Secret Origins #10: Phantom Stranger

Rob Kelly reviews four possible origins of the Phantom Stranger from issue #10 of Secret Origins, with semi-conscious host Ryan Daly barely keeping up.

Listen to Episode 10!

Subscribe to Secret Origins Podcast on iTunes!

Sample pages from Secret Origins #10, written by Mike W. Barr, Paul Levitz, Dan Mishkin, and Alan Moore, with art by Jim Aparo, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Ernie Colon, and Joe Orlando, and a cover by Aparo.

#10cover #10Apage1 #10Apage6 #10Bpage1 #10Bpage6 #10Cpage1 #10Cpage9 #10Dpage1 #10Dpage8

Check out Rob Kelly’s The Aquaman Shrinehttp://www.aquamanshrine.net

And The Fire & Water Podcast at: http://fireandwaterpodcast.blogspot.com

“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) by Neil Daly.

Additional music this episode: “Sympathy For the Devil” by The Rolling Stones; “People Are Strange” by The Doors; “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds; “The Stranger” by Billy Joel.

Leave a comment, Secret Admirers!

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27 thoughts on “Secret Origins #10: Phantom Stranger

  1. FIVE STARS, more shows like this!

    Actually, considering that these SO episodes also work as iTunes playlists, I’m mad at myself I didn’t suggest Bob Dylan’s 1989 spook-a-thon “Man in the Long Black Coat” for the soundtrack.

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  2. This was actually one of the first Secret Origins issues I looked at. Like Rob, I always enjoyed when he Stranger turned up in the JLA, though I didn’t read any of his own adventures until several years later (and that was because Mike Grell was the artist, for a crossover with Deadman). He had a cool visual (and one of the best capes in comics), which elevated him in my eyes, since I never cared much for magical characters.

    The issue has some great art, with Jim Aparo (long a favorite), Jose Luis Garcia Lopez (PBHN), Ernie Colon and a rare Joe Orlando. The writing is pretty darn good, too, with Mike Barr, Paul Levitz, Dan Mishkin, and, of course, Alan Moore.

    I passed on this book, originally, since it didn’t give a definitive origin; however, it grew on me as I grew older, much like the stories of DC’s “mystery” books. It’s got some interesting stuff going on, without loud action moments.

    In terms of the A-list talent, DC did a few books like that, in this era. You had the big anniversary books, like Superman 400, which boasts people like Wendy Pini, Mike Kaluta, and even Jim Steranko! They really seemed to get one-up on Marvel, when it came to this kind of stuff, in this era. It’s probably why this was my favorite decade, for DC, since they were willing to try almost anything, in the attempt to revitalize their line. Heck, the decade itself was one of my favorite for comics, with the diversity that came with direct market. Heady times and my rebuttal to those who dismiss the 80s as a horrible decade.

    Can’t help you with the T-shirt; I would have killed for something like that, when I was a kid. I have JLGL T-shirts now, including a satellite-era JLA shirt and one with Batman & Robin; but, not then. You mostly had to get an iron-on transfer to get a shirt like that, back in the 70s.

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    1. ps I love cranky old Alan Moore, as a cranky middle-aged man, myself. For all of the darkness, he also created a lot of fun comics, like the Mogo story, in Green Lantern, and the ABC stuff, like Tom Strong and Top Ten.

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  3. I particularly enjoyed this episode given it’s the only issue of Secret Origins that you’ve covered that I’ve read so far. I’m not sure if the issue would run better with the stories presented in a different order. The Mishkin story is the definite outlier no matter where you put it.

    I struggle to think of a good use of the Phantom Stranger since the Swamp Thing epic by Alan Moore. Possibly the Ostrander/Mandrake Spectre run? Certainly PS was treated pretty badly in the big crossovers like the lead up to Infinite Crisis where he was sidelined as a mouse.

    Looking forward to hearing Anj for the first time next episode.

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    1. The character never did much for me except as one quarter of the ‘trenchcoat brigade’ guiding the young Tim Hunter through the worlds of DC’s magical universe in Gaiman’s Books of Magic. The Stranger was charged with escorting Tim through magic’s past – which I found this to be an extremely effective use of a character.

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      1. Yeah, that original mini-series was great with each mystic character acting as a guide for Harry Potter, oops, I mean Tim Hunter.

        Phantom stranger’s innate detachment makes him a poor protagonist and he doesn’t seem to attract the professional fans the way Dr Strange always has. His recent series was an interesting curiosity but not really compelling. One of the New 52 errors (shared with all modern comics really), is they nailed down the Stranger’s origin. I think we all agree that the possible options make his character far more enthralling.

        Don’t get me started on the New 52 Question also.

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  4. pps Ryan, I heard the feedback portion and your remark about the story I told of a sailor on one of the ships in my destroyer squadron. I’m sad to say he did not survive taking a blast of high pressure steam to the body. A steam pipe that was of the improper thickness had been installed in the shipyard and it burst under pressure. The sailor was in the direct path and suffered 3rd degree burns, over 90% of his body. It took a few day, but he died of his injuries. It was a sobering reminder of the dangers we potentially faced if we weren’t attentive to our duties even in quiet times, like a shipyard overhaul, where a proper inspection of the work might have caught the pipe error and saved the sailor’s life.

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    1. Hey Jeff, I’m sorry if my comment on that segment came off as crass or insensitive. The thing about your story that I found “cool” was your expertise in a field I have no familiarity with as well as your ability to relate to that part of the SSK story on a personal level. I didn’t mean it was cool that your squad mate was injured, let alone killed by the steam pipe. Still, I should have worded my response better.

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      1. Oh, hey, no, don’t worry about it. You couldn’t know. I didn’t personally know the sailor. They served on another ship, I worked for the squadron command staff. We were involved in investigating the circumstances of the accident.

        It does bring up an element in a lot of fiction, particularly comics. Too often the writers have no firsthand knowledge about technical elements in some of their stories. It’s like old sci-fi stories where some spaceman has a helmet, but has bare skin exposed; or all of those pouches and gear in 90s costume designs. My favorite revlation of woeful ignorance was an interview with Rob Liefeld (big surprise), prior to Youngblood coming out. They were talking about characters and one of the stereotypical “big guys” was called Brahma, as in the bull. he remarked that the idea came from a set of friends, who were triplets. He said he asked how that happens and one of the friends said an egg that split into three (assuming identical triplets). Liefeld then says, “Well my warped mind thought, ‘Well, what if the egg doesn’t split? Would you get a giant baby?'” I sat there stunned, reading it and said, “You have a normal birth! Didn’t you ever take biology?” Then again, this is a guy that thought a normal human being could throw a ballpoint pen upwards, against the pull of gravity, and impale someone in the throat, killing them (as in Youngblood #1).

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  5. How much did I like this issue of Secret Origins? Enough to have done a review of it myself on one of Frank’s blogs! http://dcbloodlines.blogspot.com/2012/04/review-secret-origins-10-phantom.html

    For me the Moore story works the best. I am a sucker for this sort of storytelling, two stories of similar paths unfolding together, lending momentum to each other. Add to that the ‘beautifully ugly’ art by Joe Orlando, a style which works perfectly for the tone of this piece, and it is a winner.

    Like you the Mishkin/Colon story stands out a bit. It is completely different from everything I had/have read about the Stranger. A sci-fi story? With some timey-wimey stuff? No matter how much I want to enjoy this, I just can’t move past it. It would be like putting James Bond into a musical/dance movie. Different yes. But sensible?

    The other two stories are solid, the writing and art really are superior. Barr, Levitz, Aparo, Garcia-Lopez! That’s a murderer’s row.

    My first memory of the Stranger was in Brave and Bold #145, a story by Haney and Aparo where Batman and the Stranger fight a voodoo gangster. But my favorite memories, like Rob, are his moments in Moore’s Swamp Thing. The interactions with Constantine, the constant discussion of his dusty worn out shoes, his banter with Etrigan … so great. Read Swamp Thing Annual #2. Fantastic. Moor has the Stranger use word play to trick the Spectre. And the Stranger’s hat falls off in that issue!

    Thanks for the great review. This is an issue well worth revisiting every so often.

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  6. I hate to admit this, but I’ve never owned or read this issue of Secret Origins. I blame it on the ever-present (at least when I was a kid) dreaded newsstand curse. I just never saw it. I seem to recall a house ad for this issue, so I was stoked to read it. I knew of the hook of the four possible origins. What a great concept for this character!

    I’ve had a soft spot for the Phantom Stranger ever since first reading “To Kill A Legend” by Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano from Detective Comics #500. The Phantom Stranger offers Batman to save his parents on a parallel world….now that’s an intro to a character! Hey, I just thought of something: Kevin Conroy voiced the Stranger on that Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode you guys mentioned. What if the Stranger is really….BRUCE WAYNE!!! Batman’s ultimate fate is to become the wandering Stranger! It would explain why he offered Batman that chance to save his parents. I just blew my own mind.

    All kidding aside, this was a great episode. Rob knows his Phantom Stranger, for sure. And I’m not just saying that so I don’t get kicked off the Power Records podcast. He brought the PS knowledge on this one, and his Alan Moore story was hilarious.

    Since I haven’t read any of these stories, I can’t really say which origin I’d prefer, but I’d probably go with Barr/Aparo or Moore/Orlando. They seem to fit the best for me, although I do agree the Levitz/JLGL one sets up the character better, and asks for less of a drastic change in his basic nature.

    I didn’t notice you asleep at the wheel on this one Ryan. You’re being too hard on yourself. Don’t do that…we’ll do it for ya! 😉

    Chris

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  7. Been enjoying the podcast. Secret origins was never a title I collected back in the day: there are only four issues of the title that I can say for certain that I ever owned (This one, 14, 36, and 48.) I may have picked up a few legion-related issues, but probably not all of them.

    I sort of wish you’d mentioned the other great example of the Phantom Stranger/Etrigan team from the mid 1980s, though: The Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, in which we learn that the Stranger can do the hardest job in comedy (being the perfect straight man.)

    The other thing I’m surprised you didn’t mention was how Revelations ties in to DC’s own deep cosmology, the hand at the dawn of time that figures into the Krona and Pariah stories.

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    1. I did think that the giant hand viewed at the dawn of time was familiar but I couldn’t remember if I was remembering something from DC’s history or another sci-fi property with a similar trope.

      I’ve never read that Blue Devil annual but that Stranger/Etrigan bit sounds terrific!

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  8. Ugh. I just wrote a long comment and somehow I lost it when I scrolled up to look at the page samples. Well, I’ll try to reiterate some of the points but now I’m tired and don’t have the energy anymore!

    Great episode! You guys did a fine job of analyzing these four Stranger stories. I’ve always liked the character although I only read him when he appeared in the JLA and other books. I’d love to track down this issue. It looks and sounds phenomenal.

    For some reason I never started picking up Secret Origins until issues #18 with Golden Age GL Alan Scott and the Creeper. Even after that I only picked up another 5-10 issues. I can only assume that I only had so much allowance money to spend and was already reading too many monthly books so my random picks needed to be carefully chosen. So I eagerly await you reaching #18 so I can hear about a handful of issues I actually own!

    The talent on this issue is a murderer’s row. I think JLGL (praise be his name) is my personal fave of the artists, but I love them all. Aparo is so synonymous with my early comics collecting career. I’ll always love him for this work on various Bat books, including Batman and the Outsiders. And the writers here ain’t too shabby either. Mike W. Barr also penned most of my favorite Batman stories back then – from Batman Annual #8 with Trevor Von Eden to Batman Special #1 with Michael Golden to Brave and the Bold #200 with Dave Gibbons to my favorite Batman run ever on Detective Comics with Alan Davis to Batman and the Outsiders with Aparo and then Davis. Plus he wrote the almost completely forgotten Green Arrow mini, also with Von Eden on art, from I think 1982 or 83? Great series. That really needs to be collected. Oh, and Camelot 3000 with Brian Bolland. Barr really worked with some awesome artists in his prime. Anyway, I love all involved with this issue. Thus I must find it!

    Okay, a little help. Rob and Ryan – or anyone else here – do you know what Batman story the Stranger appeared in where he showed Batman what his life would be like if his parents hadn’t died? I think that’s plot? Maybe? Basically I remember loving this story and I have it in my collection but I can’t remember what book it was in and rather than dig in the long boxes later, I figured I’d see if anyone here recalled it first.

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  9. @Chris Franklin – I just read your comment after leaving mine and I think that Batman story from TEC #500 is the one I was referring to! This was included in the first volume of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told if I’m remembering correctly. Thanks, Chris! And you blew my mind with your Stranger-is-Wayne theory too!

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  10. Sorry, one more comment!

    How could I forget to concur with Anj and Rob on the Stranger’s appearances in Saga of Swamp Thing being among my favorite iterations of the character as well?! That entire run by Moore is one of my favorites of all time and a huge reason why is just how well he incorporated the horror and fantasy characters of DC’s universe into the long form story he was telling about Swampy. Beautifully done. And for those that have a problem with Moore now (and in many instances, rightly so; he’s become quite difficult to like at this point), I would refer them back to his long run on Swamp Thing. It’s utterly perfect, to me. And full of heart, which I think would surprise a lot of folks who find his more recent works cold or off-putting.

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  11. Great episode, and a great issue of Secret Origins. I can’t recall what my first exposure to the Stranger was, probly just saw him floating around in the Crisis and Who’s Who. So this was very much my first (four) story(ies) starring the character. Quite an introduction, wouldn’t you say?

    I’d forgotten Alan Moore had written one of them. As to his crank status, it’s very strange. On paper, he’s this monstrous crank and I always come out of those articles shouting for him to get his head out of his ass (to use Ryan’s vernacular). On video, he uses the same words, but he’s so calm, soft and deliberate, it takes a whole other bent. I don’t know what it is. Witchcraft?

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    1. Personally, I think he likes to play around with the interviewer’s mind and says as many things for effect, as belief. That, or witchcraft. If you see some ancient snake thingy, then it’s witchcraft. Or else a Doctor Who episode.

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  12. I remember picking this up way back when and then putting it down, confused and frustrated. I picked up several years later and after a second or third reading, really appreciated what they were going for. The mystery…which is the right origin? Are any of them or all of them legit? Does it matter? We all tend to gravitate toward the one story we think feels most like the Phantom Stranger we see in our minds eye…kind of like the blind men and the elephant.

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  13. Hello: My name is Charles Coletta and I teach in the Dept of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. Just about every year I teach an undergrad course in Comics History & the Superhero Genre. I wish my students were as enthusiastic as you and your guests. I still have the Secret Origins issues I bought as they were being published. I was just getting into comics around the Crisis and this series was invaluable to me as I learned about the larger DCU. I especially like your episodes because they offer such a stark contrast to most of the current DCU titles. There’s a joy and optimism in SO that is missing in the DCU titles. Have you reached out to Roy Thomas? Do you think he’d ever grant you an interview? I hope he would!!

    FYI: BGSU is home to the Browne Popular Culture Library and we have one of the largest comic book collections in academia. It’s free and open to the public for research or just pleasure reading. If anyone is ever coming thru the Buckeye State stop on by! I am glad to say we have Secret Origins in the archive!

    Here’s our link: https://www.bgsu.edu/library/pcl.html

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  14. Another enjoyable episode! It was interesting to hear how they offered up four different stories for this character. I was impressed with the four amazing artists selected for the book. Looking forward to future episodes.

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  15. The Phantom Stranger is a character I encountered early in my time reading comics, either through an Aparo Brave & the Bold team-up or a Spiegle Swamp Thing back-up. For years I was disproportionately interested in him because of this early exposure, but over many years and stories, I learned I didn’t care much for him. His personality is too flat and his mission too vague. He’s okay as a Watcher style flavor character during cosmic or existential crises, but his solo stories do nothing for me, aside from those two initial tales. I’m sure Paul Kupperberg is hugely responsible for this, since he’s one of the more persistent writers of the character in my exposure, and I believe that he’s the single most boring writer I’ve had to deal with at length thanks to my time collecting stories of the DC Universe.

    I’m prejudiced in favor of a Jim Aparo’s rendition of PS, but Barr’s story stacks the deck against my being able to appreciate the titular character. I understand feeling resentment toward Christ for his surviving the purge that stole his wife and son, but to go so far as to bribe your way into raking his back with a barbed lash? Too Mel Gibson for my taste. I do give points for DC publishing a story where Jesus is a comic book character and the devoutly religious may have contributed to their profiting off of stories that makes a hero of a guy that tortured their Messiah, though. That takes serious stones, either in their pants or between their ears. That said, the story was kinda dumb and way too overtly preachy.

    Can I speak sacrilege? I feel no great compulsion to buy books drawn by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, nor praise his name. I like his work, especially in licensing, but he’s one of those artists who’s like an objectively beautiful woman who nevertheless doesn’t put lead in your pencil. JLGL draws pretty people, but usually doesn’t make me feel anything. Also, as white male nerds of a certain age, you guys are blind to how clearly his work is of a specific period of time from the mid-70s to mid-80s. He’s definitely iconic and appealing, but his style is from that era where the ideal comic artist was still relatively homogenous and exactingly on-model for the house style, but still possessed a degree of individuality and flair (but not too much, now!) He’s DC’s John Romita Sr., and man I wish Marvel would indulges my Jazzy Johnny licensing nostalgia the way DC does JLGL. Kirby is more blatantly of an earlier time (than the Carter through Reagan Administrations) and less commercial friendly than Romita or Garcia-Lopez, but more importantly, he didn’t do Slurpee cups when Generation X was in short pants, and that’s all this discussion really comes down to. In ten years there will be that much more Jim Lee merchandise out there, the choice of a (only slightly) newer generation.

    Anyway, today I think the Paul Levitz/JLGLPB&J origin is the best of the lot. It’s still religious, but more ambiguous in where exactly it falls within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, making it more inclusive for a broader selection of readers and offering wiggle room within the parameters of those religions (and even beyond.) Joshua is willful and commits suicide, so he’s not just being punished for defying God’s decree against his city. I also like the idea of PS being another Wizard Shazam type who acted as a proto-super-hero in ancient times and is a bit past getting his hands dirty by the point of modern tales.

    I find an odd comfort reading the Mishkin/Colon story. It was easily my least favorite when I first read this comic in the ’90s, but now I think I like it the best as a pure story. Like you guys, I was put off by a sci-fi tale amidst the religious parable/horror, but now I think Mishkin was the only guy of the lot to truly get the premise of the issue. As you say, this is in some ways the story truest to the formula of Phantom Stranger yarns, except he accidentally serves as anthology host in a sort of Mystery in Space instead of a House of Mystery. It’s the only story with any sort of twist to it, and PS coming from a dependent future and being wary of wielding the power of the Big Bang explains his tendency to avoid engaging with cosmic events (while still going ahead and muddling about anyway, just as he does here.) Of course he’d be detached from childlike unevolved humanity, even to our own xenophobic, self-righteously ignorant times. Like the Levitz origin, this one helps to make PS make sense, but its being in the wrong genre for the character costs it points.

    Again, the Moore/Orlando story was the obvious best in narrative and origin to me… until it wasn’t. It explains the Phantom Stranger’s wishy-washiness in a way that makes me like him even less than the guy who brutalized Jesus Christ, and walks down a religious-themed path so obvious that it was used in three-quarters of the stories. I used to get off on the inclusion of Etrigan (nice placement for the Wagner mini-series house ad, BTW) but in retrospect it’s the supernatural equivalent of Roy Thomas Continuity Incest, or Marvel Cinematic Universe fan service, which masks it’s being an unapologetically derivative narrative in service to an underwhelming tale. Couldn’t we get a PS western origin, or something set in the ’50s that spawned the character, or even one honest-to-goodness proper mystery/thriller? No, we get the Legends crossover tie-in to Spire Christian Comics.

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  16. The Phantom Stranger has been one of my top-ten favorite super-heroes since I first read the Paul Kupperberg/Mike Mignola four-issue mini-series in 1987. I’m no Dan DiDio apologist, but I really liked the New 52 Phantom Stranger book (especially the issues he wrote). I’ve never read this issue of Secret Origins. I’ve seen it in dollar bins but am always put off by the cover. Although I like the Escher-esque quality of the art, I think the abundance of yellow always put me off purchasing what sounds like an amazing book. Perhaps that’s the Hal Jordan in me, I dunno. Great episode, as usual, and excellent music choices. The co-host was okay, too.

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