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Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciller: Rick Veitch
Inker: Bob Smith
"Phantom Zone: The Final Chapter"
The Phantom Zone screams when Jor-El enters it for it is revealed that the zone has a mind of its own, but Jor-El cannot hear it. Something has gone wrong in his lab, for the doorway out of the zone has closed behind him. A loose wire has turned off the zone projector prematurely. Jor-El finds that he can observe the real world, but only as a ghost. His ghost drifts back to his bedroom where Lara is sleeping. He tries to talk to Lara in her sleep, and somehow his mind reaches out to her to tell her of his dilemma. Lara awakens screaming Jor-El's name. For the first time we see that she is pregnant with the baby Kal-El. Lara rushes to the laboratory, fixes the loose wire, and releases Jor-El. The Phantom Zone is glad when Jor-El leaves, it is happy to be alone again.
Lara scolds Jor-El for being foolish. Jor-El is upset because the Phantom Zone will not work as a place for Krypton's people to escape to before the planet blows up. To him being in the zone felt like a prison.
And a prison is exactly what it's used for. Cut ahead several months in time. We meet the executioner of Krypton, who pushes the button that sends people into the zone. The first criminal condemned to the zone is Jax-Ur, who killed the executioner's sister and thousands of other Kryptonians when he destroyed Krypton's moon and its moon colony with his unlawful rocketry experiments. Other criminals included Va-Kox, who mutated all the fish in Great Krypton Lake, turning them into monsters. Dr. Xadu was convicted of conducting experiments on humans, putting them in comas from which there was no awakening. Faora was a serial killer, torturing and murdering 23 men before being captured and sentenced to the zone. The weirdest person the executioner sentenced to the zone was Nam-Ek, who killed a Rondor and injected himself with a serum from its horn, hoping to become immortal. (A Rondor is an immortal Kryptonian beast, it has a body similar to a hippopotamus, a horn like a unicorn, and the smell of a skunk.) The Rondor is an endangered species on Krypton, and he was sentenced to the zone for destroying it.
The hardest person the executioner had to sentence to the zone was General Zod. The executioner served under him and he was the most brilliant military mind on Krypton. That of course was before he tried to overthrow the government and set himself up as dictator. His coup failed and he was sentenced to the zone.
The final criminal sentenced to the zone was Jor-El's cousin, Kru-El. Kru-El built a number of forbidden weapons, and went on a rampage before he was taken down. Jor-El sent him to the zone himself.
Meanwhile, the zone itself is silently screaming that all these minds are entering it, denying it peace. The zone thinks back to its origins. The zone used to be living creatures from numerous galaxies. But over time these galaxies died, and in order to continue living, the minds of the billions upon trillions of creatures that lived in these galaxies all fused together to become a single entity, what we think of as the Phantom Zone. In order to avoid being harmed anymore by the universe, the zone removed itself from the universe, and languished in nothingness. It wanted to forget about violence and hatred, and over the course of a billion years it succeeded, but the arrival of the criminals brought that back.
Stuck in the zone, General Zod is plotting a way to get back at Jor-El, who at the moment has a fever and is lying in bed. He gets the other criminals to gather together and they all try to take over Jor-El's mind and succeed. Jor-El walks over to the zone projector and almost releases all the criminals. Fortunately Lara walks in on Jor-El and prevents him from doing so. The zone projector is then blasted into deep space (where his son Kal-El will find it many years later), to keep it away from any other Kryptonians that might be taken over by the criminals.
Once again we jump forward in time, to the eve of Krypton's destruction. The scene is Krypton's valley of Juru, where magic is worshipped instead of science. The last Kryptonian priest, Thul-Kar, uses his magic to enter the zone, escaping Krypton's destruction. A few minutes later Krypton explodes, but not before Jor-El sends his infant son Kal-El rocketing to Earth.
Now we jump forward to the present, Thul-Kar (whose face has strangely decayed so that he looks like the Crypt-Keeper) has been able to make contact with the group mind of the Phantom Zone, which is called Aethyr, and befriended it. Aethyr tells Thul-Kar that the criminals are plotting to escape again, put Thul-Kar doesn't care. He has been working on an experiment. He shows it to Aethyr and it is a little square block. Aethyr doesn't like it, saying that it should be round. The block starts to glow with a golden light.
Cut to the Bizarro World, the square world, which is being rattled by quakes and explosions. It is obvious to Bizarro #1 that the world will explode, and (Bizarro's being Bizarro's) this is a huge cause for celebration. Bizarro flies home to Bizarro Lois and Brat Bizarro Junior. He puts Bizarro Junior in a rocket ship, and rockets him not up and away to safety, but down into the center of Bizarro World, so that Junior can have the honor of dying first. Bizarro World explodes, and back in the Phantom Zone, the square block Thul-Kar was holding explodes as well.
At this point, quakes and tremors start to be felt within the zone. The criminals attempts to escape is drawing Aethyr's thoughts back into the physical universe. Aethyr realizes that he must return to the real world or else he will die. But he needs the help of a being that can transmute matter in order to return. Thul-Kar agrees to find such a being.
Cut to a courtroom in the 5th dimension, where Mr. Mxyzptlk has been convicted of pranksterism exceeding the bounds of art. He is thrown in a null-sphere, in which he cannot use any of his powers. It is here that Thul-Kar's mind reaches him. Thul-Kar offers Mxyzptlk freedom if he temporarily gives up control of his mind. Mxyzptlk agrees, and a link is formed between him and Aethyr. Mxyzptlk uses Aethyr's power to blast free of the null-sphere, and then destroys the 5th dimensional city and its residents, before heading to the 3rd dimension.
In Metropolis, Clark and Lana are finishing up the evening newscast, when Mxyzptlk causes Bizarro's head to crash into the newsroom. Bizarro's head still has enough life left in it to tell them how Bizarro World blew up, and then it dies. Clark changes into Superman and flies into the sky to meet Mxyzptlk. Mxyzptlk shows Superman a giant Kryptonite meteor, which he is going to crash into Metropolis, destroying the city. Ignoring the pain, Superman flies up to meet the Kryptonite meteor, and smashes into it, causing it to explode in a fine mist. As Superman floats back to Earth, he sees the bodies of people falling with him. Fragments fall and cause extensive damage to Metropolis. Mxyzptlk explains to Superman that the meteorite was the home of Argo City, which is now no more, and then he leaves Superman to die in the Kryptonite mist.
At this point, Aethyr takes over Mxyzptlk's mind, and begins using his power to return to the physical universe. Aethyr asks Thul-Kar what will happen to Mxyzptlk, and Thul-Kar says that he will die bringing Aethyr back to the real world. Aethyr wants to know what he will become once he exists again, and Thul-Kar says he can be whatever he wants to be. There is an explosion, Mxyzptlk disappears, and Aethyr, a heart shaped crystaline entity, stands in space. All the Phantom Zone prisoners are now free, and they fly to Earth to enact vengeance on Superman, with the exception of Thul-Kar and Nam-Ek who stay by Aethyr. Aethyr quickly absorbs these two into his own being.
Meanwhile, Superman wakes up on the Earth's moon. Somehow he has escaped the Kryptonite filled city of Metropolis, and has recovered from the affects of Kryptonite poisoning. He views Earth and sees the Phantom Zone prisoners going on a rampage and destroying the White House. Zod in particular is ordering Superman to face him or he will destroy the planet. Superman flies down to Earth and smashes into Zod, knocking him out. The other criminals try to take Superman down, but Superman avoids them easily, having years more experience with his powers than they do.
Meanwhile, Aethyr is floating towards Earth, you can see the reflections of Thul-Kar and Nam-Ek screaming from inside the mirror-like crystal that is its skin.
Back on Earth, Faora is the criminal that finally beats Superman. She prepares to torture him before killing him, when she suddenly disappears, along with all the other Phantom Zone criminals. Superman looks up to the sky and sees Aethyr floating there. Aethyr has taken the face of Mxyzptlk. Mxyzptlk tells Superman that Aethyr was composed of over a billion minds, but when Mxyzptlk was absorbed, his mind became dominant. Mxyzptlk intends to spend eternity teaching Aethyr's group mind how to have fun, and he has reabsorbed all the criminals so that he can torment them and make them miserable. He tells Superman that he is finished with him, because he'll never be able to have quite the same amount of fun with him again, and leaves Superman standing there.
Story - 2: Before I review this story, I first need to put it in some proper historical perspective. This was the last issue of DC Comics Presents. The series was not cancelled because of poor sales. It was cancelled because John Byrne was taking over Superman and rebooting everything beginning with his Man of Steel mini-series. At the end of the pre-crisis era three Superman titles were being published monthly: Superman (vol 1), Action Comics, and DC Comics Presents. Under Byrne's plan there would still be three titles: the new Superman (vol 2), Adventures of Superman (which continued the numbering of the original Superman series), and Action Comics. DC Comics Presents was the title which had to go, but its concept lived on for a short while as Action Comics became a Superman team-up book for a brief period of time before it went weekly. This story was meant to be the last in-continuity tale of the pre-crisis Superman, and was published the exact same month as Alan Moore's legendary story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow", which was billed not as canon, but as an imaginary story. Frankly I wish that DC had reversed that decision, making "Whatever Happened To... " in-continuity, and leaving this one to the imagination.
This story is billed as the final chapter of the Phantom Zone criminals, and if it stuck to that premise it would have been ok, where it deviates from that idea is what gets it into trouble. The story gets off to a great start by showing us Krypton before it exploded. I loved the scenes that show how Jor-El invented the Phantom Zone projector, and how we are subsequently introduced to all the criminals and why they are sentenced to the zone. This in itself takes up the first half of the comic (and this is a double-sized special issue).
But once Krypton explodes and we move to the present day, Gerber's story deviates off into wild directions. We see the destruction of Bizarro World, which is somehow related to the square block Thul-Kar was working on. How does the Phantom Zone relate to Bizarro? We see Mxyzptlk dragged into the story and the subsequent destruction of Argo City, and the leveling of much of Metropolis. We have the Phantom Zone taking on a mind of its own. Gerber's mistake is that he tries to wrap up the stories of not just the Phantom Zone criminals, but other parts of the Superman mythos as well, and ignores Superman for most of the comic. The entire story takes up 38 pages, and Superman only appears for 10 of them.
The first half of this comic was tightly focused on the origin of the Phantom Zone and its residents. If the second half had maintained that focus, and shown us the ultimate end of the Phantom Zone (and only the ultimate end of the zone), it would have been a good story. Instead we get a story that starts out very strong, and then shifts gears as it attempts in its final pages to be the last Superman story, leaving the reader with a lot of unanswered questions. Alan Moore's story was published at the exact same time, and it was light year's better.
P.S. One final continuity note, the character of Nam-Ek was introduced in Superman (vol 1) #282 in a backup World of Krypton tale. In this story he was never sentenced to the Phantom Zone for killing the Rondor. Instead his fate was quite different.
Art - 3: This is not some of Veitch's best drawn art, but it's not bad either. In places it looks a little rushed, but maybe it's just the inker, I'm not sure.
Cover Art - 4: The cover to this issue is an excellent one. It shows all the promise of Superman's final fight with the Phantom Zone villains. If only the story lived up to that promise.
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