is a fickle one.  Dr. Jenet Klyburn at S.T.A.R. Labs watches on, and has different thoughts on the matter…

Klyburn believes there are some powerful forces, outside of “Mother Earth” in play here.  Her internal monologue is interrupted by the arrival of Bruce Gordon, and the Phantom Stranger.  The Stranger states his case to Kyburn and gets her to agree to participate in what’s to come next.

We shift scenes to The Temple of Divine Light where our old pal Lycaon is preaching the good word.  He is seeing his congregation grow as fear and chaos spreads throughout the world.  They look to him for salvation… hell, they’d probably look toward anybody at this point.  He’s as charismatic as ever, and implicitly states that he is not after his followers’ money… just their belief… and love.

We know better, however… our preacher man is in the pocket of Eclipso… who is watching the sermon on his mystical video monitor.

We rejoin our threesome as they approach Mount St. Helens via Jeep.  It’s actually quite funny seeing the shadowy Stranger sitting in the back of a Jeep.

They eventually wind up at their destination.  The Stranger, even without his more mystical powers can still “feel” where they need to be.  Klyburn exits the Jeep as well, and has some sort of S.T.A.R. Labs tech.  I’m guessing that’s why she’s been drafted into this endeavor.  Anyhoo, the Stranger attempts to untangle some weeds… and actually winds up cutting himself on a thorn.  This is a great scene… as this is not something you’d expect to happen to the Stranger (it’s something that even surprises him), and for the fact that neither Klyburn nor Gordon really understand the significance of this.

Bruce Gordon has designed a sort of solar cannon-laser thing, with which they intend to release pressure from Hell… or the Earth’s core… or maybe they’re the same thing.  Anyhoo, before the two humans get into position, the Stranger himself teleports to Hell… leaving behind him the stench of brimstone… perhaps he and Nightcrawler share some distant parentage.

The Stranger arrives in Hell, and finds himself standing alone before… well, a bunch of demons who are just itching to invade the Earth.  From the onset, this doesn’t seem like a battle he intends to win… yet he fights on anyway.

As this battle rages, Klyburn enters the volcano, laser in hand to alleviate some of this crazy seismic whoziwhatsit.  She perforates the volcano real good, however… perhaps due to the battle in Hell, there is another violent seismic shift… which knocks her into Hell!

Well, not completely into Hell… she’s kind of hanging from a cliff.  Believing the Stranger dead, she decides to aim that solar laser and blast the head demon in charge with it.  As one might expect, he doesn’t take to kindly to this offense… and so, he chucks a giant flaming rock in her direction.

She plummets deeper into Hell, where she is caught by the Phantom Stranger.  He says that her heroic act of bravery is what spurred him back to his feet.  He takes the solar laser and unloads it into the demon.  Then, in a final desperate attack… the Stranger plunges the laser cannon into the demon’s chest.  It’s great, the demon’s last words are “helppppp… meeeeeeee…”  I mean, how cute is that?

Job well done, the pair return to Bruce Gordon on the surface.  They know that one of Eclipso’s “Three Dooms” has been avoided.

Well, I’m of two minds on this one…

On one hand, I feel like the story kind of dragged.  It might sound like a silly complaint, but after reading for what felt like forever, I was shocked to find I wasn’t even to the staples yet.  I’d try and attribute this to just being used to contemporary books… but, hell… I read classic stuff on a daily basis, so it ain’t that.  This just felt, I dunno… plodding?  

The dialog bounced between really good and… kinda precious.  That may fit the Stranger, but it was also (at times) kind of rough.  There was also this thing Kupperberg did, where he’d start the next scene with a narrative caption in the last panel of the previous scene… it’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it if you see it.  This story-advancement method was kind of hit and miss here.  A few times it felt natural, while others it just felt like the letterer plopped a caption in the wrong panel.  Now, the art on the other hand… a real treat all the way through.  Mignola was a perfect fit for this character and this story.  The big blobby demons and monsters he draws are excellent.  Russell’s finishes gave this a wonderful dark feel, really lending itself to the atmosphere.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed seeing the Phantom Stranger having to adapt to his new (relatively) powerless state.  His reactions to things such as bleeding and exhaustion were neat to behold.  Imagine going toe to toe with a hellspawn demon, come out more or less unscathed… but beforehand cut yourself on an errant thorn.  I really liked this scene… especially as his current traveling companions don’t quite get the significance of it.  His curiosity over what it would be like to actually rest was something I would not have considered… again, glad to see that here.

The ongoing Jimmy Olsen/Russian consulate bit has me fearing this might wind up being some sort of Cold War allegory.  Not that it would be the worst thing… but, I don’t read comics for political statements… regardless of whether or not I agree with them.  It won’t change my mind as to whether or not I feel the story is a good one, I’d just prefer politics be left out if at all possible.

Overall… while it didn’t rock my socks, I cannot deny that there is a fine story (and fantastic art) to be found in this series.  I was a bit more optimistic after reading the first issue than I am after reading the second… but I’m attributing that more to my own defects than any between the covers here.

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