‘The Phantom From the Past’ — “The Wild, Wild West”

“James West uncov­ers a dead­ly con­spir­a­cy that grips New Orleans in a hyp­not­ic spell!” 

So says the cov­er blurb for issue #2 (Nove­mer, 1966) of “The Wild, Wild West” com­ic by Gold Key, one of the minor com­ic book pub­lish­ers dur­ing the Sil­ver Age, pri­mar­i­ly known for their ‘kid’s’ books and TV tie-ins. 

Descrip­tion: In ”The Phan­tom From the Past, James West, covert Secret Ser­vice agent, is paired up with fel­low agent Artemis Gor­don to go after a noto­ri­ous Civ­il War ban­dit and raider, Leon Bon­ney. He was report­ed killed but now there are rumors that he is alive some­where near New Orleans. James and Artemis are sent to inves­ti­gate, as three pre­vi­ous agents pre­vi­ous­ly sent on the same mis­sion are now miss­ing. But that’s not all: there is seem­ing­ly a cor­re­spon­ing plague of dis­ap­pear­ances of young men in the area. Some sleuthing indi­cates a fan­cy casi­no to the cen­ter of the disappearances. 

Jim and Artie arrive in New Orleans and are imme­di­ate­ly under assault. Twice. That means that they are on the right trail. At the casi­no, they dis­cov­er some­thing strange: a door­way that a man and a woman enter, yet only the woman emerges. And the door is always kept locked. That calls for an inves­ti­ga­tion, and Artie calls ‘dibs’ on get­ting inside, let­ting James to pro­vide the dis­trac­tion. (After all, Artie’s the bet­ter at sneak­ing around, as James is the bet­ter at dis­trac­tions.) James quick­ly dis­cov­ers the dice are loaded but it able to use that to his advantage. 

At the same time Artie is pick­ing the lock and check­ing out what’s inside. He dis­cov­ers a line of men being loaded into a car­riage, all bland­ly fol­low­ing orders, and decides to join them. He leaves a trail for James to fol­low, know­ing that he will do so. James fol­lows the trail to an exten­sive plan­ta­tion, one he saw from the river­boat pre­vi­ous­ly: the work­ers all seemed dull and listless. 

Try­ing to sneak into the plan­ta­tion and being caught, his cap­tor, Mr. X invites him to din­ner, served by a silent Artie. Mr. X states that James fel­low agent is now his devot­ed ser­vant. But, when giv­en the chance, Artie reveals he is only fak­ing. Silent­ly, he ignores James’ ques­tions as he paints a pic­ture of Mr. X with jam to reveal that Mr. X is none oth­er than Leon Bon­ney. Who knew all along that Artie was not under his control. 

In grand style, Bon­ney reveals that his name is tru­ly Napoleon Bon­nepart IV. He wants to reverse the error his ances­tor made in sell­ing the Lou­siana ter­ri­to­ry, and has been accu­mu­lat­ing wealth to that end. As for the work­ers, they are restrained and hyp­no­tized into obe­di­ence, a process he sub­jects Artie to as a demon­stra­tion. But the one thing one nev­er can do is take their eyes off a prac­ticed agent like James, and he makes quick work of the lab­o­ra­to­ry and starts a fire that engulf the entire house. The entranced men are safe but Bon­ney returns to get the mon­ey there and seem­ing­ly dies in the fire. 

After that, its a sim­ple process to un-hyp­no­tize the men, includ­ing the cap­tured agents, except for Artemis. No one seems to be able to bring him out of his trance. Except he’s not entranced: since he saw the process in oper­a­tion back at the casi­no, he’s ful­ly capa­ble of resist­ing on his own and played along, even going so far as stay fak­ing for a laugh. 

And now that the vil­lain has been defeat­ed, their boss says they can spend a cou­ple of days at Mar­ti Gras. Artemis sug­gests they go in cos­tume, dressed as Napoleon. 

Com­men­tary: This sto­ry must take place ear­ly in their pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ship, as James is seen embark­ing from his pri­vate train alone, to meet up with Arte­mus (whom he does not imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize) on the riv­er boat. It is obvi­ous from the sto­ry that the two are old friends but also, giv­en the cir­cum­stances, are not yet partners. 

The book itself is inter­est­ing, as there are not ads any­where with­in. The inside front and back cov­ers have B&W pho­to col­lec­tions, the inside front of James West in a num­ber of life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions, and the inside back of Artemis Gor­don in many of his dis­guis­es. The front cov­er is a full-col­or image of both James and Artemis prob­a­bly used from a pub­lic­i­ty still from the series and the back is a B&W pin­up of James. 

The art­work here is pret­ty sim­ple but effec­tive: both James and Artie are eas­i­ly rec­og­niz­able as such and the artist does include a few styl­is­tic flairs, includ­ing a bor­der­less pan­el and a cou­ple of mon­tagues. The sto­ry is good, a hunt for a Civ­il War crim­i­nal thought dead but now known to be alive some­where in New Orleans, one that requires not just one but two of the Secret Ser­vice’s best agents. 

If I had a quib­ble, its that the sto­ry title did­n’t car­ry the same pat­tern as the TV episode titles. ‘The Phan­tom of the Past’ just does­nt have the same feel as somthing like, say, ‘The Night of the Mes­mer­ized Min­ions’. It would also have been nice to see the chap­ter titles just like the TV series, too, but that would have been a lit­tle too much for a comic. 

His­to­ry: The tele­vi­sion his­to­ry of “The Wild, Wild West” was cov­ered when I wrote about the first sea­son episode, ‘Night of the Steel Assas­sin’. The comics his­to­ry here needs to start with the pub­lish­er, Gold Key Comics.

Gold Key Comics was one of the minor but depend­able play­ers in the com­ic book pub­lish­ing indus­try. They main­tained a “squeaky-clean” rep­u­ta­tion, so much so that they nev­er were a part of the Comics Code Author­i­ty nor sub­scribed to the lim­i­ta­tions that were a part of the Code. Also know as Whit­man Comics, their pri­ma­ry stock in trade were ‘kid’s comics’ such as “Mighty Mouse” and a num­ber of Dis­ney and Warn­er Broth­ers prop­er­ties. How­ev­er, they also pub­lished a wide range of oth­er books, includ­ing movie and TV tie-ins such as “Space Fam­i­ly Robin­son” (which was the basis for the Irwin Allen series “Lost in Space”), “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.”, “I Spy” and here, “The Wild, Wild West”, fan­ta­sy and occult tiltes such as “The Occult Files of Doc­tor Spek­tor”, and SF, includ­ing “Doc­tor Solar” and “Mag­nus, Robot Fight­er”.

Rec­om­men­da­tion: For any­one who ever watched “The Wild, Wild West” in their youth, this is a wel­come reminder of just how much fun the series was. Although James gets the star­ring role here, Artemis is just as inte­gral to the team as he is. I dare say that if their roles were switched at the casi­no, the result would have been the same, except with shots of James valiant­ly resist­ing the worst forms of hyp­not­ic pres­sure until Artie shows up in dis­guise to res­cue him. 

Ref­er­ences:

  • Comics.org page on the issue 

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