‘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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