Ask Chris #263: Halloween In The Fortress of Solitude
Q: What's the best Halloween story starring a superhero that doesn't really fit Halloween? -- @krinsbez
A: As much as the two genres have been historically opposed to each other, there are an awful lot of superheroes that have pretty strong ties to horror. Characters like Batman, for example, have spookiness built right into the concept from the very beginning, right down to the devil-horns and the dark cape, whih are meant to terrorize a superstitious, cowardly lot of criminals. But when you get further away from horror elements, when you look at the characters that are rooted in sci-fi or pure superheroics, and you drop them into a spooky story, then you can get a pretty great story just on the virtue of taking someone out of their element.
So turn down the lights and let's talk about Halloween in the Fortress of Solitude.
Grant Morrison and Travel Foreman's 'The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude' is probably the single best superheroic Halloween story of all time, although to be honest, that's not exactly the crowded field that you'd get for Christmas stories. Superheroes never quite run with Halloween in the same way, and I suspect that has a lot to do with the decades under the Comics Code that forbade superheroes from ever encountering werewolves and vampires. They tend to meet Dracula a whole lot less than they meet Santa Claus.
But while "Best Superman Halloween story" might not sound like much, I'd go as far as to say that this one would be the best spooky Superman story of all time, if Jack Kirby hadn't done two issues about a tiny little planet full of tiny vampires and werewolves in a mad scientist's basement back in 1971 and wrecked the curve for everyone else.
For purely Halloween-themed stories, though, you're not likely to find anything better. And one of the best things about it is how it takes the Phantom Zone, an element of the Superman mythos that's been around so long that readers are already very familiar with it, and made it something unknown and genuinely frightening.
Not that Morrison and Foreman needed a whole lot of help in that respect.
The Phantom Zone is terrifying, although it's not usually treated as such. At its heart, it's just one of the many, many plot contrivances of the Silver Age that were geared towards bringing bits and pieces of Krypton back, and in that respect, it's definitely better than just throwing in another rocket ship. I'm pretty sure there were at least four of those things by the end of it, and really, once the family dog has been sent across space to escape the destruction of Krypton, it makes it a lot harder to figure out why Jor-El couldn't at least scrounge up a fifth one for Lara.
The Phantom Zone, though, is an entirely different kind of plot contrivance. It's a bit of genius, a plot device that was specifically geared towards pitting Superman against as many Kryptonian supercriminals as the story required, a ready-made endless supply of enemies that were connected to him not just because they were from Krypton, but becuase it was his father who condemned them to the Zone to begin with.
And it's also horrifying. As much as I tend to shy away from the darker side of superheroics, I really do love the idea that Krypton was a society that was trying to evolve beyond the death penalty for its worst criminals and ended up with something that was arguably worse. The idea that they'd be condemned to a bodiless, senseless existence where they could do nothing but ruminate on their crimes is hellish in a way that only gets more harrowing the more you think about it, and the added bonus of having them trapped there with no way of getting out once Krypton itself is destroyed just adds to it.
Plus, there's the whole thing where they're always there, floating around watching everything but unable to interact with it. That makes it perfect as the source for a superheroic ghost story, but then, it should be. I mean, it's right there in the name.
Those are the aspects that Morrison and Foreman are working with in this story, and the way they introduce them is downright perfect, right down to the very first line.
The first eighteen issues of Action Comics were easily among the standouts of the New 52 relaunch, and "It was Halloween on the planet Krypton" might be the single best sentence of the entire run. It sets the creepy tone immediately, and tying the opening of the Phantom Zone to the more familiar haints that you get from horror stories makes the rest of the story that follows pack a huge punch. It's the kind of sentence that I wish I could write, but as we all know just from reading this column, I usually take a couple hundred words to get anywhere.
The thing is, this isn't a comic that stops at those brief, elegant setups, either. As good as those themes might be, and as much as those first few pages might play with building as much of a moody, creepy atmosphere as you can get at Superman's crystal palace at the North Pole, it's still a superhero story. It's still a Superman story, in fact, which means that if it's going to work, it has to be the most superhero story that it's possible to tell.
And that, I assume, is why it ends up being about an evil space mummy ghost who wants to turn Earth into a planet of zombies.
Seriously: A mummy that is also a ghost that is also a mad scientist that is also an evil space alien. It's everything you want out of a superheroic Halloween story all at once! It's great! And just in case we needed a little more in there, there's also a scene where Superman ends up wearing that space mummy's costume for good measure.
At the end of the day, though, the single best piece of the story isn't any of those things, which is one of the reasons that it makes for such a compelling read. It's a Halloween story --- It's explicitly a Halloween story right from page one, and delivers on that promise in the biggest way possible with a space mummy --- but there's something else in play, too, and it's something I don't want to spoil on the off-chance that there's anyone out there who hasn't read it yet. That piece of the story, like Superman himself, is as far away from the traditionally spooky aspects of a "Halloween" story as you can get.
Or maybe it isn't. As spooky as the stories might get, the ghosts that we hear about around Halloween don't just turn the lights out and rattle chains. There's another aspect of those lingering spirits; the part where they represent something beyond this life that still has an interest in what's going on that might not always revolve entirely around vengeance. That part of Halloween is in here, too. Really, the only thing it's missing is a bucket full of candy.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.
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