« Strangely, I heard a stranger say, I am with you. » — Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Phantom Stranger, overwhelmingly in light of his brief original run (6 issues, 1952-53), some quite scarce books* full of first-rate art by, among others, Carmine Infantino, Jerry Grandenetti, Murphy Anderson and Gene Colan, with even a couple of scripts by Manly Wade Wellman thrown in!
A decade-and-a-half after his unceremonious cancellation, the Stranger was dusted off and given another shot in Showcase no. 80 (Feb. 1969), which was gorgeously illustrated by Messrs. Grandenetti and Bill Draut, and the Stranger, fedora, turtleneck and all, was soon spun off into his own title once more. It began well enough, but despite some often gorgeous covers, in no time descended into endless formulaic repetition: the PS makes vague, laughably pompous statements, his skeptic foil Dr. Thirteen fumes and rants, and my candidate for all-time most tedious arch-nemesis, Tala (introduced by Bob Kanigher and Neal Adams in issue 4) almost invariably turns out to be behind the issue’s menace.
It’s surely a minority opinion, but I only regain some interest in the series after its most celebrated creative team, Len Wein and Jim Aparo, have moved on. Scripters Arnold Drake, David Michelinie and Paul Levitz pick up the mantle, along with artists Gerry Talaoc and Fred Carrillo, and the book improves as its sales slowly tank. Near the end, editor Joe Orlando adds The Black Orchid as a back-up feature, and Deadman becomes a regular participant, both inspired decisions, but insufficient to stem the tide.
A couple of years after the book’s cancellation, The Phantom Stranger and Deadman were teamed up again for a Halloween special. Beyond a decent cover, the results were rather… dire. I really, really wanted to like it, but it’s just a hodgepodge of overwritten mediocrity that can’t seem to decide what it wants to be or what its audience is: not scary in the least (even by Comics Code Standards), barely moody, a waste of trees.
*helpfully reprinted, though in dribs and drabs and all over the place, through the 1970’s.