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Please note he's wearing a cape, NOT a trenchcoat!

I am known in many realms by many names, Bartholomew Allen, but those that know me in your world call me the Phantom Stranger. I work in-between worlds, an agent of destiny and the Fates, restoring order and balance where chaos has lain her hands.
—The Phantom Stranger explains himself to a confused Impulse (Impulse #87)

The Phantom Stranger is the most mysterious of DC Comics' characters: even though he's been around since 1952, his full origin, his identity or even the full extent of his powers has never been revealed. Of course, being mysterious is his main gimmick, so this is intentional.

The character debuted in Phantom Stranger vol. 1 #1 (August-September, 1952), created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. His original series only lasted 6 issues ending in June-July, 1953. He was revived in Showcase #80 (February, 1969). Then received a second series named after him, which lasted for 41 issues (May-June, 1969 - February-March, 1976). When that series ended, the Stranger started making guest appearances in series devoted to the Justice League of America, Swamp Thing, etc. He has never quite faded away.

The character has changed over the years, though. Originally, he was mostly a host of mysteries involving the supernatural, that he would help debunk... only to leave other people wondering if he was a supernatural being. Ironically, when the Stranger was a guest in some of Doctor Thirteen's (another DC ghost debunker) own stories, he was the subject of the Doctor's attention, but Thirteen could never prove that the Stranger wasn't a magical being.

By the time the Stranger entered the larger DC Universe, it was decided that he was indeed magical, but still little else was revealed about him. He almost always appears to help other heroes deal with a magical menace that they can't handle alone- though his help would always be minimal, only taking a direct hand when absolutely needed. Whether he did this because he saw his job as being helping others to help themselves, or because some Powers That Be limited his actions, has never been made clear.

The Stranger has starred in his own series, and he did have his own supporting cast, including: Cassandra, a blind psychic who was in love with him; Tannarak, an alchemist obsessed with immortality, an occasional ally; and Tala, a demonic sorceress, best known for being Lex Luthor's moll in the animated Justice League series. Most of these have not been seen in years, though.

The Stranger has an habit of appearing (and disappearing) when nobody is looking, like a leprechaun, which most people find very annoying. He often works with other DC and Vertigo mystics, notably John Constantine, Doctor Occult and Mister E, who are known as the "Trenchcoat Brigade" (though the Stranger wears a cape, not a trenchcoat.)

One of the more unusual moments in the Stranger's publishing history involves Secret Origins, the 1980s anthology series that existed to provide origin stories for those characters who had never been given one before. The Phantom Stranger issue contains not one but four origin stories, each by a different writer and each giving different answers to the questions of who the Stranger is, where his powers came from, and why he walks the earth. (Each story also gives a different answer to the question of what color the Stranger's hair was before it was white. It's the little touches...). Here are the options:

  1. The Stranger is the Wandering Jew. When King Herod ordered all the Jewish male babies killed (in an attempt to eliminate Jesus), Stranger (named Isaac in this version) lost his son (and his wife, who attempted to protect their son) in the ensuing massacre. He spent 30 years furious at Jesus about this, and when he was crucified, bribed a guard so that he could be the one to torture him. Jesus sentenced him to wander until doomsday for this. He eventually realized his mistake and devoted himself to doing good, even turning down an offer to be allowed to die and go to heaven.
  2. After a biblical event in which God punished a bunch of people, the Stranger was a good man who was spared his wrath. He questions God's actions and commits suicide. The angel who delivered him to safety punished him by barring him from the afterlife, resurrecting his body, and condemning him to walk the earth, saving people one soul at a time. The angel may or may not have been The Spectre.
  3. The Stranger is from the far distant future, one of a group of scientists who sought to delay the imminent end of the universe using time travel. The Stranger we know (and the Stranger this scientist will one day become) shows up in this future time to help the scientist prevent one of his colleagues, an Omnicidal Maniac who intended to use their project for the destruction of the universe instead of its preservation. Long story short, the not-yet-Stranger scientist time travels back to the very beginning of the universe where the primal forces of creation (in combination with his own inherent potential, and an apparent passing on of life-force from the dying Stranger-We-Know) transformed him into something more than human. When his own time eventually rolls around, he will tip his younger self off about his colleague, unlock his potential, and then, at long last, die. It Makes Sense in Context.
  4. The Stranger was an angel who refused to participate in the battle between God and Lucifer. Because of this he was cast out of heaven, but not into Hell (so he's basically half-fallen). He is thus condemned to walk the earth for all time. This story was written by Alan Moore, and is generally the most popular interpretation.

It is, of course, entirely possible that none of these are his real origin, but something else entirely is. In fact, considering both the nature of The Stranger and of the DC Universe, it's equally possible that all of them are true, plus however many others you'd care to imagine. (The New 52 has given him a new origin, which is presumably canon for the moment; he was one of three beings punished by the gods of the Rock of Eternity for their sins against magic--heavily implied that he's Judas Ischariot.)

Contrary to what many fans believe, the origin story that claims the Stranger is a half-fallen angel (that is, he stayed neutral during Lucifer's Rebellion and isn't welcome in either Heaven or Hell as a result) is not the Stranger's official origin, although it is the most popular. (Being by Alan Moore probably didn't hurt.) Nor are his powers limitless, as he has been seen struggling against magical opponents such as Tala.

However, he is a member of the Justice League of America, though he still doesn't show up except when they need his help- they can't contact him.

Note also that the Stranger does not wear a mask — that's just an (intentional) visual effect, the shadow of his hat on his face. However, the shadow still appears even when he's wearing a Santa hat, or even no hat at all. He's just that awesome. (His hair, by the way, is white.)

Tropes associated with the character:

  • The Atoner - In one of his multiple choice pasts he was the Wandering Jew, who eventually realized that his curse was actually an opportunity to do good and serve God, and even requested to remain alive longer when given the opportunity to be freed from it.
    • This is also part of what he says about his and Pandora's fate: cursed to watch what he has sowed.
  • Badass Longcoat - Though he traditionally wears a cape, he dons a trench coat in Books of Magic and The Trenchcoat Brigade
    • It should be noted that in his original (1950s) appearances, he does wear some kind of overcoat, with a button-up shirt and tie. (This look can be seen in the upper-left-hand corner spot illustration on the cover reproduced above.)
  • Cosmopolitan Council - The Stranger was one of the members of "The Quintessence", an alliance of powerful good mystics who watched over the DC Universe... and rarely did anything else. As of current continuity, it's no longer in operation.
    • In the New 52 continuity, an alliance of mystics branded the Stranger as one of the three greatest sinners of all time and cursed him to forever be a stranger to humanity.
  • Disabled Love Interest - Cassandra Craft, the Stranger's blind girlfriend.
  • Dungeon Master - A good one, but his motives are a mystery.
  • Evil Sorcerer - Tala and Tannarak.
  • Face Framed in Shadow
  • Flat Earth Atheist - Dr. Thirteen.
  • Flying Dutchman - One of the suggested origins for the Stranger is that he's the literal Wandering Jew. Not very likely to be used often though, as this origin involves Jesus.
  • Inexplicably Awesome.
  • Intangible Time Travel - One of the Stranger's powers.
  • Joker Immunity - Tannarak. The guy just refuses to stop coming back.
  • Jury of the Damned - The Stranger once had to defend Superman before one.
  • Marty Stu: The character is starting to reach levels of this.
  • Multiple Choice Past - Several intentionally conflicting origins have been suggested for the Stranger.
    • Still in force as of his Blackest Night tie-in. Not only is he neither alive nor dead, but he is something "strange" (this is coming from black rings that in all other cases, with the exception of identifying the White Light, are perfectly accurate at assessing emotional states, life and death, and so on - yet they do not recognise what he is) that even Nekron does not understand. And when a Black Lantern attempts to take his heart, a page is shown of three of the possible origins of the Stranger, followed by the Black Lantern lying on the ground covered in scorch marks (thrown out violently with no harm being done to Stranger) and the Phantom Stranger declaring that the Black Lantern has "seen everything and nothing" of the truth.
    • The New 52 provides another possible explanation for what he is: along with Pandora, the instigator of Flashpoint and the New 52, he is one of three sinners that is cursed to watch what they have sowed. The question is this: what did the Phantom Stranger do? He is later revealed to be Judas, the man who sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. He wears the thirty silver pieces on a necklace that was seared into his neck (turning his hair white in the process) as part of his punishment.
  • My Significance Sense Is Tingling
  • Mysterious Past
  • No Name Given - Though in one of his four aforementioned multiple choice pasts his original name was Isaac; none of the other three, by the way, offer any name. Averted in his New 52 background, where it's revelaed he was Judas.
  • Occult Detective
  • Our Angels Are Different: In the Stranger's angelic origin it is speculated that he was an angel who might have had a significant impact in the celestial struggle but instead took neither side in the Heavenly Civil War.
  • Refusing Paradise - At the end of the origin story that states he's the original Wandering Jew, God tells him he's earned time off for good behavior and can go to heaven now, and he asks to stick around on Earth and keep helping people.
  • The Slow Path - In another of the origins, the Stranger is a man from the distant future traveling home the only way he can.
  • Stable Time Loop - In the man-from-the-future origin.
  • Stealth Hi Bye - A venerable master of it. He can even pull off this trick right in front of someone's eyes.
  • To Hell and Back - The Stranger CAN enter Hell- he just isn't welcome there.
  • Trenchcoat Brigade - See Badass Longcoat above. A member of the Trope Maker.
  • Walking the Earth - All of his origins have him doing this for one reason or another, either out of choice or because he must wait until the end of time to die.
  • The Watcher - Sometimes the Stranger merely narrates a story rather than taking an active part in it.
    • In the Vertigo Comics Madame Xanadu series, he insists it is not his place to interfere, except at certain junctures, to specific ends. Madame X concludes that this is an excuse to do whatever he likes and then disappear without dealing with the consequences.
      • Though she isn't exactly an entirely objective observer of his actions, all things being said and done.