The Phantom Stranger had a consistent showing in the 1980s. During the early 80s, he had a long running back-up feature in the Saga of the Swamp Thing as well as the occasional guest appearance in the rest of the DCU. In the mid-80s, he had become synonymous with DC's 'mystical elite' and was often found in the pages of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Doug Moench's Spectre, or even J.M. DeMatteis' Dr. Fate. Let's not forget that he was a pivotal character in 1986's LEGENDS cross-over as he wagered with Darkseid over the perseverance of humanity. An extremely well-written Secret Origins #10 (featuring four different hypothetical origins of the Phantom Stranger) had hit the stands in early 1987, and by this point DC had realized the character had enough of a fan interest to at least merit a four issue mini-series.
Paul Kupperberg was in-between projects (Super Powers v3 and Doom Patrol v2) when he was offered the assignment to write a Phantom Stranger mini-series by DC Executive Vice President Paul Levitz. According to the letter column of the fourth issue, Kupperberg's main idea with the Phantom Stranger for this mini-series was to 'mess him up, tear him down and reassemble him better and more aware than before'. Evidently, Kupperberg decided that the most effective way to do this was to have the Phantom Stranger lose his powers in the first issue and have him be a mortal for the rest of the mini-series.
The plot of this mini-series can be summarized with: A de-powered Phantom Stranger tries to thwart Eclipso from ushering in the end of the world. Along the way, he is assisted by a few familiar faces from the DCU.
I'm not going to lie - I had a hard time staying interested in this mini-series (or at least the Phantom Stranger segments, anyways). Anytime the Lords of Order/Lords of Chaos are mentioned, I just sort of gloss over the word balloons as I feel the whole idea is too conceptual for me and would require some great mental energy to decipher what's going on. This, of course, is not a fault of Kupperberg's. I always felt that the Phantom Stranger is a rather boring character who works best in the shadows as a deus ex machina (as he first appeared in his 1950's Phantom Stranger v1 and 1970's Phantom Stranger v2 stories). To be honest with you, the real star of this mini-series is Eclipso.
Appearing a few months prior in Outsiders v1 #18 (1987), this is the first we've seen of Eclipso possessing some sort of MAJOR magical powers: Eclipso becomes an agent of Chaos and he's got demon minions at his beck and call. During the 1980s, Eclipso was gradually evolving from a C-list super-villain to a mystical threat worthy of having his own company-wide cross-over (see: 1992's Eclipso: The Darkness Within) and later his own ongoing series (see: 1992's Eclipso v1). I don't know if the evolution of Eclipso was a result of editors Mike Carlin and Denny O'Neil's direction, or if this was all Kupperberg. Nevertheless, Kupperberg handles the villain really well, and Mike Mignola's pencils combined with P. Craig Russell's inks are a visual treat for the eyes.
Did I mention that this was some of Mike Mignola's first DC work? This is actually a selling point on it's own. (That statement may be a little biased since Mignola is one of my favorite comic book artists.) There was lots of demons and dark cult-ish things to draw, so this was right up the future creator of Hellboy's alley. Shortly after this project, Mignola pencilled John Byrne's World of Krypton mini-series - which is also a beautiful looking series - and then 1988's Cosmic Odyssey mini-series. Our co-editor, Mark Belkin, chatted with Mignola at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con, and Mignola revealed that he felt he was stretched too thin at DC comics during the late 1980s and his best work did not come out. Personally, I just don't see it.
Despite my overall lack of interest in the Phantom Stranger, the mini-series does have it's moments. As I'm somewhat familiar with Kupperberg's work, I can quickly identify a few Kupperisms throughout the mini-series:
- the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia is played up to great effect in this mini-series. A hot button topic, Cold War tension would play a great role in 1988's Checkmate! ongoing series (also written by Kupperberg). This mini-series was obviously written before the fall of the Berlin Wall...
- ... and since we're on the topic of Russia (and Checkmate!), it's important to note that Lt. Col. Valentina Vostok (aka Negative Woman) appears in this mini-series as a supporting character. (Negative Woman was created by Kupperberg and Joe Staton for the new Doom Patrol revival in 1977's Showcase #94.) She would be appearing later that year in Kupperberg's new Doom Patrol v2 as a main character. Actually, Negative Woman is one of the things that kept me reading this mini-series as I was hoping she'd play a larger role in the story. Kupperberg like to work characters he's familiar with into his stories (such as the example provided), which leads us to...
- ...appearances by Jimmy Olsen as a supporting character. Did you know that Kupperberg had written more than five dozen stories for Superman-related titles during the late 70s to the mid 80s? This also includes the 1982 Supergirl ongoing series that ended under mysterious circumstances. Commissioner Gordon also appears a few times in this mini-series (since most of the action takes place in Gotham City), and, you guessed it... Kupperberg had written a few issues of Batman in the early 80s, too. As a matter of fact, Gotham City Police Department Sgt. Harvey Bullock was given a new life as an agent of Checkmate in Kupperberg's late 80s run on Vigilante and his Checkmate! series.
I'm saving the best for last here, but one of the most amusing developments in this mini-series is the pulse-pounding battle between the Phantom Stranger and then-President of the United States, Ronald Reagan:
Please notice that the Phantom Stranger is trying to rip the red phone out of Reagan's hands as he's trying to call on a nuclear strike against Russia. This is a solid gold 80s reference and I'm sure it captured the spirit of America's disdain toward Reagan and his right-wing policies. Just to be clear, that was not the real Reagan but just a doppelganger working for Eclipso.
I can appreciate that Kupperberg manages to keep this within then-current DCU continuity and references the 1987 Dr Fate v1 mini-series a few times (which would have been published one month prior) and keeps in-step with the whole 'Lords of Order/Lords of Chaos' stuff which is something I'm not too familiar with but seems to have come to prominence sometime in the early to mid 80s. The exclusion of Dr Thirteen or Tannarak - two characters I feel are closely associated with the Phantom Stranger - was a bit of a surprise, but didn't detract from the story.
Something curious about this mini-series was that I was unable to find any DC house ads promoting it. Usually it's pretty easy to find DC house ads promoting a DC mini-series from the late 80s, but all of my searches turned up nil.
As far as I know, the Phantom Stranger was NOT optioned for an ongoing series after this mini, but Kupperberg DID write a Phantom Stranger feature for Action Comics Weekly from 1988 to 1989 (featuring a rotating cast of artists).
For your enjoyment:
There is an excellent Phantom Stranger site called 'I am the Phantom Stranger', curated by Rob Kelly, that is absolutely a must-read if you're a fan of the character.
Rob Kelly interviews writer Paul Kupperberg about his work on Phantom Stranger and even discusses Kupperberg's original mini-series pitch to editor Denny O'Neil: "that story was essentially Phantom Stranger as Jesus. The Lords of Order say it's over, the Stranger is left to wonder why he has been forsaken, and left to the tender mercies of mankind to judge him" (Paul Kupperberg).