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When we had last left my classic comics buying adventures, I had just read an underwhelming, although still interesting, issue of Shazam!. Included in that same one dollar and fifty cent package was an issue of The Phantom Stranger, a supernatural themed DC hero who has been around for almost 70 years, and at the date of publication had been around for 20. This story was written by Len Wein, an important talent, especially in the field of horror comics. This comic was also published in 1973, soon after the early 1970s revision of the Comics Code, and the heaving-bosomed, tied-down woman on the front being menaced by a phallic snake might be a hint of what type of creative liberties this change had caused.

The story follows one Jim Colter, a documentary filmmaker who has gone to the fictious Caribbean island of Santa Roja to film "The Serpent Dance", a forbidden voodoo right. Jim Colter is culturally insensitive, which is shown by the third page of a story, where an islander pleads with him to "Save me from dem---from de cult of de serpent". Colter, responds,in a character defining moment "Crazy Black!". His secretary, Teresa, seems to know something about the secretive cult of the serpent. Colter's investigations are interrupted by The Phantom Stranger, who tries to caution him away from investigating the cult. Of course, he does not, and he ends up facing a karmic fate.

The story interested me because it could be taken two ways. On one hand, the story clearly shows that the arrogant Colter is treating the natives with contempt. The new liberties in the comics code had enabled Len Wein to tell a story that deals with colonialism and what we would now call cultural appropriation---but it also allows a story where Afro-Caribbeans are depicted as mysterious and superstitious. Even as the story punishes Colter, it seems exploitative.

That was only half of the book, with the other, second story being about a recurring character called "The Spawn of Frankenstein"---another adaptation of the loosening of the comics code. This story is even more violent, and features a woman being sacrificed "FOR THE DAY SATAN WILL UNITE HIS KINGDOM OF HELL WITH THIS FETID WORLD.", although I don't know what the context of that statement is. The story certainly makes a stylistic point, although I am unclear on the substance.

In general, I would say this issue showed me that DC, in 1973, was certainly moving in new directions, and exploring serious topics, but that the substance of those developments were overshadowed by indulging in stylistic freedoms encouraged by the relaxation of the comics code. If nothing else, it certainly gave me more to chew on than Shazam! #3. Also, if you ever find a comic book from before 1975 for sale for under a few dollars, buy it.

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