Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Zeroing In: Phantom Stranger

Oh, Phantom Stranger, why hast thou forsaken me?

Or, more accurately, why has DC forsaken thee?

I've written a lot of the Phantom Stranger, a character I adore.  From beginnings as part of an Odd Couple with Dr Thirteen to his pre-new52 status as the Guy Who'll Smack-talk Darkseid and the Quintessence gang, the Phantom Stranger has been remarkably...

well, I was going to say "consistent".  But in fact he is anything but.  His inconsistency is, in a way, part of what is consistent about him.  You cannot say what his powers are.  Or how or why he does what he does.  Or even what it is he does.

You don't know his name.  Or his origin.  The main things you know about him that are constant are:
  • he seems to come and go as he pleases ("Phantom") and 
  • no one, including you, knows jack about him ("Stranger").  
  • Oh, and that he's basically a good guy, who helps good guys do good things, using his superior knowledge and vaguely mystical powers. 

In the Zero issue of "Phantom Stranger", DC has abandoned all that, pretty much ruining the character completely in just one story.

Oh, he still looks the same.  And he sounds the same.  But he's a phantom of his former self, and he's become a stranger to me:
  • They gave him a definite origin.
  • That origin is tied (pretty unambiguously) to the Jesus Christ mythos.
  • He is punished by kind of characters he used to challenge with impunity.
  • He no longer follows his own mysterious agenda, but is the pawn of others.
  • He has no idea what he's doing, or why.
  • He seems apathetic about humanity.

They did everything I can think of that would ruin the character short of making him do a rap version of his own theme song.  And somehow the real Phantom Stranger would have still made that work.


Dave said...

It's just a microcosm of this whole misguided effort. DC needs to blow the whole thing up and return to a coherent continuity. I'm not saying return to the old stuff, but they need to knock this crap off.

Scipio said...

I would really like to blame DC Editor in Chief Dan Didio for this ruination of the Phantom Stranger, one of the few characters who needed absolutely no repair or revision.

But I cannot. I respect that as an editor he is giving creative free to his trusted talent.

Instead, I place 100% of the blame squarely where it belongs, with...

Dan Didio, the writer of the story.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps in the vastness of the cosmos there is a Phantom Force, that occasionally gives people Phantom Stranger powers? That would be a pretty good way to wreck it further, if Didio really wants to roll up his sleeves.

The good news is, I think the Phantom Stranger is pretty easy to repair, after Didio has finished screwing it up. The next writer just has to have the Phantom Stranger say "there are many who believe they know who I am, and they are wrong": whatever we think happened under Didio, didn't really happen. We can fix that a lot easier than, say, the new past Nocenti has provided for Green Arrow.

Anonymous said...

If he is the historical figure #0 suggests, then why does he have Northern European/Aryan physical features? I suppose he can use his mojo to look like whatever he wants, but he seems to have that look from Day 1. Also Pandora keeps here vaguely Persian/Assyrian look and garb so why not the Stranger?

DC made so much hay about introducing a Moslem GL into its universe, why not re-imagine the Stranger as Semitic? BTW are there any Jews in the New 52 DCU?

Michael said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again. This origin of the Phantom Stranger is still better then being Superman / Wonder Woman's hypertime son.

SallyP said...

Yup. I am very fond of the Phantom Stranger. Not many guys can rock the whole turtleneck and fedora look as well as he can.

And he's pretty much ruined now. I won't be getting the next issue.

Johnny Bacardi said...

The Stranger has been one of my favorite characters since 1974, when I picked up #27 of his original series on a whim.

That said, this one gave off a stink that completely warned me off, and I'm happy my instincts were right for a change.

Nathan Hall said...

I blame Alan Moore. He wrote an origin story tying the Phantom Stranger to Lucifer's descent in Secret Origins, Vol. 2, No.10. Sounds like Didio is trying to echo Alan's thunder without the actual talent and/or theological analysis.

It's kind of like how after Watchmen so many comic hacks said, "The rape barrier is broken! We need more rapes in our stories!" Which really didn't suit anyone.

Anonymous said...

Well, THREE of the stories in that "Secret Origins" were Judeo-Christian themed, and for my money the Moore story was the weakest of the three.

Mike W. Barr (I think) wrote a story where the Phantom Stranger is the Wandering Jew, who eventually realized that his unending life is less of a punishment and more of an opportunity to serve. Not bad.

And Paul Levitz wrote a story where the Phantom Stranger was the last good man in one of those towns that Jehovah smote; he chose to kill himself rather than leave his family and community to their smiting, and so his reward/punishment was to protect mankind and turn evil to good. I say this was the strongest of the stories.

There was a fourth story as well, in which the Phantom Stranger was a survivor of a previous iteration of the universe, so basically that means the Phantom Stranger is Galactus.

(Nathan, you probably knew all this, but I thought I'd go into more detail for the peanut gallery, not all of whom got "Secret Origins" #10.)

brad said...

I share the group's sentiments about nearly all of the New52, but I'm a newbie to the Phantom Stranger and had no personal reverance to ruin. I would have never purchased Phantom Stranger books going forward but I gave 0 a shot.

Sorry everyone- I liked it. The definite origin, the fact that he's a pawn and that he's trying to help but ends up "betraying" in the end. I'm going to buy this book going forward. In this one instance, the New 52 worked on me.

Jeff McGinley said...

I could point out some of the same arguments you used in the other post about giving the new Captain Marvel, I mean Shazam a chance, but my heart wouldn't be in it. It would be ok if they did what they said, started a new universe to tell good stories without the baggage of years of continutiy. However, they seem more intent on creating more craptacular baggage than good stories.

Anonymous said...

Some things should not make sense. The Phantom Stranger is one of them. We don't need a more coherent continuity, Dave; we need a more incoherent discontinuity wherein good writers and artists can flourish and the mis-stepps can be consigned to hypertime.

– Jack of Spades

Anonymous said...

I get enough religious crap living as a gay man in the bible belt. Now I'm even happier that I gave up on DC for the most part when they did the reboot. I tried a few things but all that's left is LOSH and All-Star Western. And ASW is hanging on by a thread because they keep tying into the other crap going on in the "New" Universe.

Scipio said...

"Some things should not make sense. The Phantom Stranger is one of them."

Hear, hear!

Anonymous said...

There has been and will ever be only One Phantom Stranger in the entire multiverse. The imposter depicted in the zero issue is a hoax perpetrated by Tala and Tanarak. Why the Stranger s letting them get away with this for now is unknown. For who can know the mind of the Stranger? No one can convince me otherwise. The worst part of this however is that the story fails, even taken on its own, the magic council (outside of time no less) acting on vague instuctions from something else, condems the Stranger for the sin of greed. (not betrayal or deicide.) This despite the fact that the price was not a major fortune, even in those times. Then he must walk the world alone, getting more and more detached from humanity, until given orders to get involved. Where he must betray someone else to free himself from one of the coins that represent the chains of his punishment. Even if it could be argued that this was for the good of the universe as whole, this is a forced and heavy handed way to involve the Stranger in the origin of cosmic forces, such as the Spectre. I mean really how does betraying Corbin to his death atone for the sin of greed?


Anonymous said...

Opps sorry meant to say Corrigan.


Imitorar said...

"BTW are there any Jews in the New 52 DCU?"

Batwoman and Colossal Boy are still Jewish and still active in the post-Flashpoint DCU. And that's two out of the three Jews DC ever had, as far as I know (post-Crisis Ragman being the third).

As to the Phantom Stranger, I don't mind his being connected to Biblical mythology. As was pointed out above, that had been his origin since the Crisis, one way or another.

But at least post-Crisis DC had the perspicacity to make his true origin unclear even within its hazy definition of taking place in late Second Temple Judea. And regardless of the origin, the character of the Phantom Stranger was intact. Now he's practically the opposite of his older (and much cooler) self.

r duncan said...

Just read PS#0. All I an say is yuck. Did they have to ruin Spectre too?

American Hawkman said...

I've been pretty forgiving of Didio over the years. This, on the other hand, was just the worst possible idea, even worse than the godawful Vertigo Visions one-shot from the 90s that tried to solidify the Alan Moore origin. We should NEVER know what the Phantom Stranger's origin is. Ever. He should be an enigma to everyone, like the Stranger at Marvel. And you can keep on saying that the Stranger was given the origin of being Superman and Wonder Woman's Hypertime son all you'd like, but that was never true. Wonder Woman said so herself, saying that the kid didn't even look like the Stranger when she saw his face. He was just pretending, to throw off the Quintessence and the story said so. That's like complaining because the ghost of Billy Batson's dad was drawn to look like the Stranger in Power of Shazam. If the text denies it, it isn't the case.

The entire Trinity of Sin bit has done crippling damage to some of my favorite DC characters, and I'm genuinely annoyed. The only one to get more screwed by this than the Stranger is the poor Question, who, near as I can tell, is supposed to be the devil.

Nathan Hall said...

Vibe made #11 on Complex.com's 50 Comic Book Characters Who Should Never Get a Movie:


The Phantom Stranger is oddly absent from this list - which I attribute to the author's poor research and use of criteria.

Anonymous said...

I could totally see a Phantom Stranger movie... but it'd ultimately just be a typical horror film with a mysterious protagonist saving the poor idiots who run afoul of something they shouldn't at the end.

Anonymous said...

I vote for a "Phantom Stranger" weekly series. It would work a lot like some earlier episodes of "Due South", where the stranger in the hat encourages the Civilian of the Week to face their moral dilemma, and the resolution to the plot is 50% the stranger and 50% the Civilian of the Week.

I was watching "Louie" the other night and I couldn't help but notice that Louis CK would be the worst possible choice to play the Phantom Stranger.

Hoosier X said...

Off-topic comment here. Sorry.

I was hoping we would see a "Zeroing In" post on All-Star Western #0 - featuring the new origin of Jonah Hex - just so I could ask if anyone else sees any similarities to the Golden Age origin of the villain Zomax to the origin of Jonah Hex.

(The full Zomax story, from Jungle Comics #14, is here.)

Burnsteel said...

Philip..? PHILIP!?!?!!???


Harvey Jerkwater said...

"They gave him a definite origin," etc.

The proper reaction.

Tony said...

Sweet Christmas, that's sad.

Tony said...

Are they at least making him a character again, rather than a plot device?

Perra Dox Esq. said...

My favourite Phantom Stranger moment? Him -almost- attending John Constantine's 40th birthday party.
Also The song Friday Night, Saturday Morning by the Specials comes to mind. :)

r duncan said...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012???

Scipio, Scipio, why hast thou forsaken us?

Jacob T. Levy said...

One suspects that Didio read Matt Wagner's Madame Xanadu story, what, two years ago?-- in which the Stranger contributes to the creation of the Spectre.

Do you think that he thinks he's *improved* on that story?