3 out of 5
Conceptually cool, but this Phantom Stranger-focused issue of Secret Origins – which posits four potential origins for a rather purposefully vague character – is never quite as interesting as its concept, or as its enigmatically mysterious lead can be. If I had more attachment to the character, it’s possible my opinion would change (this fansite has some nice history on the issue, and is quite positive on it), but just knowing of the dude from his random drop-in appearances – faceless, magic-possessing, ominous – the tales told here are interesting, but also a little clunky and forced.
The best is Mike W. Barr’s and Jim Aparo’s entry, which links the tale of the Wandering Jew – the myth of a man who taunted Jesus and is then cursed with immortality – to the Stranger, giving it some interesting context along the way (although I’m not sure if that’s uniquely Barr’s context or something that was adapted). I’m not too keen on the overly religious framing of the story, but given its origins, perhaps it can’t be avoided.
Next up is Paul Levitz’s and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez’s take, which uses a lot of biblical names and references to god and sort of spins on Soddom and Gommorah to give us a holy man who refuses to take god’s mercy over equal treatment for everyone, and so is, again, cursed with immortality. Levitz’s prose is way too open-ended – it’s hardly clear what he’s talking about sometimes – though Lopez’s artwork has a nice, classical illustration sense to it that works with the tone. However, given the setting of Barr’s entry, and the religious ties, this one almost felt like a retread. If we’re going to do four different origins, they should be distinct.
Such as Dan Mishkin’s, Ernie Colon’s, and Pablo Marcos’ entry, which jumps to the future, where people are fiddling with time in order to fix the world’s problems, but just end up basically starting things over again… whilst also loosing a passenger into the time stream who will likely be a time-stuck Stranger, forevermore. I like the idea – time loops are always fun – but the narrative doesn’t sell the state of the current world or the people trying to save it, meaning we’re just sort of trailing along behind exposition until the pieces are there to set up the time loop. I also think the jump in time between this and the previous stories is jarring; doing these in “sequential” order might’ve helped.
Alan Moore and Joe Orlando close things out by juxtaposing the experience of a gang member with The Stranger’s memories of a rivalry between angels. Apparently this tied in to some work Alan had been doing elsewhere (or would do); it’s lacking in the fluidity of his usual prose, though, and feels more like an Alan Moore assignment – the structure feels overly clever – than something he was flooded with the desire to write. Orlando’s artwork is wonderfully moody, though, giving the book’s bookends the best looking shorts.