Thursday, 15 January 2009

Who Is The Phantom Stranger?

DC has over the years had a lot of odd characters, from Deadman (he was... dead) to Detective Chimp (a detective who was a chimp, oddly enough). But by far my favourite was The Phantom Stranger. The Phantom Stranger was what it said on the box - a stranger who was a phantom. No-one, not even the writers knew exactly who he was, and perhaps that was for the best, for nothing spoils a mystery character when you know his secret.

The Phantom Stranger often popped up out of nowhere to give cryptic advice and help, as well as often descending into Hell itself to deal with the demons within. He was a regular in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run and also popped up in Animal Man. He always introduced himself as "simply a Stranger" in a voice that always seemed to me very Tom Bakerish. If you could get that effect on the written page.

What were his powers? Well, he had a big hat and white eyes, and sometimes could shoot electricity and um, vanish. He wasn't a real person, and he wasn't a ghost... and that was the beauty.

He had his own comic run for a while in the seventies, and then was relegated to bit character status, and perhaps he worked better as someone who mysteriously appeared and vanished cryptically than being the focal point of a series.
But... who was he? DC published a series called 'Secret Origins' which detailed, astonishingly enough, the secret origins of various characters. But the Phantom Stranger issue (issue 10) was special in this regard - rather than give him a set origin, it contained four different versions of his beginnings, each by different writers and artists. A suitably fitting mythic issue for a mythic character

1 - "Tarry Till I Come Again" by Mike W. Barr
In what is perhaps the best story of the collection (odd because a later one features an Alan Moore tale), "Tarry Till I Come Again" opens at Christmas time, with a priest who is disillusioned with the world and with his own role in it. Then the Stranger appears at his church, asking him to hear his confession, and the tale begins

He tells of how he was once a man called Isaac living in the town of Bethelem at the time of the birth of Christ. But Herod's soldiers came to kill all newborn children, and they killed his child AND his wife.

Years later he saw Jesus preaching, and recognised him as the man whose existance had caused the death of his wife and child. When Jesus was arrested and tortured, he bribed a guard to take his place in the torturing, and had his revenge. But Jesus curses him. "I go to my rest... but you shall wander without rest... you shall tarry in this world, till I come again"

From that day onward Isaac could not rest, he was forced to wander eternally, beciming a Stranger. Now, of course at this point the priest gets a bit angry at this man who comes into his church and claims that he is the infamous Wandering Jew. But there is more to this tale

The Stranger in his wanderings came across a girl who was being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition. He saved her from the men but she died from her injuries, but did not blame the actions of her murderers on the God they claimed to serve, showing the Stranger the error of his ways. From that moment on he entered the service of God, defeating evil-doers at every point.

Then, in the church, a candle suddenly blazes into the words of God, who offers to free the Stranger from his burden of eternal life. The Stranger asks to stay on Earth longer to combat evil. He then sends the priest to sleep and tells him to forget, just to wake knowing that his efforts are not in vain

Its a nice story, very nice in fact. And it has the completely random ending with God appearing in a candle! The opposite in fact, to the next tale...

2 - ...And Men Shall Call Him Stranger by Paul Levitz & Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
We open the story in an Ancient City (looks like Atlantis to me) and are told of how the city had fallen to evil and corruption save for one man (who remains unnamed but is obviously to be the Stranger)

The people grew so sinful that they incurred the wrath of Heaven, and the city was rent by thunder and floods. Everyone dies, but an angel appears to save the man. He begs the angel to save everyone, or he must die alongside his kin. The angel refuses his request and so the man kills himself.
His spirit rises, and the angel pronounces his doom. "You have rejected the gift of life and even the mercy of the creator of us all. For that you should properly be damned for eternity"

He is cursed with eternal life, forever wandering the Earth to save the souls of people, but never able to remember his own name.

And... that's it. It is just like the first story, but not as good or compelling.

3 - Revelations by Dan Mishkin
It is the future. A group of scientists are struggling to use a time machine to gaze back in time to the creation of the universe, and steal energy with which to power and save their society. The viewscreen begins to show the matter of stars forming, and changing into what looks like... a giant hand. But before they can sharpen the image, they are stopped... by the Stranger.

He warns them that others have tried to witness the beginning of all creation, and in doing so destroyed their worlds (a reference to the massive epic Crisis On Infinite Earths). However one of the scientists, Dr Alt shoots the Stranger from behind and captures him. Alt is revealed to be the evil Avatar Of Anti-Life, who plans to take energy from the creation of the Universe, which will disrupt that very creation, destroying everything that has ever existed

Another scientist overhears this and tries to rescue the Stranger. The Stranger touches the scientist, giving him some of his power to stop the evil plan, and dies in the process. The scientist puts on a space suit and leaps into the time viewer, blocking and intercepting the energies which would have destroyed the Universe... and turning HIM into the Phantom Stranger! Ooooh!

It is a story which is okay, but doesn't exactly work that well. Still, it is more interesting than the second story, and interestingly, the only tale in this collection which doesn't have religious overtones.

4 - Footsteps by Alan Moore
In Alan Moore's Swamp Thing he often hinted that the Stranger was a fallen angel of some kind, and in this tale we get a look at Moore's version of his origin, intermingled with a homeless man deciding whether he belongs with the Subway Angels or the Sewer Survivalists (read angels or demons)
Whilst the Stranger watches this young man's dilemma he remembers his own such situation, and we get a flashback to the Stranger as an angel being visited by the angel Etrigan (nowadays known as Etrigan the Demon) who petitions him to join his lord, the angel Satan in rebelling against God, who is planning to 'make the clay people stand up and talk' (ie creating Man)

Satan is actually rendered quite effective here, being some gigantic goat-like angel, owing more to ancient wood cuts than to traditional devilish depictions. The war in heaven breaks out and the Stranger is unable to decide on sides, instead sitting on the fence as Etrigan and the others Fall into hell.

The Stranger is banished from heaven, and yet when he arrives in hell has his wings torn off for not joining them when asked. He is forever doomed to walk the Earth, a Stranger to all

It is an effective story, but feels quite rushed in the ten pages Moore is allowed. Contrasting the Stranger's story with the story of homeless men is a good idea in concept but doesn't really work and feels a bit cramped.

So who is the Phantom Stranger? Well... we don't know. But then again, neither does DC!

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