Every so often, I write one of these not for a character whose been forgotten or neglected, but one who really hasn’t been all that well defined. It’s the sort of character whose personality, powers, or purpose change with every appearance. We’re not really supposed to know who these characters are because they act more like plot conveniences than anything else.
And can you get any more of that sort of character than DC’s Phantom Stranger.
Who is the Phantom Stranger? Where did he come from? What does he want or do?
Well, I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone else does either.
Generally dressed in a blue suit, matching fedora, and with a medallion around his neck in most incarnations, the Phantom Stranger first appeared in 1952 in his own book. What did he do? He often acted as a narrator for horror stories, occasionally acting in the story itself, often interacting with a blind psychic woman who may or may not have been a love interest in the form of one Cassandra Craft and previous Misplaced Hero Dr. Terrence Thirteen. Cassandra would be an ally while Dr. Thirteen just would not believe anything the Phantom Stranger did was meant supernatural. Since, well, the Phantom Stranger was some kind of supernatural entity, the fact Thirteen refused to believe it and spent much of their meetings yelling how he’d expose the Stranger for the fraud Thirteen figured he was.
You know, dramatic irony or something.
What powers did the Phantom Stranger possess? Well, for certain, he tends to know a lot and he tends to pop up where he’s needed and…well, that’s about it in the grand scheme of things. Yes, the Phantom Stranger could do other things, generally vaguely described mystical things, but he wasn’t the type to get his hands dirty. Outside his own occasional series, he tends to just appear and offer cryptic advice, which was apparently good enough for him to get some sort of Justice League membership that he would take advantage of as he needed since he didn’t exactly attend meetings. He’d just show up as he needed to.
So, what is so noteworthy about the Phantom Stranger? DC has never really given the character a real name, and even when the company did devote an issue of Secret Files and Origins to the character, he wasn’t given a single origin: he was given four contradictory ones. The only one of those I’ve read was the one Alan Moore wrote, where the Stranger was an angel who, during Lucifer’s rebellion, wasn’t sure which side to take and the end result was he wasn’t welcome in Heaven or Hell. Two other origins were supernatural/religious in nature, and the last one was some sort of sci-fi origin. When the Blackest Night crossover came along, it was actually shown that the three contradictory magical origins were somehow all true.
Furthermore, the Stranger has been connected to the backstories in one form or another of other DC magical characters, most notably the iconic Madame Xanadu and the Spectre. The former was something of a yin to the Stranger’s yang while the latter was a rival of sorts. So, yes, was something weird and magical happening? Well, the Phantom Stranger was probably hanging around somewhere.
Then the New 52 happened, the Phantom Stranger was implied heavily to be Judas Iscariot, and he might have even had a family.
Yeah, I think I know why they let the guy disappear again…