The Phantom Stranger is the most mysterious of DC Comics' characters: even though he's been around since 1952, his full origin, his identity or even the full extent of his powers has never been revealed. Of course, being mysterious is his main gimmick, so this is intentional.
The character debuted in Phantom Stranger vol. 1 #1 (August-September, 1952), created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. His original series only lasted 6 issues ending in June-July, 1953. He was revived in Showcase #80 (February, 1969). Then received a second series named after him, which lasted for 41 issues (May-June, 1969 - February-March, 1976). When that series ended, the Stranger started making guest appearances in series devoted to the Justice League of America, Swamp Thing, etc. He has never quite faded away.
The character has changed over the years, though. Originally, he was mostly a host of mysteries involving the supernatural, that he would help debunk... only to leave other people wondering if he was a supernatural being. Ironically, when the Stranger was a guest in some of Doctor Thirteen's (another DC ghost debunker) own stories, he was the subject of the Doctor's attention, but Thirteen could never prove that the Stranger wasn't a magical being.
By the time the Stranger entered the larger DC Universe, it was decided that he was indeed magical, but still little else was revealed about him. He almost always appears to help other heroes deal with a magical menace that they can't handle alone- though his help would always be minimal, only taking a direct hand when absolutely needed. Whether he did this because he saw his job as being helping others to help themselves, or because some Powers That Be limited his actions, or that meddling too much would invariably make things worse, has never been made clear.
The Stranger has starred in his own series, and he did have his own supporting cast, including: Cassandra, a blind psychic who was in love with him; Tannarak, an alchemist obsessed with immortality, an occasional ally; and Tala, a demonic sorceress, best known for being Lex Luthor's moll in the animated Justice League series. Most of these have not been seen in years, though.
The Stranger has an habit of appearing (and disappearing) when nobody is looking, like a leprechaun, which most people find very annoying. He often works with other DC and Vertigo mystics, notably John Constantine, Doctor Occult and Mister E, who are known as the "Trenchcoat Brigade" (though the Stranger wears a cape, not a trenchcoat.)
One of the more unusual moments in the Stranger's publishing history involves Secret Origins, the 1980s anthology series that existed to provide origin stories for those characters who had never been given one before. (Inexplicably, the issue was a crossover tie-in to Legends.) The Phantom Stranger issue contains not one but four origin stories, each by a different writer and each giving different answers to the questions of who the Stranger is, where his powers came from, and why he walks the earth. (Each story also gives a different answer to the question of what color the Stranger's hair was before it was white. It's the little touches...). Here are the options:
- The Stranger is the Wandering Jew. When King Herod ordered all the Jewish male babies killed (in an attempt to eliminate Jesus), Stranger (named Isaac in this version) lost his son (and his wife, who attempted to protect their son) in the ensuing massacre. He spent 30 years furious at Jesus about this, and when Jesus was crucified, the Stranger bribed a guard so that he could be the one to torture the Messiah. Jesus sentenced him to wander until doomsday for this. He eventually realized his mistake and devoted himself to doing good, even turning down an offer to be allowed to die and go to Heaven.
- After a biblical event in which God punished a bunch of people, the Stranger was a good man who was spared his wrath. He questions God's actions and commits suicide. The angel who delivered him to safety punished him by barring him from the afterlife, resurrecting his body, and condemning him to walk the Earth, saving people one soul at a time. The angel may or may not have been The Spectre.
- The Stranger is from the far distant future, one of a group of scientists who sought to delay the imminent end of the universe using time travel. The Stranger we know (and the Stranger this scientist will one day become) shows up in this future time to help the scientist stop one of his colleagues, an Omnicidal Maniac who intended to use their project for the destruction of the universe instead of its preservation. Long story short, the not-yet-Stranger scientist time travels back to the very beginning of the universe where the primal forces of creation (in combination with his own inherent potential, and an apparent passing on of life-force from the dying Stranger-We-Know) transformed him into something more than human. When his own time eventually rolls around, he will tip his younger self off about his colleague, unlock his potential, and then, at long last, die. It Makes Sense in Context.note
- The Stranger was an angel who refused to participate in the battle between God and Lucifer. Because of this he was cast out of heaven, but Hell didn't want him either (so he's basically half-fallen). He is thus condemned to walk the Earth for all time. This story was written by Alan Moore, and is generally the most popular interpretation.
It is, of course, entirely possible that none of these are his real origin, but something else entirely is. In fact, considering both the nature of The Stranger and of the DC Universe, it's equally possible that all of them are true, plus however many others you'd care to imagine. (The New 52 has given him a new origin, which is presumably canon for the moment; he was one of three beings punished by the gods of the Rock of Eternity for their sins against magic, and it's heavily implied that he's Judas Iscariot.) With the advent of the DC Rebirth soft reboot, however, he is no longer bound by the events of New 52, and is back to being the same enigmatic fellow he was before.
Contrary to what many fans believe, the origin story that claims the Stranger is a half-fallen angel (that is, he stayed neutral during Lucifer's Rebellion and isn't welcome in either Heaven or Hell as a result) is not the Stranger's official origin, although it is the most popular (being written by Alan Moore probably didn't hurt). Nor are his powers limitless, as he has been seen struggling against magical opponents such as Tala. In fact, it's implied all Phantom Stranger incarnations are the same Phantom Stranger, just as all depictions of Mr. Mxyzptlk are the same character, and both the Stranger and Mxy have Medium Awareness.
He has an unique relationship with The Spectre, the only other DC character who could compared to the Stranger in terms of nature and powers. The two are quite associated to each other through continuities, though they are alternately presented as Headbutting Heroes, Arch Enemies or even Those Two Guys in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The New 52 upgraded their relationship by tying their origins together and having The Voice make them unlikely (and bitter) allies.
However, he is a member of the Justice League of America, though he still doesn't show up except when they need his help- they can't contact him. The Stranger appeared in his own DC Showcase short, DC Showcase: The Phantom Stranger, as an extra short in Superman: Red Son.
Note also that the Stranger does not wear a mask — that's just an (intentional) visual effect, the shadow of his hat on his face. However, the shadow still appears even when he's wearing a Santa hat, or even no hat at all. He's just that awesome. (His hair, by the way, is white.)
Tropes associated with the character:
- Adaptational Badass: He seems to be relatively omnipotent, but how much of his power he is allowed or decides to use varies between continuities. This is best exemplified in his occasional personal battles with The Spectre: in the first of them, the Stranger was turned into a rodent by him (as, even with all his power, The Spectre was still unable to destroy him), while in their last struggle in the New 52, he managed to turn The Spectre into a wood statue after defending his attacks for a round.
- The Ageless: He's been Walking the Earth for centuries showing no signs of wear or tear.
- All-Powerful Bystander: At times, it seems like the Stranger should be able to easily solve any problem he has, but for some unknown reason is prevented from intervening directly.
- The Atoner: In one of his multiple choice pasts he was the Wandering Jew, who eventually realized that his curse was actually an opportunity to do good and serve God, and even requested to remain alive longer when given the opportunity to be freed from it. This is also part of what he says about his and Pandora's fate: cursed to watch what he has sowed.
- Badass Longcoat:
- Though he traditionally wears a cape, he dons a trench coat in The Books of Magic and The Trenchcoat Brigade
- It should be noted that in his original (1950s) appearances, he does wear some kind of overcoat, with a button-up shirt and tie. (This look can be seen in the upper-left-hand corner spot illustration on the cover reproduced above.)
- Big Good: When you are beset by supernatural or divine threats that are too much for any mortal and he appears, you will know that powerful help has arrived.
- There can be other reasons: In the classic Batman story, "To Kill A Legend," the Phantom Stranger appears to Batman and give him the opportunity to save a parallel world's version of his parents from dying soon, simply because the Stranger thought it was a good opportunity for the superhero to get his Survivor's Guilt off his chest by undoing it by proxy.
- Broken Angel: In the Fallen Angel origin, the angel that would become the Stranger had his wings violently ripped off by some angry demons after he tried to find refuge among them.
- The Call Knows Where You Live: It's not uncommon for his guest appearance to be almost entirely a way of getting whatever hero he's visiting into the adventure in the first place, after which he will disappear to engage in an ill-defined mystical battle with whatever the foe is, and reappear to return the hero home afterwards.
- Catchphrase: "Follow me, for I am... the Phantom Stranger!"
- The Chessmaster
- Cool, but Inefficient:
- The Stranger is a very powerful being, possibly one of the strongest forces in the DC Universe, but he does not use his power most of the time, and when he does directly go to war it's often against forces that are either a match or stronger than him, like the Spectre.
- In addition, he's not very reliable in general. One time Cassandra Craft asked him to pick up some bread. It took him two years, and when he finally showed up he couldn't remember if she wanted wheat or sourdough.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: The New 52 version is cursed to betray anyone he attempts to help.
- Cosmopolitan Council:
- The Stranger was one of the members of "The Quintessence", an alliance of powerful good mystics who watched over the DC Universe... and rarely did anything else.
- In the New 52 continuity, an alliance of mystics branded the Stranger as one of the three greatest sinners of all time and cursed him to forever be a stranger to humanity.
- Couch Gag: Early comics had him appear on each cover in the form of smoke/vapor or a shadow, in the background of whatever fantastic event was being showcased. Later comics would drop this as the Stranger would start to appear in person.
- Depower: During the events of Infinite Crisis, the Spectre, for all his power, couldn't flat out destroy the Stranger. However, he was still able to reduce him to the shape of a mouse and seal his sorcery.
- Deus ex Machina: The role he plays most often is that of solving a hero's insurmountable problem and sets him on the path to save the day. In Justice, he travels to the inner world created by Hal Jordan to furnish him with his lantern and a way home after he was nearly kicked out of the universe, and in JLA/Avengers, he slips into the Marvel universe to provide the heroes with a way to reach the dying Grandmaster.
- Disabled Love Interest: Cassandra Craft, the Stranger's blind girlfriend.
- Distaff Counterpart: Madame Xanadu.
- Dungeon Master: A good one, but his motives are a mystery.
- Evil Sorcerer: Tala and Tannarak.
- Face Framed in Shadow: He doesn't wear a mask, but no matter what type of hat he's wearing it always casts a shadow over the top half of his face to achieve the same effect. Even when he's not wearing a hat at all.
- Flat-Earth Atheist: Dr. Thirteen.
- Flying Dutchman: One of the suggested origins for the Stranger is that he's the literal Wandering Jew. Not very likely to be used often though, as this origin involves Jesus.
- Guile Hero: Bordering on Magnificent Bastard. Although he is extremely powerful, the Stranger is forbidden from directly interfering and must persuade others to do so.
- Headbutting Heroes:
- With the Spectre in the New 52. On a mission from God, the Stranger led Jim Corrigan to get killed, turning him into the Spectre. Spectre hates Stranger for it. Stranger refuses to accept responsibility. They are often forced to work together, and are very unhappy about it.
- Madame Xanadu also loathes him, as his interference prevented her from aiding King Arthur in his final battle and might have doomed Camelot. Strangely, while the Stranger says it was time Camelot fell, he also denies any involvement and does not remember Xanadu.
- Ironically for both, in Madame Xanadu's series he tried to stop Jim Corrigan's death, but his long story of screwing over Madame X resulted in her biting back by allowing Corrigan to die, resulting in the Spectre's return.
- Hell of a Heaven: The New 52 version calls Heaven "my personal hell". This makes a lot of sense, considering his origins at that point.
- I Have Many Names: By virtue of his open ended background, he'll normally introduce himself as exactly none of them.
- Inexplicably Awesome: It's part of his entire shtick. While it got lessened a lot in the New 52, it was reset with DC Rebirth.
- Intangible Time Travel: One of the Stranger's powers.
- Joker Immunity: Tannarak. The guy just refuses to stop coming back.
- Jury of the Damned: The Stranger once had to defend Superman before one.
- Mad Libs Catchphrase: Its fairly common for him to introduce himself with a little poetic speech ending in an offer of help from "a Stranger" rather then ever just call himself the Phantom Stranger.
- Mortality Grey Area: At least according to the Black Lanterns, the Stranger can't be classified as living or dead.
- Multiple-Choice Past: Several intentionally conflicting origins have been suggested for the Stranger.
- Still in force as of his Blackest Night tie-in. Not only is he neither alive nor dead, but he is something "strange" (this is coming from black rings that in all other cases, with the exception of identifying the White Light, are perfectly accurate at assessing emotional states, life and death, and so on - yet they do not recognize what he is) that even Nekron does not understand. And when a Black Lantern attempts to take his heart, a page is shown of three of the possible origins of the Stranger, followed by the Black Lantern lying on the ground covered in scorch marks (thrown out violently with no harm being done to Stranger) and the Phantom Stranger declaring that the Black Lantern has "seen everything and nothing" of the truth.
- In The Books of Magic, the members of the Trenchcoat Brigade are forced to relive each other's origins. John Constantine gets to see the Stranger's, which he experiences as being cast out of Heaven and reprimanded by God, similar to the fourth potential origin mentioned above.
- The New 52 provides another possible explanation for what he is: along with Pandora, the instigator of Flashpoint and the New 52, he is one of three sinners that is cursed to watch what they have sowed. The question is this: what did the Phantom Stranger do? He is later revealed to be Judas Iscariot, the man who sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. He wears the 30 silver pieces on a necklace that was seared into his neck (turning his hair white in the process) as part of his punishment.
- My Significance Sense Is Tingling: Pretty much always knows something odd is going on, possibly just by virtue of his being there.
- Mysterious Past: Half the point of the character is that nobody knows who he is.
- Necromantic: Professor Nathan Seine was a scientist who studied magic in an attempt to cure his wife's fatal illness. When his wife is killed by his own magic during a battle with the Stranger, Seine becomes obsessed with getting revenge on the Stranger, and find a way to return his wife to life.
- Neutrality Backlash: One of the Stranger's possible origins: he was an angel who refused to take sides in the war between Heaven and Hell. Afterward both sides cursed him, and condemned him to be a stranger forever walking the Earth.
- Never Bareheaded: It is extremely rare for the Stranger to be seen without his trademark fedora and, even then, it is usually for no more a panel. The Madame Xanadu series shows that the Stranger has always worn some type of head covering, with the style changing through the eras: a hooded cloak in Camelot, a top hat in Victorian England, etc.
- Nice Hat: He just wouldn't be the same without his fedora.
- No Name Given: Though in one of his four aforementioned multiple choice pasts his original name was Isaac; none of the other three, by the way, offer any name. Averted in his New 52 background, where it's revealed he was Judas.
- Occult Detective: Since he can't generally just power through situations but wants to help he acts like this.
- Older Than They Look: Much, much older.
- The Omniscient Council of Vagueness: To give an idea of just how powerful he is, he's part of The Quintessence. His equals include Zeus, Highfather, the Wizard Shazam, The Spectre and Ganthet.
- Our Angels Are Different: In the Stranger's angelic origin it is speculated that he was an angel who might have had a significant impact in the celestial struggle but instead took neither side in the Heavenly Civil War.
- Physical God: It's highly unlikely that he actually is one, but he's powerful enough that mistaking him for one is entirely reasonable. When you can fight a very pissed Spectre at full power and make him look like a chump, there aren't really any other sufficient labels.
- Race Lift: Garth Ennis's questionably-canonical All Star Section Eight mini-series features a rapping African-American Soul Brotha version of the Stranger.
- Really 700 Years Old: Can range from well within history to as old as time itself, depending on what background if any is being used.
- Refusing Paradise: At the end of the origin story that states he's the original Wandering Jew, God tells him he's earned time off for good behavior and can go to Heaven now, and he asks to stick around on Earth and keep helping people.
- Shrouded in Myth: Anybody who's anybody on the magic side of the DCU has heard of him, and just as many people know little beyond that.
- The Slow Path: In another of the origins, the Stranger is a man from the distant future traveling home the only way he can.
- Stable Time Loop: In the man-from-the-future origin.
- Stealth Hi/Bye: A venerable master of it. He can even pull off this trick right in front of someone's eyes.
- To Hell and Back: The Stranger CAN enter Hell- he just isn't welcome there.
- Trenchcoat Brigade: See Badass Longcoat above. A member of the Trope Maker.
- Walking the Earth: All of his origins have him doing this for one reason or another, either out of choice or because he must wait until the end of time to die.
- The Watcher:
- Sometimes the Stranger merely narrates a story rather than taking an active part in it.
- The DCU's nearest analogue to Uatu as both have a way of meddling while claiming to not be able to intervene. Making the Stranger more proactive than Destiny of the Endless and more established than direct Expy the Monitor.
- In a Madame Xanadu series, he insists it is not his place to interfere, except at certain junctures, to specific ends. Madame X concludes that this is an excuse to do whatever he likes and then disappear without dealing with the consequences.