Monday, December 5, 2011

UNDERCOVER REVIEWS - Phantom Chronicles II

The Phantom Chronicles Volume 2
Moonstone Books
Review by David Zuzelo

"You are a man of mercy, then?"
The Phantom mounted his horse and turned the mighty animal away from her, never showing his face.
"I don't deal in mercy," he said. "Only justice."
--From A Man Of His Word by Joe McKinney

There are very few characters that make me smile like the purple clad man of mayhem himself!

That's right...THE PHANTOM! I've been a fan of this character for a very, very long time and still enjoy seeing him pop up in a syndicated strip as well as in comics from Moonstone Publications. Sure, that time is gone now, but there is an abundance of trade paperback collections for us to enjoy. This second collection of prose tales is easily one of my favorites.

I love a good adventure story, and as with all of these Chronicles books (which also include The Avenger, The Spider and Green Hornet volumes)-the stories range from solid to outstanding, taking characters in familiar directions while adding a bit of spin and pulp fiction flavor. The prose anthologies mesh the best of the old and new takes on some favorites of mine, so I'm a sucker for them.

So, that brings us to this particular volume. I decided to order the hardcover edition of Phantom Chronicles 2 this time around; because I'm always kicking myself that I have to be frugal with most of the nicer collections of New Pulp. Amazon had a sizable discount off the $37.99 price-so I went ahead and lived it up.

The book looks fantastic, sporting a cover by Mark Romanoski and really wonderful images by Stephen Bryant for each story, with an additional bookend set of images of The Green Hornet and The Phantom Ruben Procopio and Jeff Butler. Man, I want an original by Procopio someday...and the Butler piece shows why he is just right for the Moonstone line of books. And it is purple with a slipcover. I don't own near enough purple books.

The stories are an interesting bunch and there are several highlights. There isn't a bad apple in the bunch and it is obvious that great care was taken to keep The Phantom the character we know and love without taking away the authors individual stamp. For reviews sake I'll just pick three that stood out in particular...

The Phantom of Cobtree Manor is Matthew Baugh's working The Phantom in to what feels like a 60s Gothic horror film that mixes exploding glass, the ghost of Captain Clegg and a woman that may or may not be mad. If Mario Bava needed to do a Phantom film, I think it may have played out quite a lot like this. What is nice is that both Walker and The Phantom share the stage, both of which bring humor and heroics to the table. Great fun.

A Grim Certitude by Nathan Meyer feels really unique and the writing really sucked me in with a very unexpected style. Sort of familiar... The Phantom is on a rescue mission where time is of the essence and a nun’s life hangs in the balance. The majority of the story takes place in thirty seconds and Meyer handles it really well. I loved this one. I'm predisposed to this style, and it was nice to find a Phantom tale written at Automag pace.

Encounters On A Jungle Night by Aaron M. Shaps was also a great surprise and is placed early in the book to good effect. Following a very classic styled tale by Tom Defalco, this is a Phantom tale told from the perspective of a Nazi soldier at a weird place called Outpost Zero. Mad Science! Monsters! Dismemberment! The Phantom! More Dismemberment! Totally nuts and it doesn't feel like any other Phantom tale I can think of. I can't pay higher praise to the author than the fact that it felt new and fresh without forgetting exactly who The Phantom is.

I can't help mentioning a few others...especially No Ghosts Need Apply and I Of The Storm which both knocked my socks off... but frankly, there was never a boring minute and I enjoyed it all. If I have one pet peeve it shows up in the fun to read by typesetting challenged The Devil's Kettle by Will Murray. Good story, but it looks as if an uncorrected version was run. Hyphenated words bump lines down, Paragraph breaks are skipped and there is a little gum up in the story that makes me think the wrong file got placed in the final product.

This gave me an interesting insight as a reader however... in the last five years I've read to my children every night, and that has actually slowed my reading pace down a lot, but I enjoy it more and have found telling stories to others has matured my reading. But, typos and line glitches are now catastrophic! I don't know if this has happened to any of you, but it was the first time this has happened for me.

The extras included in the hardcover are a brief history of The Phantom that is a nice overview and is a bit bittersweet as it ends with Moonstone's accomplishments with the character and does not look forward from there. Also, a strong story by Saurav Mohapatra and CJ Henderson entitled The Plague ends on a nice note and feels very much in the spirit of a Lee Falk story, just told with a slightly different point of view. The Phantom has a rich history of publication, and I believe that Mohapatra is the first Indian author to make an imprint with the good ring of protection! Awesome.

I'm not going to skip over one of the most intriguing parts of the book, and one that should easily earn your dollars for the softcover at the least... Harlan Ellison contributes an essay / story fragment called The Soul of Solomon which is a must read for both fans and creators that enjoy and handle iconic characters. The essay details the process, and unraveling, of a tale that would join The Phantom and The Green Hornet that involves suicide and all kinds of weird and cool plot twisting. But Ellison comes to a seemingly simple yet incredibly well defined reason to not finish his story. Icons stand. Bending them because you can, and not because you should, is the key to making a story work. Someone needs to license this and create a textbook with this as Chapter 1. Marvel should hang it on the door to the office (never mind that Dynamite Entertainments editorial staff should have Ellison come in and read it to Alex Ross)... if you ever wanted to tell that cool story you thought up, read this first. It won me over, because as I started it I kept thinking that Ellison was being smarmy and self absorbed, and then I wacked myself in the head when I got it.

The Phantom Chronicles 2 keeps The Man Who Could Not Die relevant and respectful, and I could not have enjoyed it more. Maybe, someday... a volume 3 can emerge from the Eastern Dark!

2 comments:

  1. This is a great book but we *really* disagree on the Ellison piece. I think you had it right when you called it "smary and self-absorbed."

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  2. It's cool to disagree Barry, I think it is a really solid point and a very interesting read. Pulp fans are, by and large, pretty protective of these characters when they are twisted and shredded up into forms that don't fit the idea of the original for the most part. Given the trajectory of the story as Ellison outlines it over the course of the essay-it transforms from a less than careful use of classic characters that we all have history with into a thoughtful essay on the process of creating new stories. Stories that ring true, not "I can so I will" storytelling.

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