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Here’s a tome of mystery and mayhem, with a hint of horror, but still sporting a cape. It’s the black and white Showcase collection of the Phantom Stranger!
You may have seen him around the DC Universe, eyes white, hat low, but you don’t know his name, his origins. Well, here you are – even more lack of name and origin! Perfect.
For those totally unfamiliar with the character, he’s one of the more obscure DC magic types. He shows up for various magic related events, was a major player in the Books of Magic miniseries, had appearances in Swamp Thing and Zatanna books, and recently was a major character in the first volume of the Madame Xanadu ongoing published under the Vertigo imprint.
A little trivia: The Phantom Stranger doesn’t wear a mask – his eyes appear to be outlined with black due to his hat. In later appearances you never see the dots in his eyes, but in this early book he often seems to show much more emotion, sometimes even with a fully formed set of peepers.
Though he has taken on other tasks, his original role was to show up randomly (as a stranger, yes?) and help during mystical conflicts, often done in one strange tales. Doctor Terrence Thirteen, The Ghost Breaker (whose roots stretch back to a small run in the 50s, and whose stories make up about 1/3 of this book) had a different spin. He’d pop in and debunk mysteries, ever the scooby skeptic.
The roster of artists and writers included here reads like a who’s who of DC in the early 70s – Bill Draut, Curt Swan, Len Wein, Nick Cardy, Robert Kanigher, Tony DeZuniga, and so on – just glance at the list above.
The book contains both early career and later life work by various pre-crisis gods of comics. Though a variety of artists are featured in this run, it comes together rather tightly and the work is very consistent all the way through (thank the editors!)
The story quality has more fluctuation, though it’s generally what you’d expect. Lot’s of hokey punchlines, exclamation points, and because this is a DC book, a fair amount of punching evil (especially towards the middle, when it seems to move more towards a superhero style book, with a recurring villain and small story arcs.)
Besides the Stranger and Dr. 13, notable characters include Tannarak (a devil stand-in who I think shows up in the Lucifer ongoing) and Tala, self styled queen of evil. Except for stories revolving around those two and some pesky frost giants, the majority of the issues can be enjoyed on their own, making this a good book to leave in the bathroom or read on your smoke break.
That may sound slightly dismissive, but it’s not meant to be – the short form storytelling is done well for the period and many of the mysteries are actually quite amusing. I can’t say that I was particularly terrified or even grossed out – no EC style work here – by any of the stories, but there are some creepy moments.
Perhaps the Scooby Doo metaphor is apt, it’s not quite horror. Or if you remember the more kooky episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, that might give you some idea of the tone to expect here.
In general, the Phantom Stranger stories are of a bit higher quality than the Doctor 13 backups. Perhaps this is just because they maintain an element of mystery to them, while it gets clear very fast that Doctor 13 will always find some kind of electronic device to explain any bit of mischief – and once he starts really interacting with the Stranger, his constant dismissal of the obvious magical happenings becomes a bit tiring.
His dialogue isn’t the silliest – as with many books of this era, there is a lot of outdated slang (possibly even when it was printed) that rolls of the tongue of any teenage character. Luckily, I really enjoyed that aspect. When reading any book of 40 year old comics, some suspension of modern tastes is required.
I have to say, to this young reader, the book still works.
I was always curious about the Phantom Stranger from his brief DC appearances and as for this collection – I’m diggin’ it.
You can probably get the gist of any Phantom Stranger appearance without reading this, but it’s not a bad place to start. Note, because of his interaction with so many Vertigo characters, we place this book on the Vertigo Universe list.
You might want to check out Showcase Presents: House of Mystery Vol. 1 or Showcase Presents: House of Secrets Vol. 1 to see what else was happening on the mystical side of the DCU during this period. Also of serious note: Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis. It runs a little later, but Swampy even has a cover cameo in this volume.
The logical next step would be Showcase Presents: The Phantom Stranger Vol. 2 but if you’re looking for a more modern take, check out the highly recommended Books of Magic miniseries by Neil Gaiman, which moves into a really great ongoing. Madame Xanadu Vol. 1 also plays heavily on the Stranger, but doesn’t come quite as highly recommended.
As for Dr. 13, I’m not sure where he shows up next, but his fairly recent modern age miniseries is collected in Doctor 13: Architecture and Morality.