Saturday, February 28, 2009

Legends #2 - Dec. 1986

"Breach of Faith" by John Ostrander, Len Wein, John Byrne, and Karl Kesel.

Fresh from surviving the Crisis, the heroes of the DCU were thrown into another world-spanning crossover event, this one a little more localized--Legends.

While various heroes go through their paces, we see that The Phantom Stranger is participating, sort of:
Basically the Stranger will spend all of Legends hanging out with Darkseid, gabbing about good and evil, order and chaos, etc. (I don't know--if I was Superman or someone, I'd ask the Stranger if he couldn't just swallow Darkseid into his big Cloak O'Mystery and be done with it)

Still, its nice to have the Stranger dialogued by Len Wein again!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Swamp Thing #55 - Dec. 1986

"Earth to Earth" by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, and John Totleben.

By this point, Swamp Thing had gone to Gotham City to rescue the imprisoned Abby, had a run in with Batman, got Abby freed, and then was--more or less--assassinated by Lex Luthor.

Commissioner Gordon, Batman, and other members of the GCPD attend a memorial service for the Swamp Thing, and of course rain begins to fall.

Its a quiet ceremony, but there are others who attend:
And while the Stranger is correct in saying he can find no trace of the Swamp Thing on Earth, that didn't mean he was truly dead...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

DC Challenge #12 - Oct. 1986

"DC Challenge Phase 12" by Mark Evanier, Dan Spiegle, Denys Cowan, Rodin Rodriguez, Dan Mishkin, Luke McDonnell, Rick Magyar, Roy Thomas, Stan Woch, Jan Duursema, Gerry Conway, Steve Lightle, Gary Martin, Len Wein, Ross Andru, Frank McLaughlin, Marv Wolfman, and Tom Mandrake!

The universe-spanning DC Challenge wrapped up with this 12th issue, narrated by your friend and ours, The Phantom Stranger:
The opening prologue featuring the Stranger catching us up to what's gone before lasts eight pages, and was written by Mark Evanier and drawn by previous PS artist Dan Spiegle:
After this sequence, PS disappears from the story, but at least he got to show up at least once during the DC Challenge!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who's Who Volume XVIII - Aug. 1986

It's Phantom Stranger time in Who's Who, The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe!

I guess one could argue who the biggest character in this issue was, so DC decided to split the difference and having Plastic Man wrap himself around Power Girl (and who could blame him?) so they could share the spotlight. As a PS fan, I'm glad to see he got a prominent place on the front.

The Phantom Stranger of course got his own listing in the Who's Who series, written by PS scribe Mike W. Barr and drawn by, of course, Jim Aparo:
The Stranger's powers are initially described thusly: "Just as The Phantom Stranger has often exhibited abilities that defy rational explanation, these abilities also defy any attempts at classification."

Well said, Mr. Barr.

My admiration for the Who's Who series knows no bounds--as a kid, I loved seeing all these obscure characters I had never heard of, and it made the DCU seem so much bigger and cooler to me.

As an adult, I appreciate the extra little touches DC added--like on the cover, where they let The Pied Piper lay his head on the Table of Contents, and bump the Pursuer text over to fit.

On the inside, some of character/artist combos are Comics Nirvana--Jaime Hernandez on Phantom Girl, Dave Stevens on Phantom Lady, Steve Rude on Poison Ivy, Art Adams on Punch and Jewelee, and Marv Wolfman(!) drawing the Plasmus entry!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Swamp Thing #51 - Aug. 1986

"Home Free" by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and Alfredo Alcala.

The Phantom Stranger makes a brief appearance in this issue of Swamp Thing, as he, along with Deadman, escorts Swampy out of this realm of existence so he can return home:
...the rest of the issue, and the next several, deal with Abby's arrest for having a physical relationship with Swamp Thing, and the hell she endured while he was gone.

This storyline will eventually involve Swamp Thing rescuing Abby and running into Batman and Lex Luthor in the process, and might be my all-time Swamp Thing story arc Moore ever wrote. If you haven't read, do so--it's amazing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Swamp Thing #50 - July 1986

"The End" by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch, John Totleben, and Tom Mandrake.

The previous couple of issues of Swamp Thing weren't drawn by the regular team of Bissette and Totleben, so they could have enough time to draw this extra-long anniversary issue.

It opens with Cain and Abel, who from their safe perch can watch the battle between good and evil unfold.

Swamp Thing, Deadman, and a legion of various demonic-looking beings march their way toward the darkness, But where are The Demon and The Phantom Stranger?:
...I like the running gag, starting way back in The Phantom Stranger #33, that Boston Brand just doesn't like the Stranger all that much. Considering how few people Deadman has to talk to, the Stranger must truly, as Boston puts it, "Burn his dead butt."

The battle unfolds in two places--one involving Swamp Thing, Deadman, et al, and also in Winter's creepy house, where DC's supernatural heroes begin to perform a sort of seance to take on the evil on the less physical plane. We see that in addition to Constantine, Mento, Zatanna, and Sargon, Madame Xanadu and Zatara are in attendance. Zatara is none too pleased about his daughter's relationship with Constantine.

Back with Swamp Thing, we see Dr. Fate arrive, and The Phantom Stranger reappears:
We see The Demon try and face the giant black mass that the Evil is in, and after asking Etrigan what "it" is, it spits The Demon out after it doesn't like his answer.

In an issue filled with great moments (the seance scenes are good enough to be their own story), this one with Dr. Fate has always stood out to me: Fate encounters the evil tricksters Abnegazar, Rath, and Ghast, who are all too happy to help this Evil take over everything.

Before the battle officially starts, the Demons Three warn Fate of the rules. Fate doesn't give them the answer they thought they'd get:

Reading this comic as fifteen year old, this moment blew me away. The way ech side establishes the rules, and then Fate lets one of the demons have it, was stunning. It immediately told you how high the stakes were, and that guys like Dr. Fate were maybe only using a sliver of their real power when they were hanging out with the Justice Society fighting Brainwave.

Various other heroes encounter Evil, who asks them all the same question. None of them give a satisfying answer, and even a being as powerful as The Spectre proves to be no match for it.

It is Swamp Thing that enters the Evil, and gives it what its looking for. Deadman and The Phantom Stranger are shocked to see Swampy walk out of the Evil the same way he went in:
...a remarkably sweet ending for an Alan Moore Swamp Thing story--glorious sunset and all.

Of course, there is one last bit to get to: Cain and Abel have been watching all this, and Cain can't help himself killing his brother one more time before the last panel.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Swamp Thing #49 - June 1986

"The Summoning" by Alan Moore, Stan Woch, and Alfredo Alcala.

The Phantom Stranger wasn't gone from Swamp Thing for long. After helping Swampy retrieve the soul of Abby from Hell, he--along with the usual suspects--also showed up in Alan Moore's vast storyline involving nothing less than Evil Itself taking over, well, everything.

The crisis is so big that nearly every member of DC's supernatural aristocracy get involved, including John Constantine, Baron Winter, Dr. Fate, Dr. Occult, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatanna, even Cain and Abel!

Swamp Thing travels to the Region of the Just Dead, where he runs into Deadman, and right around the corner is:
Like they did the second Swamp Thing Annual, Swamp Thing, the Stranger, and Deadman try and get The Spectre involved.

Our heroes are following a creature The Spectre calls "The Dark Bird", and in their search, they run into another inevitable member of this crew:
The Dark Bird finishes its ominous mission, which means, according to Mento (the none-too-stable Steve Dayton, brought into help by Constantine), that, literally, All Hell is Breaking Loose.

And its here:
To be continued!

To say Alan Moore was "on a roll" during this period is to devalue the phrase. After an amazing beginning, where he upended everything you thought you knew about Swamp Thing, he plunged the character into a huge, yet personal, fight with Anton Arcane.

He then ramped it up even further, having the Swamp Thing involved in this fight, which threatens the entire world. Come back to tomorrow for the amazing conclusion!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 - March 1986

"Final Crisis" (Ha! As if!) by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and Jerry Ordway.

Sadly, the Crisis ends, and The Phantom Stranger still doesn't get much to do, other than play nursemaid to The Spectre and use him as a conduit for his and the others' magic powers:
...I guess, ultimately, when you're writing a story like this, you have to find some reason why the magicians of the DCU don't just step in and fix everything.

I mean, I don't care how powerful The Anti-Monitor might be, his abilities are still living within the realm of science. Guys like The Spectre, Dr.Fate, and The Phantom Stranger should be able to deal with him with a minimum of effort.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Crisis on Infinite Earths #11 - Feb. 1986

"Aftershock" by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and Jerry Ordway.

The Phantom Stranger, in the wake of the giant battle between The Spectre and the Anti-Monitor, is hanging around with Deadman, desperately hoping the comatose Spectre wakes up:
Man, does The Phantom Stranger look cool as drawn by George Perez...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 - Jan. 1986

"Death at the Dawn of Time" by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and Jerry Ordway.

The Phantom Stranger gets a little more to do in this issue, bonding with his fellow magicians (Dr. Fate, Madame Xanadu, Zatanna, Sargon, et al) to help transfer their powers to The Spectre, so he has enough strength to take on the Anti-Monitor:
This issue is a little better for us PS fans, since he actually gets a line this time. Two, in fact!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 - Oct. 1985

"Beyond the Silent Night" by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Jerry Ordway, and Dick Giordano.

Everyone knows what happened in this issue--the cover itself has now become a cliche.

The Phantom Stranger's relatively tiny role in the universe-shattering crisis that was the Crisis continues in this issue, where he appears in all of two panels, hanging out with his spooky buddies The Spectre and Deadman:

Meanwhile, over in Justice League of America #243, released that same month, frequent letterhack Kent A. Phenis asks whether the Stranger is part of the new JLA or not:
"Stay Tuned" meant...well, never, since this particular angle was never mentioned again in the book.

I'm guessing, when it came time, Aquaman sent a very curtly-worded letter to the Stranger, officially terminating his membership.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Swamp Thing Annual #2 - 1985

The Phantom Stranger in "Down Amongst The Dead Men" by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben.

The Phantom Stranger guest-starred in two different DC annuals in the summer of 1985, and they could not have been more different. After the light-hearted fun of the Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, here the stakes could not be more high--nothing less than rescuing the soul of Abby Arcane, banished to Hell during events in the recent issues of Swamp Thing (the Saga of part of the title having been formally dropped).
Swamp Thing, who by now has fallen in love with Abby (and she with him), sees that Abby's body is not yet begun to decay, leaving him a window in which to possibly retrieve her soul.

Not limited to this mortal coil, Swamp Thing sends his consciousness into another plane of existence, and finds himself in what looks like is the waiting place before one ascends to Heaven.

He meets a woman who has just been killed in a car accident, and along with her also recently-departed son, moves into the bright light just beyond. But Swamp Thing isn't interested in going there--he knows Abby is elsewhere.

Suddenly, he is met by none other than Deadman, who helps Swamp Thing navigate the new world he is in. He then introduces him to...a stranger:

On the way to their destination, Swamp Thing meets...himself, sort of, in the form of Alec Holland, who thanks his erstwhile alter ego for finally freeing him, allowing him to move on. Also there is Linda Holland, but Swamp Thing chooses not to meet her.

As they continue to walk, the air grows cold, and the light begins to dim. Eventually they are in totally darkness, until a light begins to appear
Here The Phantom Stranger has the temerity to question the judgment of The Spectre himself, when he initially says that Abby must stay in Hell.

The Spectre finds the Stranger amusing in his boldness ("Of all the presences, you were always my favorite") and allows them to continue their journey.

Eventually the Stranger and Swamp Thing reach the outer edges of Hell, and the Stranger has Swamp Thing meet up with yet another denizen of DC's supernatural stable, The Demon!

The Demon agrees to escort Swamp Thing into Hell...for a fee: the flower in the Stranger's lapel:
At this point the rest of the story concerns Swamp Thing and The Demon's trip through Hell to rescue Abby's soul.

Moore, Bissette, and Totleben conjure up all sorts of horrific images, to me none worse than when Swamp Thing runs into Arcane, the monster that condemned Abby to Hell in the first place.

Arcane, suffering indescribable torment, asks Swamp Thing how many years he's been in Hell. Swamp Thing answers: "Since yesterday."

Eventually Swamp Thing does rescue Abby, and after forty plus pages of hellish, nightmarish visions, the story ends on a wonderfully sweet note: Abby awakens, back in her body, and looks at Swamp Thing.

Not knowing what just happened, she simply remarks "You're crying."

This was the first of many appearances by The Phantom Stranger in Swamp Thing under Alan Moore's tenure on the book, and each one of them would reveal a side to the character never touched upon.

Like he was able to do for nearly every character he wrote while at DC, Moore was a master at writing a character we all knew for years (even decades) and yet still could show us something new.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Interview with Dan Mishkin

Dan Mishkin is probably best known as the writer/co-creator (with his frequent writing partner Gary Cohn) of DC's Amethyst and Blue Devil series, but he also tried his hand on The Phantom Stranger on a couple of occasions, like stepping in for regular Saga of the Swamp Thing writer Martin Pasko to write a two-part story pairing up the book's two stars, which also served as a send-off to PS in the series.

He also had the Stranger guest star in the Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, as well as writing one of the four Phantom Stranger origins for Secret Origins #10, so I thought it'd be cool to hear from someone who has written the character under such diverse circumstances:
I Am The Phantom Stranger: How did you end up writing the Swamp Thing/Phantom Stranger two-parter?

Dan Mishkin: Somebody was needed to fill in for Marty Pasko, for reasons I can't recall, and Len Wein asked me to do it. Len was somewhat of a mentor for me in my early career, and I really appreciated that he gave me the opportunity to do the two-parter.

IATPS: How familiar were you with the Phantom Stranger before this?

DM: I'd probably read every story the Stranger appeared in through the sixties and seventies, so I'll have to say I was pretty familiar with the character.

IATPS: As a writer, are the Phantom Stranger's very vague powers a help or a hindrance when trying to plot?
DM: It's something you have to be careful with. You keep things mysterious and that gives you some leeway in how you portray the character and his abilities; but that same leeway makes it very easy to handle the character inconsistently--he can end up being too conveniently powerful when you need him to be, but sometimes powerless before things that readers would expect to be no problem for him based on earlier stories.

Looking back at the Swamp Thing story, I'm pretty pleased with how I handled things, though my ideal is to show the Stranger using powers as little as possible and I did have one scene that looks like flat out teleportation (however much the dialogue tries to suggest it might be otherwise).

IATPS: The last page of the second part, in Saga of the Swamp Thing #15, I found very haunting. The Stranger mentions "great towers of accomplishment...that are in truth only made of sand", which made me think of the World Trade Center, even though obviously that was unintentional. I realize this isn't a question, but it's interesting to me how someone can write something that has a peculiar relevance many years later.
DM: As you say, I couldn't have anticipated the later resonance of the line, which only pointed out that things are often less permanent than they seem. That can really be a scary thought to contemplate, as it surely was in the aftermath of the destruction of the WTC towers.

IATPS: Do you remember how you (and Gary) came up with the idea to do a Blue Devil "Summer Fun" Annual starring so many of DC's creepy supernatural characters?

DM: I checked with Gary and neither of us can recall how the details of the story came about. What I remember most vividly is that it was our chance to work again with Paris Cullins, the original Blue Devil artist. And also that "Summer Fun" was very much the tack we wanted to take from the beginning.

As to why the supernatural stuff, I don't know. Maybe because we hadn't played in that arena very much, and we'd had fun on our previous outing with the Demon. Besides, we really liked those characters, especially the Phantom Stranger. And Felix Faust! Which you may think is a joke, but I was a huge Gardner Fox/Mike Sekowsky JLA fan, and Felix Faust made a great impression on my nine-year-old brain when he first appeared.

IATPS: You kid the cliches of the characters quite a bit in the story, The Phantom Stranger most of all. Was there ever any problem from the people at DC for goofing on some of their characters like that?

DM: I love the assumption that "the people at DC" were paying attention to what we were doing. I can say with a fair degree of confidence that they weren't, and I don’t mean that as a knock--or not entirely as one. The loose supervision of editors in those days was a wonderful climate for creativity and experimentation--it's the reason Blue Devil and Amethyst came into existence at all.

It's also not surprising that these days when you see very cool stuff happening on the fringes of the DC and Marvel Universes, it's often because that stuff is flying under the radar. (When I praised a friend recently on a wonderful little miniseries he'd done, he attributed its coming out as well as it did to the fact that nobody higher up was paying attention and sticking their thumbs in it).

But if I accept the premise of your question that anyone was watching, I think it's also fair to say that when Blue Devil became a success, we were given leave by editorial to take an offbeat approach that looked at DC's characters through a somewhat skewed lens.
IATPS: At the end of the story, The Creeper suggests that he and the others form a team of supernatural heroes--was this just a goof or was this something you and Gary actually considered? I would've loved to have seen that book!

DM: It was mostly just a setup and punch line. Gary and I always treated Blue Devil as a character who would not "play well with others" on a team. Even though he was a sweetheart of a guy, and wouldn't hesitate to save the day when it was up to him, he just didn't buy into the whole superhero mindset that you have to have if you're going to say, with deep voice and hands on hips, "Yes, I am a member of a team of heroes." Not that we wouldn’t have given such a book a shot if DC had asked us to, but we weren't seriously looking for a gig like that.

Like I did earlier with Mike Barr, I'm withholding the questions I asked Dan about his Phantom Stranger origin story in Secret Origins #10 until we get to that issue in the timeline (although what does a timeline mean to someone like the Phantom Stranger?), so we can hear from them both at once.

Dan was one of the first interviews I ever did for The Aquaman Shrine, back when I was just getting started and even though he had only written a couple of Aquaman stories. It really helped put the Shrine on the map, so I really appreciate him taking some time out of his day to talk me yet again. Thanks Dan!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Blue Devil Annual #1 - 1985

After so many dour adventures, it was about time The Phantom Stranger had a little fun!

So here he is, guest-starring, along with fellow supernatural/horror-esque stars The Creeper, Black Orchid, The Demon, Man-Bat, and Madame Xanadu in the Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, by Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin (writers and co-creators of Blue Devil) and artists Paris Cullins, Gary Martin, and Bill Collins.

But before we get to all the fun, let's see how all these characters end up together:
As we watch Blue Devil return to his workshop, we see that there is someone lurking in the shadows...Felix Faust!

Faust uses his magic on the nearby training robots, causing them to go berserk, which keeps BD out of his workshop. Faust sneaks in, and finds what he's looking for--a giant glass orb.

But once he has it, The Phantom Stranger appears demanding Faust cease his evil plan! Meanwhile, The Demon shows up, thinking he's helping BD out by smashing those million-dollar robots into tiny bits.

But before BD can read The Demon the riot act, the battle between the Stranger and Faust erupts outside the workshop, drawing them in.

Faust, seeing he's outnumbered, vanishes into smoke, leaving a bewildered Blue Devil:
I love that exchange of dialog: "I am...a Stranger!" "Well, hey, that sure clarifies things, all right!"

But as we can see, Faust did not escape with what he was looking's an egg?

Meanwhile, Jack Ryder is being dragged across town by Madame Xanadu, who claims he is needed since "There is great evil afoot." Ryder isn't so sure, even if he ended up at Xanadu's place after being chased by Man-Bat.

Later, we see that Man-Bat is under the control of Faust, who is directing him to steal another one of these "eggs", this time one that resides in the Museum of Natural History!

After grabbing it, The Creeper and Madame Xanadu show up to stop him, grabbing the egg from him, and pouring a Spell of Subjugation down Man-Bat's throat, freeing him from Faust's control.

Eventually we see what the plan is--these eggs are hatching, giving birth to a horde of tiny little demons, who are already growing at an enormous rate!

All the heroes grab butterfly nets, and start apprehending them, including new recruit Black Orchid! Creeper asks who she is, and Madame Xanadu tells Creeper her origin story, which sounds suspiciously like the one that created Daredevil, the Man Without Fear! More on that in a moment...

The Demon stops eating the baby demons long enough to join Blue Devil and the Stranger on magical trip, across the country, to where Faust is holed up executing his plan.

Eventually he does the old superheroes-on-my-fingers bit, but then the other heroes showup to take him on, as well. Black Orchid swoops in, grabs Faust, and dumps him off a cliff!

BD then asks the Stranger who this Black Orchid is:
...Madame Xanadu's retort "Of course, Stranger! Everything is special in your stories!" makes me laugh out loud, every time. And I love how defensive the Stranger is when his story is questioned.

Anyway, we see the final part of Faust's plan--after bunch of the mini-demons have jumped into a pool of goo, they emerge as the giant demon Nebiros!

The group of heroes take him on (with a magical assist from the Stranger and Xanadu) and eventually defeat Nebiros, but then Faust reappears to kill them all himself:
...the end!

An extraordinarily fun story, I love Cohn and Mishkin's use of all the supernatural characters in this very lighthearted setting. And, well, I don't know--I would've bought a Creeper and His Spirit Squad book, no problem.

This is truly a "Summer Fun" annual, since in addition to this story, the book comes with two pin-ups (one by Cullins, one by Brian Bolland), a schematic of BD's suit, plus a two-page "Blue Devil Weirdness Magnet Board Game" complete with game pieces! Ye Gods, all this for a measly buck and a quarter?

As regular readers of this blog will recall, this was not Dan Mishkin's first shot at writing The Phantom Stranger, since had written the two-parter where the Stranger guest-starred with Swamp Thing--two very different sets of circumstances for the character, both executed equally well.

So be here tomorrow when we'll have a little chat with Dan Mishkin, about his experiences writing The Phantom Stranger!

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