Retro review: DC Super-Stars #18

In-story, the potential sacrifice is a kiddie – I suppose sweater girls sell more copies

It’s Hallowe’en in Rutland, Vermont, and if you’re a comics reader in the Seventies that could mean only one thing… real-life parade organiser Tom Fagan and cameoing comic creators. This time it’s, well, take a look…

All bar Carla Conway are listed as involved in this issue and all are in and out before you know it, which is fine by me as the whole Fagan schtick always felt terribly self-indulgent, a party to which I wasn’t invited. Still, I do thank Pasko, Conway, Tanghal and friends for a fun, bumper-sized story that reminds me of how great Bronze Age books could be.

Despite the impression given by the typically splendid Jim Aparo cover, this is barely a team-up. Deadman and the Phantom Stranger get together only in the final pages; still, when they do, they’ve very effective.

Before that we have two sizeable chapters showing what first, Deadman, then the Stranger, were up to on Hallowe’en 1977. Unliving aerialist Boston Brand is sent by goddess handler Rama Kushna to nip in the bud a plot by gargoyles to help a hungry demon cross over from Hell. Their plan is a little, shall we say, convoluted.

All Boston has to do to scupper the scheme is scramble a few dozen gargoyle eggs… but for some reason his intangibility power has deserted him. Happily, he can still possess people, and so when a balcony containing children peering at the Rutland Halloween parade starts to crumble, tragedy is averted. He even manages to give their mom the ride of her life.

Soon, Boston is in the caves, grappling with gargoyles and facing something new.

Happily, our hero turns the situation to his advantage, Qabal is clobbered and Hallowe’en is saved.

Or is it? Later, in town, Terrance Thirteen, the world’s stupidest man, arrives with wife Marie, who knows that when you meet ghosts every second Tuesday for decades, they probably exist. Marie has a very well-developed sense of melodrama.

That offstage voice is the Phantom Stranger, narrator of tall tales turned active participant, here to warn Terry and Marie to stay away from Rutland, for death stalks this night etc. Of course, the self-styled Ghostbreaker isn’t having any of it, and he flounces off to a hotel with the long-suffering Marie in tow. There Terry is introduced to the aforementioned comic types by Tom Fagan, while the Stranger encounters someone even scarier.

It’s his old foe Tala, Tart of the Supernatural. When the Stranger wakes, he’s trapped by unnatural forces.

Soon, Terry, the police chief and Fagan are at what could well turn out to be their last supper. Luckily, while Terry can’t spot a spook when it’s staring him in the face, he knows his wine.

With the help of the Stranger, Terry sends Qabal (‘Quinton Abel’, geddit, ooh, that was soooo clever) back to hell, but the big threat remains. Tala, still determined to have her wicked way with the world. The Stranger can’t beat her up-powered evil alone… but Deadman is back, Rama Kushna having realised Qabal wasn’t Qaput. Finally, it’s time for a team-up.

The lettering assignment is split between Ben Oda and Milt Snapinn and it’s safe to say they earn their money

DC Super-Stars #18, the last of the run, is a delight. Two great stories featuring DC’s most street-level spook and enigmatic enemy of evil. An unexpected appearance by the weirdly appealing Dr Thirteen. And that final team-up against an established villain.

Martin Pasko has loads of fun with Deadman, nailing his character while exploring his supernatural abilities. I’m not a fan of second-person narration, but Pasko uses it sparingly, and the convoluted plotting gives the reader their money’s worth. I could do without the awkward circus slang phrase ‘Hey rube’ showing up twice – the first time with explanatory editor’s note, but DC had been doing this since at least the introduction of Kathy Kane.

And all is forgiven for the tremendous opening Phantom Stranger narration, brought to visual life by penciller Romeo Tanghal, inker Dick Giordano and colourist Tatjana Wood. Future New Teen Titans inker Tanghal’s layouts vary – at times cramped, as in the gargoyle exposition page, at others open enough to let the action breathe. Giordano’s inks evoke the original Deadman Strange Adventures stories pencilled and inked by his longtime partner Neal Adams, while Wood is ever the mistress of mood.

The Phantom Stranger sequence is written by Gerry Conway and is equally gripping, the script being portentous but never corny. Terry Thirteen acts as the ghostly guardian’s agent, despatching a very definite demon… then drenching himself once more in denial, before the Stranger is forced to get his gloved hands dirty against Tala.

Tanghal pencils once more, this time with Bob Layton inking, and the combo works well; I especially like the Ditko-esque attack on the Stranger by Tala… it’s a shame Conway and editor Paul Levitz apparently never thought naming Tala at this point would have been a good thing.

Still, the negatives with this issue are minimal – it’s a riveting, rip-roaring yarn from a time when we were regularly treated to random reads starring non-series characters. I miss those days.

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