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Who among us has the stones to say “No” to this guy? – The Phantom Stranger #9

May 18, 2011


The Phantom Stranger is an odd character, but one that I like quite a bit. Really, how can anyone not appreciate a nigh-omnipotent (maybe?) being that displays such concern for his haberdashery?

Omniscience? Check. Omnipresence? Check. Fedora? Check.

Though he spent his earlier years as a more terrestrial character, battling occult forces and uncovering frauds, his latter days have seen him become a watchful minder of the DC Universe, mostly refraining from direct interference in events but always ready to lend guidance to the forces of good. Perhaps the best thing about him is his origin — or lack thereof. It’s been kept purposefully murky, though the general consensus seems to be that he’s some manner of cursed fallen angel, as seen in that delightful Secret Origins issue that offered four different scenarios for his beginnings, including one from Alan Moore himself. Here’s hoping that his earliest days will remain forever shrouded.

The Stranger has had little success as a solo flag-bearer. This comic came from his longest (by far) run (41 issues), and since its cancellation he’s been relegated to guest spots and the occasional mini-series. I always like to see him, though. There’s a certain feeling of danger that comes from a mysterious character that sides with good, but one whose invincible air leaves no doubt that he doesn’t give a fig what others think about it. He’s a cosmic, magical Man With No Name. He’s perfect for a Sergio Leone film.

Jim Aparo handled the art chores in this installment, and next to Batman I can think of no character better suited to his style than the Phantom Stranger. They, after all, share some features in common: solid white eyes, blue colored attire and grim taciturnity. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the Aparo Batman, and this comic gives full vent to his talents with a whole different breed of hero.

Come with me…for I am…about to look at The Phantom Stranger #9.

Scripted by Mike Sekowsky, this one is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the president of the Republic of Anonymous calls in some professional help after getting a nasty surprise in his office:

Doctor Thirteen, the gentleman in the glasses and a foil of the Phantom Stranger, is DC’s professional skeptic and debunker. Think of James Randi without the flair (and Randi usually wears a cape, now that I think of it — hmm…). Called in while conveniently vacationing nearby, Thirteen finds the scene reminiscent of another case he had dealt with and debunked. He relays its details while he and the Pres take a limo ride to the hotbed of the Obeah Man (“Obeah” is just another word for voodoo and the like, FYI). It seems that some wealthy guy was menaced by a voodoo witch-doctor, but the reality was far different:

I don’t want to cast any aspersions of the good Doctor’s credentials, but he seems the sort of person who’d go up to a guy who claims to have been abducted by aliens and say “Aliens? You weren’t abducted by aliens, you fool. You were abducted by leprechauns!” Hidden speakers? That didn’t wake the guy up? Sleep hypnosis? Really?


Since this was the ’70s, the Phantom Stranger had a youthful in-story association, a group of kids that he would (inexplicably) bail out of jams. I’m not certain of the wisdom of having this potentially awesome character reduced to little more than a hippie bodyguard, but I guess we can chalk this up to another bumbling attempt to make heroes “happening.” Whatever the reasons for their inclusion in the mythos, Thirteen spots these harbingers of his nemisis while riding with the Pres:

After Thirteen hops out, harangues the kids and hauls them back to the limo, everybody gets a bit of a shock:

So the Phantom Stranger is a master of showing up unannounced — add that to his and the Caped Crusader’s shared traits.

It turns out that the Stranger doesn’t think this Obeah Man is a fraud, but that he’s instead a much more malevolent force:

Everybody — PS, Thirteen, kids and President — heads to the center of Obeah activity, and it’s revealed that an evil sorceress and Phantom Stranger foe, Tala, is behind it all the wicked witchcraft. A brief smackdown ensues, and a Aparo’s talents run wild in a brief series of silent panels:

The Stranger seals up the evil spirit in a jar and throws it into the sea, and Tala, after briefly trying to tempt him to the side of evil, disappears. While Thirteen remains unconvinced of the reality of what everyone just witnessed, the President is appreciative:

The Phantom Stranger vanishes in a puff of smoke, and the Doc is left to shake his fist and look all mad and stuff:

I’m a bit conflicted about this one. Having come of comics-reading age in a time when the Phantom Stranger had become an intimidating, distant force, seeing him fighting some two-bit Elvira knockoff seems a bit beneath his stature. He should be barging in unannounced on Darkseid, you know?

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the art (including the Neal Adams cover, with the corpse delightfully aligned with the doll). I can remember reading the first issue of “The Many Deaths of the Batman” storyline in that character’s eponymous title and being quite taken with Aparo’s art in the (mostly) silent John Byrne-“scripted” first issue. There are many times when I wish that comics would just shut their big fat gobs, turn off the word balloons and let the pencils and inks speak for themselves, and Aparo seemed to have a knack for exploiting those rare opportunities. Granted, the fight here wasn’t long enough to really show that off, but I think what Aparo was able to do in that brief snippet is exemplary. The exaggerated poses and dynamism would make Jack Kirby proud, and definitely made opening this book up worthwhile.

One final note… I skimmed the Phantom Stranger’s Wikipedia entry before throwing together this post, and I was a bit surprised to learn that he doesn’t wear a Green Lantern-style mask, and that it’s just the shadow from that glorious hat that shades his white eyes. I’m not sure whether or not that’s correct, but if it is that would be my Johnny Carson “I did not know that” moment for the day. Hiyooooo!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 6:54 am

    Love the Phantom Stranger too. Easily one of my favorite guest stars.

    In the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing, it’s pretty explicit that he just has no irises, and that the mask effect really is just shadow.

    Another thing – I like it when people just call him a stranger, rather than have “Phantom Stranger” be his real name.

    • May 19, 2011 1:43 pm

      I had forgotten about the Swamp Thing bit. Memory refreshed. I guess it always looked like a mask to me as a kid, and that early impression is hard to get rid of. Kind of like the a song lyric that you hear wrong on the first listen and then you hear it and sing it wrong for the next twenty years until someone corrects you.

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