« Who’d ever believe a story like that? »
On this fine day, we pay tribute to shifty scribe Chester P. Hazel (who sometimes goes by the unlikely nom de plume of Steve Skeates). It is whispered that Stephen, along with his nefarious twin Warren Savin, first invaded this plane of existence on January 29, 1943. That would make him/them/it seventy-five earthly rotations old, should these windblown tattles hold any credence.
Happily, in this case, picking out a Skeates favourite to share was no ordeal: I’d been meaning for some time to shine a light on one of his neglected gems, one that salt-rubbingly ran without proper attribution in The Phantom Stranger no. 34 (Dec. 1974-Jan. 1975, DC Comics.)
The cases of Dr. Terrance Thirteen, ghost breaker, must have been easier to write back in the 1950’s, when DC Comics’ default setting in its mystery titles was to explain away the supernatural element before the curtain call. DC’s resident skeptic first shared his insights in Star Spangled Comics, his feature lasting from issue 122 (November, 1951) to issue 130 (July, 1952). He then moved to The House of Mystery for a handful of appearances, then faded away. He returned to action, along with his also long-dormant colleague and foil The Phantom Stranger, in 1969’s Showcase no. 80. In the Supernatural Seventies, all poor Dr. Thirteen could do is vainly and stubbornly play the cards of reason and logic against a house deck stacked to inevitably favour the uncanny and the unreal. He was doomed to be a comic book version of The X-Files’ Dana Scully, Fritz Leiber‘s Norman Saylor (Conjure Wife, 1943) or Night of the Demon‘s Dr. John Holden, all skeptics coming off as hopelessly obdurate and clueless in light of the “facts”.
Anyway, it wasn’t the first time wily Skeates had faced such a storytelling impasse: he’d had to ring the changes on pacifist character Dove (of Steve Ditko’s eternally-squabbling Hawk & Dove) within a universe of hard-slugging super vigilantes.
Dr. Thirteen bounced around various DC titles in the early-to-mid 70s. This is the series’ last bow in the back pages of The Phantom Stranger, and ironically its finest hour, alongside the penultimate entry, The Ghosts on the Glasses, which ran in Adventure Comics no. 428 (August, 1973.) In both cases, the inspired artwork is that of Filipino master Tony DeZuñiga (1932 – 2012), who was clearly in his element.
A character likens the dead scientist’s ill-fated velocity experiments to comic book character The Flash… but it’s a cinch that what the impish* Mr. Skeates really had in mind was Virgil “Guy” Gilbert, aka Lightning, whose début, The Deadly Dust! he had scripted back in 1965 (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 4, April 1966). Here’s a relevant excerpt, featuring art by Mike Sekowsky and Frank Giacoia.
In closing, a biographical blurb from DC’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, circa 2002: « A native and longtime resident of the Empire State, Steve Skeates began his work in comics as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics in 1965 – a job which he quickly abandoned in favor of writing comics as a full-time freelancer. Over the next twenty years he did work for nearly every major comics publisher, including DC, Marvel, Charlton, Tower, Warren, and Gold Key. Since leaving mainstream comics in the mid-1980s, he has worked as a reporter, bartender, and Zamboni operator, as well as publishing his own comics titles, which he continues to do from his home base in Fairport, New York. »
Happy birthday, Mr. Skeates, and thanks for everything!
*I mean to refer to Mr. Skeates’ undisputed status as King of the unofficial inter-company crossover. Naughty!