Created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino,
DC Comics, August 1952
In a genre obsessed with origin stories, the Phantom Stranger is a complete oddity. The American publisher, DC Comics, has offered several alternatives to the character’s history, ranging from an angel who refused to take sides in the war between God and Lucifer, to Judas Eschariot, to a time-traveller, to the Wandering Jew (and this origin included images of Jesus being cruelly whipped – by a character who would later become an ally of the always-altruistic Justice League of America).
But more recently, in 2021’s Are You Afraid of Darkseid? #1 (a Halloween special), DC Comics postulated that the Phantom Stranger was some sort of Chief Editor. The story is called The Endless Staircase, by Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing, Jesus Hervas, Eva De La Cruz and Clem Robins. People who knowingly or unknowingly represent threats to existence, or who might upset the precarious balancing forces of magic, are ushered by the Phantom Stranger up a figurative staircase into oblivion. Below, we see the Phantom Stranger taking a blacksmith who has made a sword of Nth metal (a substance most frequently associated with the Golden Age version of the superhero Hawkman):
In this story, the Phantom Stranger’s main game is not to be some sort of benign herald, warning the Justice League of impending mystic danger. Instead, the character is engaged in the wholesale erasure of people on the wrong side of reality. It is not clear whether the people that the Phantom Stranger takes away have any volition. Perhaps, it is suggested, the Phantom Stranger takes away their ability to choose:
DC Comics’ insatiable obsession with the Batman touches the Phantom Stranger. The Phantom Stranger interferes in the origin of Batman, whisking away the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents so as to ensure that there is no third death in Crime Alley. The horrible conclusion arising from this page is, obviously, that the Phantom Stranger could have taken Joe Chill before he shot the Waynes, and thereby spared Bruce Wayne a life of trauma. But he did not:
Superhero comics are usually binary in their depiction of characters’ motivations. They are altruistic (“heroes”), or motivated by other things (greed, a lust for power, revenge, insanity, and so on, and as such are “villains”). But the Phantom Stranger has not often been depicted as either, despite his frequent appearances as a harbinger of doom (and, once, chatty foil to DC Comics’ perennial menace, Darkseid in the 1988 mini-series Legends). However, in this campfire story, told by Kid Flash in Are You Afraid of Darkseid? #1, suggests that the Phantom Stranger is instead the cosmic broom, a tool to sweep the unfortunate who might bring existential disaster, under the carpet without their consent. It is a very brutal role to play.
The Phantom Stranger’s distinctive 1970s chain, fedora, and cloak add to the sense of shadowy mystery. But he did not always look like that. John Broome and legendary artist Carmine Infantino created the character in 1952, in his first short-lived title. Even back then, the Phantom Stranger was a deux ex machina with shadowed eyes, but wore a sensible tie and collared business short. The character was less fallen angel, more interfering undertaker.
The necklace has altered a little over the years, depending we suppose upon the flamboyance of the artist:
During DC Comics’ New 52 experiment with its continuity from 2011 to 2016, the Phantom Stranger was recast as an odd adversary of The Spectre. Sometimes we see the Phantom Stranger wielding the sorts of bright magical powers much better suited to Dr Fate or Marvel Comics’ Dr Strange. And we have seen the Phantom Stranger in the Books of Magic (1990-1991), as the ostensible leader of the “Trenchcoat Brigade”, a group of four mystics with a penchant for long coats (the Phantom Stranger has a cape, and is the odd man out).
Better by far to see the character as a lonely, enigmatic catalyst. Happy 70th birthday, Phantom Stranger. Whoever you are.