Trouble with Comics

Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger

Writers - Mike Friedrich, France Herron, Robert Kanigher, Gerry Conway, Len Wein

Artists - Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Tony DeZuniga

Publisher - DC Comics. $16.99 USD.

500 pages of comics for $17 can be a great value, but it really depends on what those comics are. Almost two years ago, my daughter had a hamster that died. Still sitting in a big bag in my bathroom cabinet are a few pounds of litter for the hamster cage. At the time, it was a good value, because it was chopped wood put in service of a living thing. That’s what’s different about this Showcase volume—it’s a bunch of chopped wood in service of something that’s never been close to alive: The Phantom Stranger. I don’t just mean because he’s a ghost or whatever, because ghosts were alive at one point. From the moment of conception by John Broome or whoever came up with him, The Phantom Stranger was a dead thing, a character who defies some fairly talented writers here to imbue him with some spark of life, some reason to exist. And across this span of work from 1969-1972, they all fail.

A big problem is the format. Initially intended to reuse or burn off some old ’50s Phanton Stranger and Doctor Thirteen yawners, the writers for these 1969-1972 issues created some framing sequences, so there’s some tonal dissonance here, as well as neither the new or old stuff being very good. After this, Kanigher comes on as writer. He’s joined for one issue by Neal Adams, who not only contributes a suitably spooky mood but also punches up Phantom Stranger’s character design, giving him the strange cloak/turtleneck/white glove combo he still wears today, as well as making his eyes glow white from the shadows cast by his fedora. Adams’ quick departure is felt even more keenly due his staying on to provide some very good covers for the series.

Kanigher, for his part, tries to pander to the teens in the typical clubfooted DC ‘60s-‘70s way, having Phantom Stranger always showing up to help four hippie kids with names like Wild Rose and Mister Square out of supernatural jams. They’re sort of like a really ineffectual Scooby Gang, and Kanigher spends almost no time developing their characters except that one of the boys has a crush on Wild Rose. Kanigher understands one thing about teenagers and that’s that they’re horny. Unfortunately, not much else is done with this teen gang and it’s not clear why PS keeps showing up. It may also have been a kind of marriage of convenience to include Doctor Thirteen in most of these stories (he also gets some solo backups), it quickly becomes annoying. Doctor Thirteen is completely pathetic in his zeal to prove that the Phantom Stranger is a fraud and performs his magic and disappearing by tricks. He seems to have no other interests, somehow makes a living as a famous “ghost breaker,” and manages to hang onto a girlfriend despite frequently bringing her along to witness his failure to debunk Phantom Stranger. I really hated this guy.

What would have been interesting is if Thirteen really went on the offensive, digging up clues about Phantom Stranger’s past that may or may not have supported his contention PS was a fraud. Thirteen would be more compelling, AND we would learn more about PS, who, under Kanigher and subsequent writer Gerry Conway, is just a deus ex machina cipher. He doesn’t have the fun spellcasting of Zatanna or Dr. Strange, he doesn’t make household items big and deadly like Spectre—his act is really dull. There are attempts by both writers at giving him a supernatural foe/femme fatale in Tala, who’s some sort of witch or demoness. She shows up every now and then to try to ruin someone’s life, Stranger stops her, and she tries to kiss and corrupt him. If he ever showed a glimmer of temptation, that would have been nice, too. Or maybe Doctor Thirteen’s life depends on the Phantom Stranger saving him with magic? Call me, DC, I got ideas. So far, two more than this entire book. 

The series grinds on in its suffocating format for about 300 pages, with the dumb teens and weak lead semi-superhero character stepping all over horror tales so tame they make House of Mystery seem pants-crappingly terrifying. It’s amazing to me that DC put out carcinogens like this and still treated a visionary like Jack Kirby like he didn’t belong in the club.

Eventually, things pick up a little with Len Wein taking over most of the scripting, with art by Jim Aparo and then Tony DeZuniga. Aparo at this time had not picked up much on Adams’ style, so both his and DeZuniga’s work is instead heavily rendered, with lots of thin crosshatches and an abundance of Craftint. Wein drops the teens and opens up the settings to anywhere in the world, including an African ghost story, but doesn’t get much into the development of the Phantom Stranger beyond some hints that his is a lonely existence. Kanigher continues on with Doctor Thirteen backups, channeling his hatred of youth culture into tales like “Satan’s Sextet,” where dirty hippie pied pipers lead moneyed grown-ups to their doom. All in all, it’s a dispiriting collection, no pun intended, with decent art, one unformed lead character in Phantom Stranger and a malformed second lead in Doctor Thirteen, and not one memorable story in its 500 pages.

—Christopher Allen

Buy Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger Volume 1 from