In the very beginning
It’s four years since DC Comics rebooted their Universe all over again, producing the incarnation known as The New 52, and I made the conscious decision not to continue reading DC Comics any more.
With the exception of one near-incomprehensible Green Lantern graphic novel borrowed from the library, I’ve maintained that stance, though it’s less of a stance than a simple lack of interest in what they’ve been doing with the characters of my lifelong adolescence. And what I’ve read from time to time has reinforced my belief that I made the right decision.
Well, the New 52 is now on the point of becoming the past again, DC having taken the decision to uproot itself from New York to California, and covered the intervening two month removal process with a series named Convergence, a salute to those Universes of yore, which has unexpectedly morphed into the foundation stone for the even newer DCYou.
Meanwhile, I, with my customary off-centre timing, have just paid a first visit to the library in nearly six months and, in addition to the book I was searching for, came away with a New 52 Graphic Novel, featuring one of my favourite characters, The Phantom Stranger.
The Stranger was originally created in 1952 for his own, short-lived comic, written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino. In his initial run, the Stranger was a seemingly non-powered human being with an incredible knack of turning up, out of nowhere, when some ordinary person was being threatened by some demonic-like power. The Stranger, who dressed in trenchcoat and Fedora, over a dark suit and a white shirt/black tie, was basically a supernatural debunker, who could vanish as abruptly and completely as he arrived the moment everything was copacetic again.
And he vanished just as abruptly and completely after six issues, never to be remembered. Until he was unexpectedly revived for issue 80 of Showcase, in 1968.
The issue has the smell of filler all over it, since it was three-quarters reprint. A framing story consisting of a few random pages brings together The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker, who spar verbally whilst recounting past exploits, two for the Stranger, one for Terry Thirteen, before an absurdly rushed and perfunctory ending.
Dr Thirteen had never previously encountered the Phantom Stranger, though they appear to know each other, and the latter greets Thirteen, and his wife Marie, like old friends. Dr Thirteen was another demon debunker from the early Fifties, his series appearing in Star-Spangled Comics. You’d think he’d be on the same side as the Stranger, but instead the Stranger has been revived as a quasi-supernatural character, blessed with undefined powers, a battler against demons etc., and as far as Terry Thirteen is concerned, he’s as big a danger as these phoney, mumbo-jumbo events that the Stranger has undoubtedly set up to prey on the credulous and stupid, and Dr Thirteen is going to expose him as a charlatan.
Almost immediately, and far too soon for the decision to be based upon sales figures for Showcase 80, the Stranger was granted his own bi-monthly title, in which the formula was repeated for the first three issues. After all, it was an incredibly cheap comic to produce when it was predominantly reprint.
However, with issue 4, it was taken over by Neal Adams. The art and story were all-new, an arch-enemy in the form of Tala, Queen of Evil, was introduced, and the Stranger was redesigned, with a cape, a white turtleneck (i.e., polo neck) sweater and a mystic gold amulet, plus eyes shadowed by the brim of his fedora that merely glowed a pupil-less white. Dr Thirteen was still ranting and raving however, even though his position was undercut a dozen times an issue.
And Adams introduced four teenagers who would, for the next half dozen issues, turn up all over the place, spouting what was fondly believed to be contemporary hip-speak, and always, always, bumping into one or other of the Stranger and Terry Thirteen, the other of which would be along almost immediately. For all that they were supposed to be such diametric opposites, it was clear that My People and Your People were keeping their diaries strictly co-ordinated.
Classic Jim Aparo (with teenagers)
The series floundered on, passing from hand to hand. Adams did two issues, Mike Sekowsky two more, the great Jim Aparo took over the art, Gerry Conway tried a couple of scripts, introducing a seemingly immortal bad guy in Tannarak, and the whole thing was just lousy with potential that was begging to be realised until issue 12, when Len Wein inherited the job of scripter. That was when things fell into place.
Wein kicked out the crap. Gone were the four teens, gone the idea of dropping mini-stories in, Dr Thirteen was shunted into the back of the book in hos own series and Wein, who was also writing Swamp Thing at the same time, set off on a run of classic stories, which defined the Stranger as part-host, part-narrator, part a spiritual warning to those in danger of going down the wrong path, and ultimately an intervening force for good. Without a name, without an origin, without any definition of powers, but with Aparo drawing the hell out of anything Wein put in front of him.
Including, amusedly, a villain by the name of Cerebus, who appeared in the same issue as a fan letter from a 17 tear old Canadian fan by the name of Dave Sim…
It couldn’t last. Wein slowly built up a loose continuity featuring an organisation of evil mystics called The Dark Circle, headed by Tala. The Stranger, aided by blind seer Cassandra Craft and a converted-for-a-while Tannarak, confronts the Dark Circle and brings it down, Tala and Tannarak disappearing into the bowels of the Earth beneath the statue Christos Redentor, and Cassandra left to believe the Stranger dead, so that she will no longer be at risk from the perils he faces.
Two issues later, Wein and Aparo left simultaneously, snatched away to write and draw the more prestigious, and better selling Batman.
The Wein/Aparo run was in midstream when I first discovered The Phantom Stranger in 1974. It’s flawed, and there’s some crazy purple writing in there, but it’s crazy as hell, wild and passionate, and I fell for the character on the spot. Seeing the Stranger taken over by the utterly incompatible team of Arnold Drake and Gerry Taloac, with a truly awful Spawn of Frankenstein back-up drawn by Bernard Bailey, co-creator of the Spectre and looking decades out of date, was an horrendous shock.
The series floundered to an end with issue 41, flopping from hand to hand just as it had at the beginning, with a couple of really good issues and a lot of incredibly crap ones but I persevered until the last.
And of course the Phantom Stranger has turned up all over the place since, a floating character available for any kind of supernatural-oriented series, not to mention occasional solo slots, a mini-series and, most memorably, in his own issue of Secret Origins which, in keeping with the mysterious nature of the character, presented four separate, mutually contradictory versions of his origin – three supernatural, one horribly off-note scientific – the best being Alan Moore’s gloriously imaginative depiction of the Stranger as an Angel who, having failed to make up his mind between God and Lucifer when the latter rebelled, is condemned to walk the Earth ever after, his wings torn off, rejected by Heaven and Hell, forever a stranger.
To be honest, I’ve read very few interpretations of the Phantom Stranger in the last twenty years or so. He’s been presented as an Agent of Order (as opposed to Chaos) which doesn’t work for me. He was shown, in one special, as an aged man who was an angel who’d fallen in love with a demon who ran an old folk’s (demon’s?) home but that especially didn’t take.
For me, the Stranger is fixed as he was in those dozen or so Wein/Aparo stories, leavened by Moore’s too good origin, and as long as he’s been seen consistently with that, as has mostly been the case, I’ve been content.
That was before I read the Phantom Stranger in The New 52.
Formally, this GN is Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger volume 3 The Crack in Creation. It reprints issues 11 – 22 of the Stranger’s solo series, plus the crossover issue Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger: Future’s End 1. That means that I was coming in after the parameters of the series had been set, and half of it published, so I was having to pick things up as I went along, but hell’s bells, I’ve been doing that with comics all my life, I’m used to it.
But this was, quite frankly, unreadable. Literally unreadable. I put it down after about forty pages, flicked to the back to see if the ending made sense, and gave up. However, when I realised that I was going to write about it, I had to go back and read it properly.
Cassandra Craft. As was.
Firstly, it appears that the Phantom Stranger now has an origin and a name: two names in fact. Given that he’s a mysterious figure who’s not merely gotten on but positively thrives for sixty years without either, this ought to have been an absolute No-no, but whenever you get a radical reboot that updates characters for the modern era, you get some fucking stupid ideas that destroy the principal reality of well-crafted creations, and as this one came from Publisher Dan DiDio, I suppose it was inevitable.
Even worse, one of those names was a human secret identity, Philip Stark, with a beloved wife and two beloved children. Except that it wasn’t actually the Stranger’s name, he just took it, plus the beloved wife and children, from the real Philip Stark, who was a horror story writer, serial torturer and killer and the Stranger’s vehement enemy, Sin-Eater.
But it’s the first name that you’re going to love, because it’s Judas. Of Scarioth. Yes, that one, betrayer of his friend and master, the Lamb, in return for thirty pieces of silver. Except that, after he hung himself, he was taken before the Council of Eternity and sentenced to walk forever as a stranger, wearing an amulet consisting of those thirty pieces of silver, bringing to him constant pain, grief and sorrow. Every now and then, if the Stranger does the right thing, one piece will drop off and, when all thirty are gone…
Meanwhile, Sin-Eater has killed Philip Stark’s beloved wife and children. The Stranger has pursued their souls across both Heaven and Hell but been thrown out of the Afterlife for good by The Presence (who manifests to him as a small brown Scottie Dog). A very different Dr Thirteen, who has lost his scepticism (lost his scepticism? You might as well give Barry Allen a bow and arrow and no speed and still call him The Flash), has killed the Stranger by stabbing him through the heart with the Spear of Destiny. The Sin-Eater has killed a sixteen year old boy called Christopher Esperanza but the Stranger has brought him back from the dead: his family don’t remember this but they know and it’s driving him batty. The Stranger’s tried to rescue Dr Light’s soul (the original one, not the Japanese lady scientist, who’s apparently now a formerly-happy-married-man instead of a raving rapist) but been oblivionated for it by Zauriel the Angel. Have I missed anything out? How can I tell
Dear reader, if you think that this is about the greatest amount of hooey you’ve ever heard of, spare a thought for me, who’s been dealing happily with stuff of this nature for a half century and finds all this a colossal amount of hooey as well.
So the story in this book begins with the Stranger reappearing out of oblivion, courtesy of Zauriel, for no explained reason. The first and biggest mistake, bigger even than everything I’ve already detailed, is that the Stranger’s mind is open to us. We read his thoughts, hear him confess his feelings. We have never done that before: of course not, he was a mysterious figure you noddies! Could it possibly diminish the character any to now be privy to all his hates, fears, selfishness, anger, cowardice, self-pity, dear heaven the self-pity, whiny teenagers have nothing on this guy when he gets started, and his refusal to do what he’s told by God, who is genuinely trying to help him? What do you think?
Zauriel will prove to have been the Stranger’s Guardian Angel since the days he was Judas Iscariot, but to have fallen in love with him to the extent of defying the Will of God for him. This may or may not be the cause of Zauriel suddenly catching a fever and dying, or maybe that’s something that happened in another title which isn’t collected here. You know, like Chris Esperanza a) being taken over by the evil Blight and b) turning into the Angel of Redemption as a direct consequence.
Zauriel certainly isn’t the Zauriel we used to know, especially after he gets resurrected as her. But then Cassandra Craft isn’t the woman we used to know. Nor is John Constantine (bloody hell, J. M de Matteis simply can’t write believable Cockney slang).
Oh, and there’s the other two members of the Trinity of Sin, one being Pandora (that one, yes) and the other being The Question, who seriously is not any kind of Question we’ve ever seen. No longer is he a Steve Ditko paranoid Objectivist hero, nor even a lesbian detective who was so essential to the recent first series of Gotham that she didn’t even appear in the last ten episodes despite being Cast.
No, The Question is evil for reasons nobody, least of all himself, knows, because they’ve been erased (the Stranger gets given an origin when it’s the last thing he needs, the Question, who had a perfectly good one, gets it stripped away and left with nothing). And his superpower is now the ability to ask really cutting questions that undermine everybody’s self-confidence.
As I have had occasion to observe in relation to the various 2000AD incarnations of Dan Dare, this might not be so bad if it were being run with new characters, lacking any kind of history or definition. Actually, this would be just as bad, but seeing this idiot gibberish imposed upon clear-cut, well-drawn existing characters, who are being subject to these outlandish distortions solely for the purpose of having them look and act differently, the overall effect is a hundred times worse.
This is NOT The Phantom Stranger. It is not even a convincing, or even viable simulacrum. This is the state of comics these days, and it is incomprehensible. Purely on a technical basis, given how this meandering and directionless excuse for a story-line twice leads to portentous cliffhangers only for the resolutions to be excluded from this compilation.
Having forced myself to read the Graphic Novel, I find I have no taste nor stamina for detailed, forensic criticism. I simply want to return the book and avoid any other post 2011 DC Comics for the remainder of my given years. Let those who think this valid, worthwhile or even, unbelievably, entertaining have the enjoyment of it: I still have the good comics.
In the end, I can only reflect upon the underlying irony: The Phantom Stranger has indeed become… a Stranger.