High Five! Comics

Follow Me For I Am… The Phantom Stranger!

Posted on: June 4, 2010

The Phanom StrangerHi, folks! Jonny here. The Underrated Underdogs feature has always been one of my favorites at High Five. Rob and Maggie know a lot about that stuff and I always love it when they review some old character I’ve never heard of. I have always wanted to review my own underdog, and a year into High Five I’ve finally found my guy.

In 1952 DC Comics broke with common practice and introduced a new character without testing his/her popularity in one of their existing on-going titles. Since the success of any new character is uncertain, most new heroes are brought along side an existing character (IE Wolverine in Hulk #181) or receive a showcase slot in a short story magazine like More Fun Comics. Apparently the word of John Broome (Elongated Man, Detective Chimp) was enough to entice DC to take a few risks, and in August or September of 1952 the world met the Phantom Stranger in his very own six issue miniseries. Likely the gambit didn’t pay off because the Phantom would not reappear until February 1969 in Showcase #80 along side Doctor Thirteen. From this rebirth we come to know our hero.

The original concept behind the Phantom Stranger was quite simple: a crime with inexplicable causes would be perpetrated and the mysterious Phantom Stranger would appear from no-where, expose the supernatural as a hoax, and vanish leaving the audience to debate his true nature. Usually he was working along side Doctor Thirteen who was consistently annoyed at the mystery surrounding Phantom Stranger.

Apparently this concept targeting young boys didn’t work for DC and in issue 4 The Phantom Stranger received a new creative team, a new costume, and some badass powers that quickly settled the question of natural vs spiritual. Beyond aesthetic alteration, the changes wrought by Robert Kanigher (creator of Barry Allen) and Neal Adams (who’s drawing an upcoming Batman book this summer YAY!) demonstrated a shift in target demographic. No longer did our hero spend his time mystifying 7 to 10 year-olds with disappearing acts. This new Phantom Stranger’s friends were teens, and hippies at that. His enemies were no longer simple-minded murderers or thieves, but rather the Forces of Evil themselves. This series continued throughout the first half of the 1970s and boasted such creators as Len Wein, Jim Aparo, and Tony DeZuniga. Check out the cover art for the first issue of Phantom Stranger under Kanigher and Adams below:

Phantom Stranger #4

By 1973 the Silver Age was over, and the Bronze Age was in full swing. This shift saw a population with little interest in many of the once popular characters. Phantom Stranger was a casualty of this shift and he largely faded into Limbo until Alan Moore reminded us of the mysterious hero in 1982’s Saga of the Swamp Thing.

Here, we saw the beginnings of Phantom Stranger’s third and current interpretation. To Moore, and all subsequent writers, the Phantom Stranger was not a being of power. Rather, he was an all-knowing sage who transcends time, space, and continuity. No matter where you are in the DCU, The Phantom Stranger can find you, and he can guide you to a better path. This concept was beautifully illustrated by Grant Morrison in Animal Man #22 when Phantom Stranger met a time-displaced Buddy Baker and helped him find the path to his lost family.

Buddy Baker Meets the Phantom Stranger

What I find remarkable about the Phantom Stranger is that the character holds up perfectly despite all the ret-cons and reinterpretations. Since the character was built on a simple platform of perpetual mystery the changes have not affected DC’s immortal sage to any detriment. In fact, the changes have made him even cooler. DC has issued 4 theories as to his origin. None are to be taken as fact, and all are meant to further the mystery. But, in my mind, The Phantom Stranger represents some overreaching Power in the DCU that has sent its messenger to earth in 3 phases: first to observe, second to fight, and third to guide.

I love this interpretation for a few reasons. One, it gives Phantom Stranger a certain realism of character in that he has matured rather than simply aged. Second, and more importantly it mirrors the path of humanity as we begin, live, and complete our lives. This is, of course, my own interpretation for my own amusement, but the fun of any mystery is in the guessing.

Happy readings,

-Jonny

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3 Responses to "Follow Me For I Am… The Phantom Stranger!"

What a cool guy. Those types of characters have always intrigued me.

I think he is broader than that. I see the character more as the embodiment of conscience. He helps and guides so that others can return to whatever path of good they are supposed to follow. So, he almost never takes action except when necessary to set things in order so that someone else can make the right decision. That’s why his powers seem so variable: they are limited by the goal of assisting others. As someone else wrote, he’s proof that the universe really does give a sh*t. And by the way, he’s make a terrific TV character (Maybe a James Dean-type, capturing his inner torment, but with white hair?)

[…] depict a world equally f***ed up. Nobody is dying when I read Planet Comics, Len Wein could write Phantom Stranger stories that were mysterious without being disturbing, I read Jack Kirby without turning my […]

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