Saturday, July 23, 2016

Submitted for your Approval: The Phantom Zone

A number of enduring concepts in the Superman mythos were introduced not in titles featuring Superman, but Superboy. And that’s kind of a shame, because we almost never see those key stories reprinted.
Among those concepts were the Legion of Super-Heroes; red, white and gold kryptonite; Krypto the super dog; General Zod; Bizarro and the spooky, evocative Phantom Zone, a realm which provided an intelligent answer to the question of how an advanced alien civilization might avoid capital punishment.
Banishment to an eternal incorporeal existence seems almost worst than execution, in a way.
In a neat reversal, the Phantom Zone even saved the life of Superman’s “brother,” Mon-El, by removing him from exposure to lead, a substance fatal to him that is widespread on our planet. Mon-El’s fate had that offhandedly haunting angle that periodically appeared in these early Silver Age comics. To survive, Mon-El would have to endure hundreds of years of immaterial existence with only psychotics as companions.
And in a gift to the comics’ plotters, the Zone provided a means to periodically unleash super-powered villainous hell on Earth. That had first been done in Superman 65 (July/August 1950) when, in the story The Three Supermen from Space, the Kryptonian criminals Mala, Kizo and U-Ban were accidentally freed from suspended animation in a prison rocket ship. The evil trio returned in Action Comics 194 (Jul 1954), when their prison ship was whanged by yet another piece of space debris. Clearly this was a cumbersome means of retrieving menaces from Krypton.
The Phantom Zone was also a way of making Superman vulnerable, and those are always welcomed by writers (Supergirl too, in her 1984 movie).
The more efficient, elegant solution of the Phantom Zone was introduced in the comics in Adventure Comics 283 (April 1961) by Robert Bernstein and George Papp. But that wasn’t really its first appearance.
An identical concept had been introduced in the movie serial Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) as an invention of Luthor’s (Lyle Talbot) called the Empty Doom. The tell is that both the serial Superman and the comic book Superboy escaped from the ghostly trap the same way — by telekinetically manipulating the keys of a typewriter to send a message back to Earth.

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