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Phantom Stranger

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Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, comics were peppered with all kinds of mysterious storytellers, masked, cloaked, or hatted—narrators such as the Mysterious Traveler, the Man in Black Called Fate, Mister Mystery, Dr. Drew, and DC Comics' Phantom Stranger. The DC series ran for only six issues, from 1952 to 1953, each issue presenting several short mystery tales starring the trench-coat-and-hat-wearing Stranger. In fact, starring is probably too strong a word, since the Stranger had the disconcerting habit of popping up out of nowhere (and only where I am needed) and apprehending evildoers in the nick of time. His creators never made it clear who he was or where he came from, his tell-all quote being, I do not foresee the future, I merely act upon it.


In the late 1960s, following the successful relaunch of the Spectre and the burgeoning popularity of its horror comics, DC decided in 1969 to revive the Phantom Stranger in Showcase #80. By the summer the hero was starring in his own comic. Those early tales mostly featured him materializing on street corners wherever groups of young children were gathered to tell them scary stories, occasionally starring himself. He was joined in this somewhat dubious pursuit by Dr. 13 who, like the Stranger himself, had enjoyed a brief outing in the early 1950s (when he was known as the Ghost Breaker). Dr. 13's sole purpose in life appeared to be to disprove evidence of the supernatural, and for the next few years he doggedly trailed the Stranger's every move. In a way, their relationship was something of a forerunner of the X-files, with Dr. 13 resembling the doubting Scully and the Phantom Stranger as a precursor to Mulder.


Until the fourth issue, the Phantom Stranger had defeated his enemies with his fists and wits, but that issue pitted him against an enchantress called Tala, Queen of Darkness and, rather conveniently, he suddenly became incredibly powerful—with attributes including the ability to create heat, to cause temporary blindness, and to talk to animals. Tala regularly popped up for the next couple of years, developing something of a crush on the Stranger—in between trying to destroy him, of course, as did another evil witch called Tanarok. As the strip became more popular, its star appeared in a couple of Batman strips and was also inducted into the Justice League of America. From that point on, whenever DC's writers put their characters into particularly tricky situations, they could always summon up the Phantom Stranger to get them out of trouble.


Much of the comic's success was due to its writer, Len Wein, and artist Jim Aparo. Together, they took the Stranger around the world, to other dimensions and, finally, to an all-out battle with Tala which saw her trying to summon up the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. However, when the creative team's popularity promoted them to other comics, the Stranger gradually declined as he returned to his 1950s roots as a bystander in his own stories. Some late adventures with Deadman were not enough to stave off cancellation in 1976, but further guest slots with Batman, Superman, and Deadman kept him in the public eye. A 1980s backup slot in a new Swamp Thing comic led to appearances in the main strip and finally an issue of Secret Origins, which set out to explain where he came from—a mere twenty-five years after his first series.


For a character that had lived this long without an origin story, management decided that just one tale would do less than justice, and so DC served up four potential explanations. In the first, the Phantom Stranger turned out to be the Wandering Jew who betrayed Jesus, and who had been condemned to walk the earth for eternity. In another version, he was the sole survivor of Sodom and Gomorrah, given powers by an angel, while in a third variant he was an angel himself, cast out of heaven. In the fourth take, he absorbs power from the end of the universe, and tracks back in time to the beginning—or something like that. Then again, of course, the Stranger's true origin might well be none of the above!


In the 1990s, he was reduced for the most part to being a bit player in other characters' comics, with one final, valuable role to play. In the Books of Magic miniseries, the Stranger was one of four DC heroes chosen to oversee the emergence of a new, powerful sorcerer, who would control all the magic in the world. This was the young, spikey-haired, bespectacled boy wizard, Tim Hunter, whose similarity to the somewhat better-known (and later developed) Harry Potter is striking. —DAR

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