A Stranger No More!
Coming back after a little break for Thanksgiving, this week we’re finally tackling the last of blugeek’s suggestions! And it only took nine months!
So when I got this big harvest of character suggestions way back when there was a little (as in, barely two or three comment long) spat about how knowing the Phantom Stranger’s backstory would defeat the purpose of the character, with the ultimate conclusion resting on the fact that it was fine, because the New 52 gave the character an actual origin and explained a whole bunch about him. Now, while I think the user who pointed out that knowing the character’s origin ruins the mystery did so in a kind of shitty way, they were right, to an extent. There are some things better left implied when it comes to fiction, especially when it comes to ancient mystical beings. It was H.P. Lovecraft who first suggested that nothing is the most terrifying thing of all, but that’s not all nothing is. It’s also the most mysterious thing of all, and that’s why it can be such a powerful tool in writing. For example, let’s take one of the most beloved jokes of all time from one of the most beloved comics of all time: Calvin and Hobbes. Now, almost anyone who’s ever read the strip will be able to tell you about the Great Noodle Incident, an event which is constantly referred to, but never actually explained. At first, that might seem a little bit lazy, but it’s actually genius. Think about it for a second. The GNI is always referred to in such a light that it implies that it was the single worst thing to have ever been perpetuated by a child, let alone Calvin. So what the fuck could that actually even be? The answer: Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? There’s no concrete answer that could ever live up to the absurdity that is conjured up in you mind by a child panicking at the mention of the Great Noodle Incident. How could there be? The name alone defies explanation. Sure, you can dole out little hints here and there as to what actually happened, but that only serves to heighten the inherent hilarity of the premise. The same principle holds true with oh-so-familiar trope of the mysterious backstory: almost nothing the author or the reader can come up with will ever produce a stronger allure of mystery and curiosity than simply never explaining it. For example, remember how cool Wolverine was before you found out that he was secretly evolved from prehistoric wolf people, or that almost every horrible thing in his life had been orchestrated by some dick named Romulus over the course of a hundred years? Now, Wolverine is boring and safe. We know all there is to know about him unless someone can cram some new, even more batshit thing in his backstory, and this is part of the reason the character was killed off. Sure, he still sold books, and he was still good ol Wolvie, but he just didn’t have the same allure. He had gone stale. In short, he thrived on the amorphous mystery that made up his past, and when it was gone, the story well just sort of dried up, making him so much less interesting.
Anyways, time for me to ruin Phantom Stranger for you guys.
Truly, Across All Realities, the Fedora is Universal
You know, he might actually wear a trilby. Still not super sure what the difference is between the two.
SCENARIO: I mean, I pretty much already lined out what I’m gonna talk about up there, didn’t I? Kinda makes this part redundant. Just pretend that I made some comparison between Phantom Stranger and Uatu the Watcher here and we’ll move on.
Step One: Come the Stranger
So, who is the Phantom Stranger? In truth, no one knows, save the Stranger himself, however, prior to the New 52 reboot, there were several possible answers to this question, all which revolve around some interpretation of Judeo-Christian folklore and religion. The first theory on his origin posits that the Stranger was an angel who never chose a side during Satan’s great rebellion, and as punishment, was condemned to fall to Earth, where he would spend eternity. A second possible explanation states that the Stranger was simply a mortal, spared by an angel from God’s wrath during the Great Deluge. After questioning why he was one of the few beings spared, he commits suicide, drawing the ire of God and his angels, who deny the Stranger entrance into the afterlife and force his body to earth forevermore, a human apart from humanity, divinely charged to turn humanity away from evil. Still another potential theory claims that the Stranger was once a man named Isaac, who had a family during the time of Jesus. When King Harold sent his armies to kill all the young boys within his domain, Isaac’s wife and son were killed, and he spent the next thirty years of his life blaming Jesus for his suffering. When Jesus was finally caught and brutalized by the Romans, Isaac bribed a guard to allow him to participate in the whipping of Jesus, resulting in the Son of God sentencing him to wander until Doomsday (the actual apocalypse, not the Superman villain). Eventually, Isaac’s rage subsided, and he turned to aiding humanity, becoming so enamored with his work that he even declined an offer from God Himself to be released from his sentence. Finally, and as far as I can find, the only possible explanation that doesn’t involve religion, one story proposed that the Phantom Stranger was a remnant from a previous iteration of the universe, who continues his legacy from universe to universe by transferring a part of himself to whoever survives the end of one universe, allowing them to be the first being in the next.
In terms of actual real world, comic book origin, the Phantom Stranger began his life disproving mystical occurrences as hoaxes, kind of like a more dapper version of Scooby Doo. Perhaps realizing that this wasn’t the most exciting premise in the world, and following the semi-logical evolution of characters after the end of the era of Pulp, the Phantom Stranger was given vague and unspecified mystical abilities, which he used to combat actual supernatural occurrences. This take on the character stuck, and lo and behold, we were given the Phantom Stranger that we (don’t) know today… more or less.
Step Two: Phantom Stranger, How Does He Work?
Okay, so before I get any further into the history and backstory of the guy, I’m going to go ahead and actually explain what he does, because oh lord is there a lot of it.
Obviously the Stranger is immortal, because that’s a big part of his whole deal, but what else does he do? Well, the Phantom Stranger exists as a sort of indirect hero, a being with nigh infinite power forced to spend most of his time helping others solve problems rather than simply solve them himself. He is able to travel across all conceivable dimensions at will, is able to manipulate mystical energy with great potency and skill, and is able to see through any form of cloaking or obfuscation, magical or otherwise. Additionally, he may dispel magic as he sees fit, as well as make matter his plaything. He may send prophetic dreams or visions of warning, however, this is only with the permission of Dream of the Endless. In short, he is close to omnipotence, however, he is not without limitations. For instance, he is almost always limited to indirect interaction, being forced to forewarn other heroes in order to set any sort of action into motion. In addition, despite all of his mystical power and immortality, he may still be wounded or otherwise incapacitated should he be distracted or otherwise overwhelmed. Yet even with these weaknesses, he’s pretty much a god.
Also, as cool as his name is, he really, really needs to use some of that vast cosmic power to get some kind of abbreviation for it.
Step Three: Stranger Times
The Stranger’s involvement in DC canon, while not always very well known, is always prominent. Much like how Uatu the Watcher used to turn up in Marvel stories to let the reader know that shit was about to get as real as it could possibly get, Phantom Stranger typically appears at moments of great import for the DCU, guiding its heroes towards a brighter tomorrow. However, the way in which he differs most notably from the Watcher is the degree to which he interacts with characters, becoming such a major player in events that he would eventually be inducted into an incarnation of the JLA. In fact, the Stranger has had a great deal of interactions and friendships with all manner of DC fan favorites from all levels of popularity, from his guiding Tim Hunter through the history of magic to his friendship with Hal Jordan, a relationship which budded at a time when Hal was the Spectre (another biblical-themed character I’ll have to write about someday. Most notably, this relationship resulted in the Phantom Stranger spending some time as Hal’s niece’s babysitter, a job which he possibly may have been the only person to have ever been qualified for, given how much superpowered and supernatural shit showed up to threaten that little girl as a result of Hal’s adventures.
Yeesh. Looks like someone already Jokerized the poor girl, huh?
The Stranger would come to clash with various incarnations of the Spectre throughout his tenure, to the point where scenes of the characters bickering over the fate of mortal souls is so iconic it’s showed up in almost every worthwhile facet of DC media, from the Injustice comic series to Batman: The Brave and the Bold (which you should all god damn watch already). Perhaps it’s due to the nature of the two characters, with the Stranger representing the will of a kinder and more loving God, as seen in the New Testament, and with the Spectre, a manifestation of God’s wrath, representing the angrier, more vengeful deity seen in the Old Testament. Or maybe it’s just because seeing ancient mystical beings hang out and argue in the aether is really cool to look at, idunno man. If you’re wondering why they usually just argue as opposed to actually fighting, like most heroes who don’t agree with each other do, it’s because the Spectre couldn’t even kill the Stranger if he tried, with the closest he’s ever come resulting in the Stranger being transmogrified into a mouse who had to hang out in Detective Chimp’s deerstalker cap for a couple hours. Incidentally, yes, Detective Chimp is a real thing, and no, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it was something I pulled out of my ass.
More recently, authors have chosen to show the Stranger as being slightly less powerful than the Spectre, which, if you choose to share my point of view on the nature of the two characters, could be a rather interesting social commentary on how DC and comic book entertainment in general moved away from more positive and hopeful stories for a good while, but was more likely the result of flanderization on the part of authors who knew more about the Spectre than the Stranger. Plus, Rebirth having been around for a while now pretty much nullifies that statement now, so hopefully whenever the Stranger shows up in something new he’s back to his old self. On a side note, holy shit, how rad would it be if the Stranger wound up being one of the people who remembered the previous universe? Because he totally should, being a near-god.
The Stranger actually doesn’t get along too well with most of the mystical heroes in the DCU, considering he often invades their private lives and throws everything into disarray whenever he gathers a group to fight off some sort of horrible cataclysmic event, however, he actually gets along really well with Zatanna, so that’s pretty cool. On the flip side, Madame Xanadu has a notable distrust for the Stranger, actively refusing to follow him on several occasions.
This is a pretty good representation of how the Phantom Stranger spent most of his time before the New 52: he’d pop up in somebody’s house or at one of their dates like that one friend of yours from high school who keeps trying to bum a loan off of you for a shitty business idea, he’d abduct you and take you to some bullshit pocket dimension, and would then proceed to hang out and yell suggestions at you while you got your shit rocked by some eldritch force from beyond time, and then maybe eventually he would get off his ass and realign reality in your favor, and you know what? It was fucking awesome. I loved that cosmic deadbeat. He was like a sort of romanticized train hobo, rolling through from town to town, solving mysteries and- you know what? He was kind of like the Doctor (you probably know what that’s from already), except magic instead of a magic (kind of?) alien.
Nowadays, well… it could be worse, I guess. He could be Hawk and/or Dove.
Step Four: The New 52 Didn’t Ruin EVERYTHING, Just Most Things
You know, I shit on the New 52 a lot in these articles. I really, really don’t want to, because despite all that it got wrong, there were plenty of diamonds in the rough, and it made DC comics pretty easy for a lot of people to get into during a time when continuity had hit an all time high of complication and stagnation. And yet, writing about so many lesser known characters, I always get to talk about how anyone not named “Batman”, “Green Lantern” or “Wonder Woman” immediately got shafted. And when I was reading up on the New 52 material for this guy, I got kind of hopeful that I wouldn’t have to do that, because man, they got so close to something cool. But, as with most of the line-wide reboot, it missed the point spectacularly hard in favor of pushing whatever editorial thought the next big thing would be. The Phantom Stranger was particularly unlucky, because despite getting a solo ongoing for what I’m almost positive was the first time in decades, he wound up getting tied up with two of the New 52’s biggest failures: Justice League Dark (which was hardly the worst thing in the world, but still had plenty of problems) and Pandora (a character you may remember as “wait, fuckin’ who?”).
You see, in the new continuity, the Phantom Stranger is a member of the Trinity of Sin, which is significantly less metal than it sounds. Oh, also we know literally every detail about his past, because not only is it spelled out to us in his book, but it’s also in the Bible. In the New 52, the Trinity of Sin is made up of three beings who committed some of the greatest atrocities in the early history of man and were cursed to wander the earth for eternity as a result, with each act of redemption they perform moving them closer to the afterlife. Now, this actually isn’t the worst idea for a story in the world, in fact, it almost sounds like something Neil Gaiman would come up with, possibly in some sort of B-Side story to pair with a re-release of American Gods. But it doesn’t really work with Pandora, as she wound up being one of the most forgettable new characters of all time, and it works even less with the two established characters they chose to revamp as mystical beings. One of them was the Question (which is FUCKING HORSESHIT), and the other was the Stranger, who was revealed to be Judas Iscariot.
Yes, that Judas. The one who betrayed Jesus. That guy. He still has the thirty pieces of silver and everything.
Granted, it isn’t the worst possible person they could have picked to turn into a magic hero trying to redeem himself (imagine the shitstorm if he had turned out to be Hitler or something), but still, holy shit, DC thought a book about the actual guy who indirectly killed Jesus was a good idea? And no less, making a fairly beloved character who had always been more about his actions rather than his past into that person? Again, it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard, and it raises some rather interesting questions and ideas about whether that kind of person can ever be redeemed (I mean, the guy got the messiah killed), but here, it just sort of sticks out as a bizarre and off-putting. Instead of inspiring philosophical discourse and provoking thought on the nature of morality, the book just comes off as a big steaming pile of 90s era edge. And not even in the fun way.
Plus it ruined the Question.
Idunno. In the hands of a better writer, maybe all of this could have been something really cool, something to put up on the Holy Altar of Great Comics, right in between Sandman and Lucifer. Instead, it was a cavalcade of magic horseshit and fan favorite characters being turned into cold, boring misinterpretations of themselves. But hey, I stand by my earlier statement, some of the art was really, really good.
Honestly, I’m pretty shocked that Phantom Stranger hasn’t been a big player yet in Rebirth. He seems like the perfect candidate to receive a shot of optimism and revitalization, and his own lore could fit beautifully into Wally West’s story about retaining his memories from before the reboot. Ah well. It’s a two year storyline, hopefully they get to him eventually.
That’s about it this time around folks. Remember to get your suggestions ready, I’m gonna need more soon! See you all next week!