While I have little to no interest in seeing Man of Steel . . .ever (Zack Snyder is not exactly a come-on to get me in a theater and after three movies worth of Christopher Nolan and David Goyer's glum self-seriousness, I need a break from them as well) the one upshot to them getting to make their bland, joyless, dour Superman movie is that it meant DC went into their backlist and pulled out these strange issues.
Back in the early 80's, after Steve Gerber had his cantankerous falling out with Marvel, he walked across the street to DC for a bit to ply his trade there (he wasn't alone in that--a lot of DC's early 80's boost came from that infusion of Marvel people) and give us a four-issue mini-series (one of the first, actually) called Phantom Zone, and the short answer is: If you liked Steve Gerber's cockeyed view on superheroes from books like the Defenders (and I did, if you remember), then this will be right in your wheelhouse.
Phantom Zone is less a Superman story than a Steve Gerber story that occasionally has Superman in it. It has the requisite whammo-blammo stuff, but in it's four issues it also manages to work in a Gerber-esque beleagured everyman (with a twist) an extended homage to Dante's Inferno, and some cutting social commentary. I was and am still amazed by how much he crammed into these four issues.
Right. So, Phantom Zone. Being the story of low-level paste-up (it's 1982, Indesign is decades away) schmuck Charle Kweskill, whose weird nightmares about the history of Krypton's system of capital punishment seems a very improbable thing for a human to have. Through him we get a brief recounting of the crimes of all the biggie Phantom Zone villains--Zod, Jax-Ur, Faora, etc--and, eventually, the revelation than Kweskill is actually Quex-Ul (but brainwiped and depowered) and the villains of the Zone have manipulated him into freeing them and imprisoning Superman and Kweskill in the Zone.
The Zoners react about how they always do--RAAAAAAMPAAAAAAGE--and get busy wrecking shit in wholesale fashion--trashing the Fortress of solitude, throwing the Justice League Satellite out of the solar system, destroying all communication satellites and triggering a nuclear attack (which, in a cool subversion of expectations is thwarted by Supergirl and Wonder Woman, who get to be totally badass here) and beating the shit out of Green Lantern, which isn't really that hard.
Meanwhile, Kweskill and Superman decide the only way out of the Phantom Zone is deeper in and the further they go, the more we learn about the Zone. For one thing, it's the border of another universe. For another, the universe on the other side is alive, Named Aethyr, and seems to be really pissed off all of the time. Superman and Kweskill get totured by it for a bit while the Zoners are making a big-ass gun to blast the Earth into the Phantom Zone.
There's also a brief and perfectly Gerber touch near the end where we discover Metropolis has a punk movement called "Bizarro" that asserts that anyone born after 1961 is an imperfect duplicate (and if you have to ask what means, you were probably born before 1961) and are treated to a performance by Wendy Y Bother and the Nouns.
(It's probably funnier if you;re old enough to get the reference . . .This doesn't really blunt that whole "DC makes comics for 45 year olds" thing, unfortunately.)
Anyways, Kweskill sacrifices himself to get Superman out of the Zone and Superman returns, grim and incredibly pissed off by being sidelined and eventually the Zoners are returned to the Zone and everything's back to normal, mostly (lasting changes in Superman continuity didn't exactly stick during this time, so it was sorta benignly ignored, barring one exception we'll get to in a minute.
None of which detracts from the fact that this is a really good story. Gerber does a great job of humanising Kweskil, so much that even when it's revealed he's Quex-Ul and a former bad guy you're still kind of on his side and his everyman's perspective really plays up the unreality of the trek through the Zone and deals with the all-too-common problem of Superman stories during this time (that Superman is unreleatable) while delivering the effects of loosing a horde of super-powered lunatics on the Earth. I'm really amazed by the scope of these four issues and part of me kinda wonders what might have happened had Gerber got to reinvent Superman post-Crisis rather than Byrne.
I should also mention the art is by Gene Colan, who brings the right amount of darkness and surrealism to the story without sacrificing power and dynamism. Speaking of folks I would have loved to see have one more shot at drawing Superman, Colan's definitely one of them.
The final issue of this collection is the first one I read (though I didn;t really have the clearest idea of what's going on): DC Comics Presents #97, which, even by the "let's burn everything to the ground" mania that final issues tend to have just goes fucking nuts. Advertised as "an untold tale of the pre-Crisis universe," it's actually Gerber's end-chapter for his Phantom Zone concept and it is just balls-out crazy.
Looking back now, it reads like some read "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" while shrooming. Thanks to stupid-ass Jor-El creating the technology to shift into the Phantom Zone, Aethyr gets pissed off by someone intruding on the fringes of his reality, and his rage is compounded soon after when tons of criminals start being dumped into the Zone, which makes it more and more insane (apparently, the people inside the Zone and the sentience within the zone have a kind of symbiosis) and starts forcing Aethyr through into our reality.
Things get worse from there. Aethyr engineers the destruction of the Bizarro World, which to them is the best thing ever (of course,) and merged his mind into Mxyzptlk, which makes Mxy more powerful and drives Aethyr a little more 'round the bend (it's also supposed to kill Mxy, but we're nearly done here) Mxyzptlk then drops Argo City onto Metropolis, dumping tons of Kryptonite (and hundreds of kryptonite-poisoned corpses) all over the city as the Phantom Zone finally ceases to exist and (once again) dumps all the Zone criminals out for another rampage.
But it's pretty short-lived as Mxyzptlk asserts control of the collective consciousness that Aethyr and the Zoners have become (it's . . .a little confusing) and resolves to torture the memories of the Zone criminals in his mind for eternity and then return to pay Superman back . . .if the Argo kryptonite hasn't killed him first.
Superman doesn't really get what it's all about, I sorta know how he feels.
It's not quite as deep as the four issue mini-series that preceded it (or it doesn't have the right number of pages to get where it wants to go before it gets to the endpoint where it needs to be at) but I really find myself liking the sheer audacity of the story (to say nothing of the idea of using a little-loved team-up book to tie up continuity points from a story published 4 years before in a DC Universe that no longer exists) If Alan Moore's last Superman story was a well-intentioned homage, Gerber's seems to be determined to pitch a burning garbage can through it's window because the world's ending and nothing matters anyway.