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The Phantom Stranger
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Fred Hembeck

The Phantom Stranger
Uploaded August 2, 1999

This one seems to be a very popular strip among all the Fredheads out there. Maybe it's the somewhat risqué nature, maybe it's because the humor is so neatly structured (establishing statement, action, one-liner), or maybe the appeal lies in the ludicrous notion of the Phantom Stranger playing tonsil hockey with an unsuspecting passerby (which is more of Deadman's schtick, anyway).

So, who is this Phantom Stranger guy anyway, and why would this be so out of character?

You had to ask….

The Phantom Stranger first appeared in his own series in 1952, created by writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino. He was kind of a one-man Scooby Gang (that reference is for all you Buffy fans out there), touring around, solving mysteries and exposing supposedly occult phenomena as frauds. Bottom line: cancelled after only six issues.

In keeping with DC's revival of past characters, Joe Orlando re-introduced the Stranger in an issue of Showcase, with a new framing sequence around reprints from the first series. There's nothing quite like mining the archives, and not having to pay for new material.

(Hey, I'm kidding! I love reprints! I have fond, fond memories of DC's 100 pagers from the mid-seventies - one brand new lead story, and the balance devoted to old stuff. What do think got me hooked on all this in the first place, huh?)

The fourth issue was the first to feature all-new material (by the exalted Neal Adams, no less), but the Stranger's abilities took a quantum leap in the direction of the Twilight Zone. No longer restricted to mysterious entrances and exits (hence the 'phantom' part of his name), now he's got these really funky magical powers to fight the forces of darkness with. Hoo-ha!

Still, the forces of darkness are nothing compared to the forces of sales figures, and the series died in 1976 after 41 issues.

Score: sales figures, 2, Phantom Stranger, 0.

Of course, we all know what happens to DC Universe super-heroes after their series get cancelled, right? I'll give you a hint - if this were television, they'd be guest starring on 'Love Boat' and 'Fantasy Island. You got it - it's guest star time! Help out the Justice League! Team up with Batman! Put in a cameo appearance with the Secret Society of Super-Villains! Hang out between gigs with other also-rans like Deadman, Swamp Thing, and the Challengers of the Unknown!

Things got really interesting a few years later with DC's 'Secret Origins' series, where the editorial powers-that-be invited four creative teams to come up with different origin stories for the Stranger. In a stunning and completely unexpected upset, Alan Moore's vision of the character seemed to be the popular favorite. Moore positioned the Stranger as an angel who wouldn't take sides during Lucifer's revolt, and who found himself subsequently ostracized from both Heaven and Hell.

It's a little difficult to describe exactly what the Phantom Stranger's powers are, but that's pretty much par for the course for any of the mystical characters. Seriously, they just wave their hands, or shake their talismans, or talk backwards, and all kinds of weird stuff starts to happen. Typically, though, he's been used in a deus ex machina kind of way, inserted into any number of stories to save the day. Case in point: I remember one JLA story in which the Stranger rescues every Leaguer from the assorted death traps laid out by the villain of the piece. No explanations, no accounting, just the Stranger suddenly appearing in front of the villain at the end of the story, with the heroes assembled behind him.

This kind of thing is always going to happen when the character and his/her abilities aren't defined properly. While I don't particularly care about continuity-over-time for a given character, I do expect the character itself to be treated consistently from writer to writer, from story to story. This is why television shows have 'Story Bibles', so that any writer tackling a character will write a treatment consistent with past efforts. I would have hoped that the same would hold true for comics, but the appearance of Neil Gaiman's 'Death' in the 'Captain Atom' series seriously puts the lie to that dream.

Gaiman also used the Phantom Stranger in his 'Books of Magic' mini-series, positioning the Stranger as one of the four figures introducing Tim Hunter to the world of magic. Here, he introduced young Tim to an accelerated history of magic in the DC Universe, from pre-Big Bang (I'm sure there's a Monica Lewinsky joke there somewhere) through to present day, introducing him to a few key DC figures along the way. This excursion, along with those led by John Constantine, Dr. Occult, and Mr. E (get it? 'mystery'? ha ha ha), was aimed at providing Tim with the context from which he could either accept or reject a life of magic and mysticism.

Turned out in the end that Tim's agreeing to his very own Magical Mystery Tour constituted an embrace of the magical arts, just as the Stranger intended. Sneaky little bugger, isn't he? Nice to know that even a hovering angel (well, he's not exactly fallen now, is he?) can be a conniving schemer.

- NP

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