Saturday, March 07, 2009

Out of the Vault - Phantom Stranger #26

Phantom Stranger #26The Phantom Stranger was always one of the cooler cats in the DC Universe. With his dark suit and long dark cape, with the white gloves and the hat that always left his eyes in shadow, he cut an imposing figure. And he seemed to have supernatural powers: he always turned up at exactly the right place and time, with exactly the right information, to put the physical heroes like Superman on the right path to defeat supernatural menaces.

He was like DC's Gandalf, basically, smart and mysterious with hints of vast, yet undefined, power. You never knew if he was coming to the Justice League because he needed their help or because he just didn't want to be bothered with the small stuff. He might stain his suit, after all.

In his own book, though, he was more human, more vulnerable, which may be why the book never turned into a top-seller. The Stranger worked better as a stranger; the awe wore off the more you got to know him.

In 1971, a story appearing in House of Secrets #92 introduced the character of Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing proved so popular that he was brought back the next year in his own title, but updated and acting more as a hero than a monster, in the tradition of Godzilla in his 70's films.

DC, never reluctant to jump onto a popular bandwagon, decided to try out another monster hero in 1973, The Spawn of Frankenstein, as a back-up feature in Phantom Stranger #23. Three issues later, #26, the back-up and lead features combined into one full-issue crossover story.

Together we'll break these chains of loveWritten by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman and drawn by Jim Aparo, with a gorgeous Mike Kaluta cover, "From Dust Thou Art..." told of the battle between the Frankenstein Monster and two demonic entities named Flagermot and Pornipus (you have my permission to snicker). The Phantom Stranger gets involved in the battle after the monster kidnaps Marie Thirteen, wife of Phantom Stranger ally/enemy Doctor Thirteen.

The story is decent enough DC mystery hero fare, elevated by Aparo's art. Aparo was at the height of his powers here, crafting art that was by turns detailed and dynamic, yet also moody and mysterious.

Still, the parallels between Swamp Thing (also written by Wein in his original incarnation) and the Spawn of Frankenstein couldn't be more obvious. Both are dead men resurrected by science, wandering alone and hated as monsters while they seek justice for those who did them wrong.

And then there's this:

Swamp Thing in a wig
Spawn of Frankenstein after he decided to start shaving his head in the late 90's

Compare the faces: the green skin tone, the prominent brow, the shadow under the nose extending into wrinkles down to the mouth. The Spawn was basically Swamp Thing with hair.

And pants.

You can't see it in this panel, but the entire Justice League is lined up behind him, waiting their turnThe best panel in the issue, at least for those who find the Phantom Stranger's whole "I am a Stranger; you know not whence I came" schtick annoying (which I don't entirely, but I understand the sentiment), was this moment from page 4. I'll bet every hero in the DC Universe has wanted to do this at least once, while saying something just like this.

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