Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Comics Blah Blah Comics: The Phantom Stranger

With Halloween coming up, I was looking for some way to tie in my Wednesday blog post on comics into the season of goblins and ghosts. My thoughts turned towards looking back over some particularly scary comics I have read but I decided I would instead focus my attention on this guy...

THE PHANTOM STRANGER



Now the cool thing about the Phantom Stranger was we never knew who he really was.*

*I am of course speaking pre-New 52. I think now we know if he wears boxers or briefs.

Here was a guy who had no name, no origin and only the most vaguely defined skill set of mystical powers. The Phantom Stranger defied all the conventions by being completely unknown and unknowable. When there's evil afoot, he appears. When it is vanquished, he disappears. 

Which can make carrying a solo title a bit tricky.  How can you have an ongoing series about a guy we know nothing about? 







And not only was the Phantom Stranger a complete unknown inside his own book, his appearances on the covers were little more than shadows and shades.

Well, somebody figured out to make it work. The Phantom Stranger lasted 42 bi-monthly issues. That's seven years on the comic book spinner rack in the woebegone 1970's, not a trick to be taken too lightly. 

In many ways, the Stranger was little more than host of the stories in his book, not unlike Cain in the House of Mystery. But unlike Cain, the Stranger would at some point interject himself into the story proper, sometimes with a cryptic warning or maybe some brief moment of actual intervention. 


As the series progressed, the Phantom Stranger began take a larger role in these adventures even as the mystery of exactly who he is and why he is remained as unsolved as it ever had.  He seemed well beyond this world.

But the Phantom Stranger was not perfect and could very well be hurt. One of the scariest stories I ever read from the Phantom Stranger was in issue #14 by writer Len Wein and artist Jim Aparo, the absolute best duo ever in the course of this series and "The Man With No Heart" was among their creepiest best. A bad guy named Broderick Rune arranges for the Phantom Stranger to be trapped. Then the Stranger's heart is taken from his body and transplanted into Rune to replace is weak and faltering heart. Then the Stranger's body is dumped into a river. Yikes!  

Naturally, Broderick Rune starts to go bonky-bonkers with the Stranger's heart in his chest and things don't get much better for the bastard when the Phantom Stranger shows up to get his heart back. Some real creepy stuff going on here. 



Oh, by the way, here's the cover to that issue. 

Not only is the Phantom Stranger just a white outline on the cover but the story that goes with Neal Adam's admittedly awesome Swamp Thing-ish cover is not even the Stranger's story in the book. "Spectre of the Stalking Swamp" was a Dr. Thirteen back up story, also written by Len Wein who would go on to create Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson

Apparently, Len has a thing for swamps.

More or less this continued to be the case with Phantom Stranger covers but once in a while he would rate an actual appearance on the cover of his own comic book. 




The Phantom Stranger#21 was not the first time the Stranger appeared on the cover as something other than a shadow or a barely glimpsed figure in the mist. But Jim Aparo's rendition of the Phantom Stranger on this cover was rather iconic. When ever an ad or some other feature needed a stock image of the Stranger, this was the go to.

And it is a very effective image for it's relative simplicity. The Stranger's arms are folded with his cape pulled up in front of him. We can see his arms, his chest and part of his face; this is a man. But he is apart from mankind: darkness swallows the rest of him, the brim of his hat and the high collar of his cape keep the details of his face hidden, particularly his eyes. Yes, we can actually see the Phantom Stranger on the cover of his own book. But do we know him any better?




Here is the cover to The Phantom Stranger#33 which holds the honor as the first back issue I ever purchased from a comic book store. Besides a really intense cover image from Jim Aparo, the interior art was by Mike Grell. Back in the mid-1970's, Grell was all the rage over at DC comics thanks to his work on Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes. So he would pop up in the darndest places like on Aquaman in Adventure Comics and Green Arrow back ups in Action Comics

And this issue of the Phantom Stranger. I was a big nut for anything Grell drew but I missed this issue when it came on the comic book rack so years later when I was thumbing through the back issues at Acme Comics, I knew I had to have it. 


I actually came late to the Phantom Stranger party. For all this history I've recited so far, my first issue I ever bought was #41. Future DC President Paul Levitz was earning his comic book writing merit badge by taking on the Stranger but if I'm to be fair, it was the Black Orchid back up that kinda got my attention first. OK, hot super heroine in a tight purple body suit + one hormonally charged of young teen age dude...well, you do the math. 

But I got caught up in the Stranger's story too and looked forward to buying #42. Which I did. Which was the last issue. 

Bummer. 






Later I would discover comic book stores and after I bought issue #33 picked up the odd back issue after that. However it was not until about sometime in the last 10 years that I truly got caught up thanks to 2 volumes in DC's Showcase series. And while I sometimes miss not having color in these Showcase collections, the artwork by Jim Aparo was even more wonderful to behold in black and white.  

The Phantom Stranger never got an ongoing series again until the New 52 when the Stranger was launched in a title written by Dan Didio so no, I didn't read it.  From what I can tell, all the mystery was gone from the Stranger's story and persona.  

No, I may be stuck in the past but I still prefer the concept of the mysterious man wrapped in darkness under the brim of his hat and the folds of his cloak, a man with no name who turns up when you least expect him and when you most need him. Walking the world forever apart from it but also drawn those in need of some help...from a Stranger.

Be good to one another. 

Dave-El

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