Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Secret Origins #10 - Jan. 1987

The Secret Origin of The Phantom Stranger...sort of.

In this very special issue of Secret Origins, DC presented us with four separate, possible origins for the Stranger, written and drawn by an all-star roster of talent.

The cover--an idea so perfect, its a wonder no one ever thought of it before, is by classic PS artist Jim Aparo, with a little help from M.C. Escher.

The first story is also drawn by Jim Aparo, drawing his last Phantom Stranger story, written by Mike W. Barr:

"Tarry Till I Come Again" stars with a priest, Father Knox, who is feeling nothing but despair on Christmas Eve. He sees the world around him falling apart, and he wonders if he's doing any good.

His dark thoughts are interrupted by The Phantom Stranger, who is here for a startling reason--to offer confession!

Knox is reluctant, but finally agrees, and the Stranger tells his story, which begins many centuries ago: he was a man named Isaac, who had a wife and son, living in Bethlehem.

One day, the soldiers of King Herod arrived in town, slaughtering people in the search for someone, and in the melee they kill Isaac's wife and son.

Three decades later, Isaac gets to see the man they were looking for: no less than Jesus Christ, who, despite his talk of love and peace, send Isaac into a rage--it was because of this man his family was killed.

When Jesus is apprehended by the authorities, Isaac bribes a guard to let him take the guard's place, allowing him to dispense some physical revenge on the man.

But instead of begging for mercy, Jesus quietly pronounces that while he may die, it is Isaac who is condemned to walk the Earth, until Jesus returns.

At this point, Father Knox is understandably shocked--this Phantom Stranger guy is claiming to be no less than The Wandering Jew!

But the Stranger assures he is telling the truth, and continues with his story--over time, the Stranger is there to see many of the most famous events in world history. At one point he delves in black magic to try and break Christ's decree, all to no avail.

At one point, he attempts to rescue a woman--accused of being a witch--who is the spitting image of his late wife Rebecca. The Stranger uses his powers to free her of her captors, but she dies anyway.

But her death sparks something in the Stranger: this woman did not blame God for her death. This forced the Stranger to rethink how he has looked at life, and eventually he "joined the service of that God whose name I once did curse."

Father Knox still isn't buying any of this, until something happens that he can't believe:
...the end.

But we're just getting started! Next is "...And Men Shall Call Him Stranger" by Paul Levitz and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez:
In this version, a "City of man fell into the ways of evil, rapt in the sinful ways of the deceiver." Only one man seems despondent over this turn of events, and prays for the town's forgiveness.

But that forgiveness doesn't come, and in fact a series of disasters befall it--lightning storms, great winds, and then finally a flood, carrying people to their deaths.

The one good man survived, and prays to God for the people and the town to be spared. He offers his own life in return.

His offer is rejected in person, by an angel, who says they have been sent to take this man away from this evil place. "The city has been judged, and must fall."

The man refuses, threatening to kill himself. The angel warns him not to do this, but he doesn't listen, and ends his life.

But before his soul ascends, the angel says this man's work is just starting--he must return to his body, to perform good in the world.

We see the man set out on journey, saving lives and souls. "As long as there are the damned, so long so shall you suffer to be prisoner of this fate":
...so that's two possible Phantom Stranger origins that start out in ancient times.

For the third, we are thrown into the far-flung future(!), in "Revelations" by Dan Mishkin, Ernie Colon, and Pablo Marcos:
Aboard a spaceship, we see several scientist-types hard at work at nothing less than forestalling the end of the universe!

In their work, the scientists have figured out a way to reach through time. As if that's not amazing enough, they see a swirl of star energy swirling, almost purposefully, until it forms some sort of human hand!

As they attempt to capture an image of what they see, they are stopped by...The Phantom Stranger!He warns them they are "Tampering with things man was not meant to know!"

The scientists of course won't listen--their plan is to siphon off a tiny fraction of the energy used in the Big Bang to save their own universe, and they think they know how to do it.

The Stranger tells them this will bring even further destruction, but is stopped when he is zapped by one of scientists and finds himself imprisoned.

The Stranger and the man that zapped him, a Dr. Alt, talk, and its revealed that Dr. Alt has no intention of saving his world--he wants to destroy everything in creation!

The younger scientist tries to stop Alt, but he is also imprisoned. The Stranger tells him that he can stop Alt, but he needs some of the Stranger's powers.

After touching his hand, he transfers his powers to the younger man, which leaves The Phantom Stranger--this version, at least--dead.

The man, dressed in a space suit, gets the drop on Alt, and jumps into a portal, carrying him out into space. At this moment, Alt tries to siphon the energy, but all of it is absorbed into the young man, changing him:
Whew! After these three very different stories, I feel like my head is going to explode. But we're not done yet: let's give Alan Moore a chance, in a story titled "Footsteps", drawn by the late, great Joe Orlando:
This "origin" is set in much more familiar territory--the streets of New York.

Two "Subway Angels" bemoan how their city seems to be getting worse and worse, and talk of a whole group of people living underground. As they leave to check it out, we see The Phantom Stranger is present.

He recalls his past, when he was an angel, met by another angel, named Etrigan. Etrigan talks of revolution, and they head off to find the angel named...Satan.

Back in New York, we meet the underground people, and the Stranger is there, also. Two of the Subway Angels talk, and one tries to convince the other that he can either help sweep up the trash above, but why bother, since its "Better to reign down here."

The story hops back and forth between both places, and we see that in both cases, the quest for power does not work out for those who pursue it. The angel who became the Stranger loses his wings, violently, and one of the Subway Angels is killed once he realizes he shouldn't be here.

Luckily, for him, the Stranger is there to help him:
...the end.

I think one could make the argument that this one issue is The Phantom Stranger's finest moment--not only do you have people like Moore, Barr, Mishkin, and Levitz all writing the stories, and artists like Aparo, Garcia Lopez, Colon, and Orlando drawing them, but I think the idea of presenting four possible origins is everything that the Stranger is about--mystery.

One of the things I have found the least interesting about modern comics is that all questions or mysteries seemingly must be answered: comics fans don't seem to like things unresolved (and its not limited to comics fans: check out all the prequels in movie theaters over the last ten years, where every character--whether its Darth Vader, Michael Myers, or even Leatherface--has to have their backstory delineated in exacting detail).

So to present an issue of a series devoted to giving specific, "officially correct" origin stories like Secret Origins was, and to purposely not give an official answer, seemed like a small act of creative bravery. For my money, I could read a whole series of possible Phantom Stranger origins.

Like I mentioned here previously, I did get to interview two of this issue's authors--Dan Mishkin and Mike W. Barr--about their origin stories, but wanted to save their answers until we got to this issue. So here's Mike talking about "Tarry Till I Come Again":

I Am The Phantom Stranger: Years later, you wrote one of the four possible origin stories for The Phantom Stranger in Secret Origins #10. How did that come about?

Mike W. Barr: Writers often talk about their pet projects; a story I had mentioned more than once around the DC office was the idea that PS was actually the Wandering Jew. Either I pitched the story to Editor Bob Greenberger or he, having heard me talk about the idea, asked me to write it.

It's still one of my favorite ten stories, and the last feature, Alan Moore's poignant story, bookends it nicely. Of course, everyone was "on" for that book; it's a definite high-water mark.

IATPS: The origin story you wrote, "Tarry Till I Come Again," was drawn by your longtime collaborator, the great Jim Aparo. Was it your idea to work with Jim for the story?

MWB: Yes, definitely. I was editing Jim on The Outsiders at that time, and I freed up his schedule with the understanding that he would draw my script. (He was spelled that month on The Outsiders by Dan Jurgens and Mike Gustovich.) He and I had earlier worked on PS when the character guested in Batman and the Outsiders #8, but this story, a "pure" PS story, remains one of my favorites.

Incidentally, the priest in the story, Father Knox, was named after Father Ronald Knox, a British priest and mystery writer of the 1920s.

IATPS: Jim Aparo was--and remains--one of my all-time favorite artists, and of course he had a great run on The Phantom Stranger himself. What was it like to work with him for so long?

MWB: I've tried for years to crunch the numbers to prove that I worked with Jim longer than any other writer, but I have to admit that Jim's collaboration with Bob Haney on The Brave & the Bold edges me out. Well, Bob was a great guy; there's no shame in coming in second to him.

Jim was a throwback to the Golden Age, a rarity in that he did everything on the page except the script, at the rate of one page of story per working day. You'd send him blank art boards and a script and he'd return artwork that was penciled, inked and lettered; it had only to be colored. Even when he lost time on the schedule, as he began to do when he was aging, any time he lost could usually be bought back during the production stage. The Production Department loved his work because it took so little time on their end. He would occasionally misspell a word, or--even less frequently--flub a visual, but those were quite rare.

Jim required little reference, but even when he did--he was soft on Asian culture, so he required a lot of reference when we created "Katana" in BATO--he read it and used it to its best advantage. I was happy that he made a lot of money in royalties from BATO and on The Outsiders, and feel his run on those books I edited was his last extended burst of really good artwork. After that, DC tried to turn him into another factory hand, often giving him an inker rather than allowing him to ink his own work; a lot of that inking was horrendous.

And I got a huge kick out of seeing the creator credit for Katana for Jim and myself at the end of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode, "Enter the Outsiders!" Jim would have enjoyed it, too.

I agree that Aparo's work on Batman and the Outsiders was some of his best, and I'm glad to hear he made some decent money out of it. It was fitting that he got one last chance to draw The Phantom Stranger in an issue entirely devoted to him.

On the other end of the spectrum, let's talk about the Phantom Stranger origin set in the future, "Revelations", written by Dan Mishkin:

I Am The Phantom Stranger: How did writing one of the four possible Stranger origins in Secret Origins #10 come about? Were you asked to come up with an idea, or had you pitched this story previously?

Dan Mishkin: I'm pretty sure it was editor Bob Greenberger's idea to show four different possible origins for the Stranger, without having any of them considered to be canonical. On the one hand, you had people like Alan Moore dropping hints in other places about what they thought the Stranger's background really was; while in other quarters, there was a feeling that a Phantom Stranger origin story should never be told. In fact, Len Wein didn't even like the idea of telling four different (and conflicting) possible origins; but I think Bob's approach split the difference nicely. And I was very happy he asked me to be one of the contributors.

IATPS: Do you remember the genesis of "Revelations"? Having a Phantom Stranger story set in a futuristic world is certainly a wild idea, even by Phantom Stranger story standards.

Dan Mishkin: Well, I was determined to take an approach that no one would expect, one that would not fit any of the conceptions that were floating about at the time. And since those concepts tended toward a religious explanation for the character's existence, my contrarianism immediately pushed me toward science fiction. And I had another goal for this story, though I honestly can't remember if it was one I sought from the very beginning: I wanted to have the origin story follow the classical Phantom Stranger formula in which a person who is about to confront a momentous choice has the starkness of the choice--the huge divergence in the possible outcomes--highlighted by this mysterious figure who comes out of nowhere.

As an aside, I need to say that it amazes me how sloppily the character is sometimes used. And I don't mean in the other stories in Secret Origins, which as origins were under no obligation to labor under the strictures I chose to set for myself, but in his various appearances in other books, where he's basically an omniscient guy with magic powers. He may in fact be omniscient and have magic powers, but he should never be portrayed that way, in my opinion.

As I said before, I like to use as little as I can that's clearly supernatural when I write the character--I think it's way cooler when he reveals only the minimum that he has to, and when his appearances and disappearances can almost be explained as normal movements that you just happened to miss the details of (like Batman suddenly not being in Commissioner Gordon's office when Gordon’s still talking to him).

Anyhow, here I was with the idea of doing an SF story that would read like a Phantom Stranger story, and the idea of the time loop (it's probably not quite a paradox)--in which the normal guy facing a stark choice and is confronted by the Phantom Stranger ends up turning into the Stranger--pretty much presented itself whole. It also solved the issue of whether one should ever tell the Stranger's origin, because in my telling he lives out a circle from the end of time to the beginning to the end again--an origin story in which the actual point of origin is obscure. I was really proud of my solution, and I was pretty darned sure it would not be like anyone else's.

IATPS: Did you ask Ernie Colon to draw the story, since you worked so well with him on Amethyst?

Dan Mishkin: I believe I did ask if Ernie could be the one to do the story, though it might have been Bob who thought it would be great to pair us again. I love working with Ernie, and I love his work. I've got his After 9/11 book at my bedside to read after finishing this interview.

IATPS: Were you given any indication of what the other possible Stranger origins might be like?

Dan Mishkin
: Except for the sense that a religious explanation for his origin is where most of the current thinking was going, I had no idea what the others were up to.

Once again, I thank Mike Barr and Dan Mishkin for their time in talking to me about their experiences writing The Phantom Stranger, and I thank them for their specific contributions to this issue, an extraordinary chapter in the career of the character.


Anonymous said...

I loved this issue and you did a great job covering it, Rob!

I think if I had to pick a story, I'd pick The Wandering Jew version. I don't know why, since I'm not at all religious. It's the story I still remember to this day, whereas the others I only vaguely recall.

Unknown said...

Russell is correct Rob, another great job. I've been waiting to see you cover this issue and I was not disappointed.

One thing that's always bugged me (and I'm not a religious scholar), but in Alan Moore's story, would they actually go see the angel Lucifer? I thought Satan was a Hebrew word meaning adversary and hence, would only apply to him after his fall. I tried to bring this up in the letter colum but I guess my letter got there late. (it was kind of cool & weird to see Etrigan before he became The Demon)

I thought all of the creators did a great job this issue. And yeah, one last great Jim Aparo Phantom Stranger story. I sort of fall towards that one simply because it was Jim and it seemed more "real" with his art. Though honestly, I didn't "accept" any of them. I'm in the weird crowd that didn't want to know what the origin of the Stranger was.

Again, Great Job Rob!

Garnet said...

I remember flat-out adoring half this issue -- the first and final quarters. I loved Aparo even then and was (as a sudden Swamp Thing devotee) also drawn in by the promise of an Alan Moore story. And yet, even with Moore collaborating with the great Joe Orlando, their story STILL does not come off as the definitive version. To me, then and even now, that's the Barr/Aparo take. Yes, it's best creatively to not settle the question, but in my mind that's who the Stranger REALLY is.

Wow, tying up loose ends in DC continuity is one thing ... but Biblical continuity?

Anonymous said...

I've just re-read this issue today, and it is a classic. The Moore/Orlando story is my personal favourite, but all 4 stories are outstanding and thought provoking. I personally don't think any of them are true origins of the Stranger, and that we'll never know who he really is which seems right to me. Thanks for the interviews as well.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I appear to be the only one, but I like the Levitz story the best. Moore's got the definitive Stranger voice, Aparo's got the definitive Stranger look, and Mishkin actually understands how the Stranger works in a story-- but the Levitz story actually seems to me to explain the Stranger the best.

He's not ambivalent between good and evil; he's ambivalent between his own conscience and God's will. He's cursed by Heaven for doing the *right* thing as he perceives it; and his curse directly follows from what he was trying to do.

"Save them all-- every one if you can"-- but one at a time, retail not wholesale. Such salvation requires helping people to make better choices, not choosing for them. ("Free will, Constantine. There must always be free will.")

*That* fits the Stranger as I see him. Moore's Stranger should be a radically free agent who just happens to be incredibly lonely. If he's not under either Heaven's or Hell's jurisdiction, then he's a Constantine-like wild card, able to so as he chooses.

But the Stranger is tightly bound-- constrained in what he can do. He poses choices before giving information, gives less information before giving more, gives information at all before taking direct action, and often can't take direct action at all. And he talks about himself as being constrained by rules, though he won't say what they are or why he's bound by them. That seems to fit the story Levitz told.

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