ACW #631 – Phantom Stranger

Action Comics Weekly #631 (Phantom Stranger)
“Cat and Mouse, Chapter 1”
Writer – Paul Kupperberg
Art – Fred Carillo
Letters – Albert DeGuzman
Colors – Petra Scotese
Editor – Renee Witterstaetter

And, taking the place of the Secret Six… ladies and gentleman, I present to you: The Phantom Stranger.  Not only is it a Phantom Stranger tale, it’s going to be an entire story arc!  Hrmm… maybe I should’ve gotten a running start…

We open in New York City where there seems to be something of a plague of cats roaming the streets.  They all gather around Cassandra Craft, who I’m assuming is someone I probably ought to recognize.  She is then attacked by yet another person I probably ought to know… Tala, Mistress of Darkness!  It would appear that Cassie had been blinded, but again… I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how, when, or why.  Elsewhere, the Phantom Stranger and Doctor Terrence Thirteen play chess.

Thirteen isn’t quite sure why the Stranger wanted to hang out this evening, and during their conversation manages to lay out exactly why characters like the Phantom Stranger never seem to work for me.  He says of the Stranger, “You pop out of nowhere, do your magic, and then disappear–“, and yeah, that’s just about the size of it!  The chat is interrupted by a powerful psychic something or another emanating from the door… when the Stranger answers it, it’s… duh, Cassandra.

We’re briefly invaded by a flood of their shared memories.  We learn that they’d once faced off with Tala and, not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a fella called Tannarak.  After the battle, Cassie was blinded and left to believe that the Phantom Stranger had been destroyed.  Little did she realize, he just took this as an opportunity to slum it on the East Side getting to learn about the human condition.

The next two pages were laid out of order, which made this already rocky read for me all that much more confusing the first time through.  We’ll just cover it the way it was intended.  Cassandra informs the Stranger of Tala’s return… which catches him off guard.  Dr. Thirteen is incredulous about the whole deal, and is kind of a jerk about it.

The Stranger retires to a darkened room so he can engage in some psychic search, but comes up empty… that is, until Tannarak bursts into the apartment!

Welp… this was the sort of story I was worried we’d get every time the Phantom Stranger feature popped up in Action Comics Weekly.  A kind of dully, over-dialogued slog.  The last few times we bumped into him, the stories have had a more experimental feel to them, here though… it’s like I grabbed a random eight-pages out of a random Bronze-Age Marvel Essentials volume.

In reading this, I actually got pangs of trying to fight my way through the first Essential Defenders volume just trying to get to that fun and esoteric Steve Gerber stuff I’d heard so many good things about.  There, as here, It was just characters (or takes on characters) that I didn’t care much about, pedestrian art, and a feeling like what I was reading didn’t actually matter.  Not bad, but dull… and could’ve been so much better (as Paul Kupperberg has shown us).

We’ve got four or five more weeks with the Stranger (he’ll actually survive the upcoming Crash of ’88! crossover, hopefully this one picks up adequate steam and interest before long.  I know this character and sort of story can speak to a great number of comics fans, but I’m sorry, I ain’t one of ’em!  Speaking of which…

Tomorrow: Superman… actually in-costume!

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