May 22, 2016

Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger Vol. 1

Read this book, for it is...THE PHANTOM STRANGER!

The Phantom Stranger Vol. 1 covers the character's series from 1969-1972. Early writing duties fall mainly to Mike Friedrich, and later to Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Robert Kanigher. The character takes a while to find his feet, but once he does, the book is really good.

Once he is established, the Phantom Stranger is a supernatural being who shows up to stop evil supernatural stuff. His speech reminds me of Storm from the 90s X-Men cartoon (which is a hilariously good thing), and at times he seems to have limitless power. However, a good punch to the face takes him out more than once. This usually happens while he's monologuing to the bad guy about how they can never defeat the power of righteousness.

The earlier stories are not as interesting, as the character is simply a guy who shows up and disproves supernatural phenomenon. These stories get old fast, because there's not actually any spooky stuff going on, and the Stranger himself appears to just be a random guy who shows up and talks a lot without actually doing anything.

Later on, real stuff starts happening, and the Stranger becomes way more engaging with cool powers and abilities. There is some sense of continuity, as he runs into the same two antagonists more than a few times. Tala is a female "Queen of Evil," and manipulates mortals into performing evil deeds. Tannarak is a sorcerer who needs to steal mortal life in order to extend his own. Outside of those two, there's so much crazy supernatural stuff that the Stranger has to extinguish or send back to the abyss. It made for very good reading.

The Stranger usually comes out on top, leaving a strong moral message for those who remain after the battle, though the evil escapes most of the time.

Dr. Thirteen is a huge part of this book. He is another opponent of evil, although his ultimate goal is to disprove all instances of supernatural activity. At first, he and the Stranger are in all the stories together. This quickly becomes formulaic and overused. It's even more baffling early on when he and the Stranger are essentially the same character, since the Stranger seemingly has no powers. Thankfully, they go their separate ways eventually and have individual adventures. Of course, nearly everything Dr. Thirteen runs into turns out to be fake, and everything the Stranger encounters is real, thereby reinforcing each of their convictions.

Early artwork is a mixture of Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, and Neal Adams. Later on, it's Jim Aparo and Tony DeZuniga. It's all pretty great. It's interesting to note how artwork from the same period can be so lame or awesome depending on the book. Artists seemed to be given more freedom with the horror stuff, compared to the superhero lineup.

Overall, it was great. The early stuff had me wary to continue, but I'm glad I did. The Stranger is an interesting character, and I find it impressive that DC has kept his true origins and backstory a complete mystery. He truly is a phantom stranger.