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REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE SIGNATURE SERIES PHANTOM STRANGER
By Thomas Wheeler

As of this writing, I saw the new DC UNLIMITED and BATMAN UNLIMITED action figure lines at retail. As pleased as I was to see well-made, 6" scale, DC Universe action figures return to the stores, all of them using body sculpts to one degree or another established in the DC Universe Classics line, and as fully compatible with them -- there wasn't a single one of them that I felt inclined to buy.

I don't see much of anything "Unlimited" about these lines. They seem almost entirely based on either the "New 52", which I want no part of, or, with regard to some forthcoming assortments, on an upcoming DC-based video game, whose designs are also a bit quirky. How's about living up to the "Unlimited" and bringing some "Pre-New-52" figures into this line, hmm? And I don't mean Flashpoint...

Of the six figures that I saw on this occasion, five of them were based on the horrible "New 52" world that DC has unloaded on the fan base. I have absolutely no interest in these versions of Superman, Flash, Batman, Hawkman, or Batgirl. The sixth figure was a version of the Penguin that looked to be based on his Super Powers incarnation. Mattel and the Four Horsemen have done an excellent job bringing over a few other Super Powers-type figures, especially Golden Pharaoh a couple of years ago. But the headsculpt for this Penguin figure was just too cartoonish. It was hardly the Horsemen's best work. For that matter, neither was the Hawkman figure.

All of which brings me around to this point -- I am very happy about the DC Universe Signature Series from MattyCollector. As much as I am not that fond of mail-ordering action figures, and while a few of the characters in the line-up aren't necessarily ones I would've otherwise bought were I not a subscriber -- I'll still take any of them over this "New 52".

Oddly enough, one recent addition to the DC Universe Signature Series, who will be the focus of this review, has received his own title -- the first in quite some time -- as part of the "New 52". However, I will, for several reasons, be intentionally disregarding that portion of his history for this review.

The individual in question is the PHANTOM STRANGER, a long-established if very mysterious member of the DC Universe. Let's consider his history, and then have a look at his action figure.

The Phantom Stranger is of unspecified paranormal origins who battles mysterious and occult forces in various titles published by DC Comics, sometimes under their Vertigo imprint.

The Phantom Stranger first appeared in a six-issue anthology comic book series bearing his name, The Phantom Stranger, first published in August-September 1952, created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino.

After an appearance in Showcase #80 (February 1969), he received another series beginning May–June 1969 that lasted until February–March 1976. The Showcase appearance and the first three issues of Phantom Stranger consisted of reprints from both the 1950s title, with new, brief framing sequences. These had Dr. Thirteen, certain that the Phantom Stranger was a fake, determined to expose him.

Beginning with issue #4 (November–December 1969), the series began featuring all-new material, with stories produced by Robert Kanigher, Len Wein, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Tony DeZuniga, and others.

In these stories, while the Stranger's past remained a mystery, the writers added a semi-regular cast of characters for him. A demonic sorceress named Tala would become his major personal enemy; an alchemist/sorcerer named Tannarak was first an enemy and would later assist him against the Dark Circle; and a blind psychic named Cassandra Craft would assist him.

The Phantom Stranger is better known for his role as a supernatural assistant to other heroes, such as the Justice League. His status as either a full, reserve, or honorary member of the League is debatable. After a vote of the majority of the team in Justice League of America #103, they offered him membership, with Superman declaring the Stranger "a member" without qualification, though he left before accepting.

The Phantom Stranger has at least twice asserted his membership status when other Leaguers challenged his input, during the vote on the League's re-admission of Wonder Woman and during the crossover with Marvel Comics' Avengers.

Writer Len Wein commented on the Phantom Stranger's relationship with the JLA in a 2012 interview stating that the character "only sort of joined. He was offered membership but vanished, as per usual, without actually accepting the offer. Over the years, other writers have just assumed [he] was a member, but in my world, he never really said yes."

The Stranger also starred in a mini-series in 1987. This series portrayed him as an agent of the Lords of Order. They temporarily stripped the Stranger of his powers, due to his desire to continue a battle against the Lords of Chaos. This went against the wishes of the Lords of Order, who had believed a victory by darkness over light was necessary and preordained. This series also featured Eclipso as an agent of Chaos. In Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame, this role is continued. However the Stranger claims he belongs to no group. The Lords of Order threaten to strip him of his powers, and he leaves, claiming he shall continue to wander.

Unusual for a comic book character of such longevity, the Phantom Stranger's given name, his true nature, and his origins have never been revealed. DC produced a special issue of Secret Origins that postulated no less than four equally possible origins:

One proposes the Stranger was originally a private citizen during biblical times and was spared God's wrath. An angel was sent to deliver him from divine wrath. After questioning God's actions, he commits suicide. The angel forbids his spirit from entering the afterlife, reanimates his body and condemns him to walk the world forever to be a part of humanity but also forever separated from it. He then discovered his divine charge, to turn humanity away from evil, one soul at a time. Some versions of this story imply that the angel to do this was not just a random angel but the incarnation of The Spectre of that time period.

In a variation of the Wandering Jew story, he was a man named Isaac with a wife (Rebecca) and a son during the time of Jesus' childhood. When King Herod heard that there was born a child who would be king of the Jews, he ordered the deaths of all baby boys in order to kill the Christ child. Among the people killed were Isaac's wife and son. Blind with anger, he spent the next 30 years in a rage against Jesus. After the crucifixion, Isaac recognized his mistake and let go of his anger. He has since spent the rest of his life helping society, even declining an offer from God to release him from his sentence.

Another was a proposal that the Phantom Stranger is a remnant of the previous universe. At the end of the universe the Phantom Stranger approaches a group of scientists studying the event, warning them not to interfere in the natural conclusion of the universe. The story concludes with the Phantom Stranger passing a portion of himself to a scientist, the universe is reborn, and the scientist from the previous universe is the Phantom Stranger in the new universe.

Another tale postulated that the Phantom Stranger was a fallen angel condemned to walk the Earth alone for all time. In the comic book miniseries The Trenchcoat Brigade, John Constantine sees that the fourth origin story is essentially correct. The Vertigo Visions: The Phantom Stranger one-shot by Alisa Kwitney and Guy Davis builds upon the fallen angel story and adds the story of the woman Naamah, who was condemned to Hell for loving an angel. This angel is strongly hinted to have become the Phantom Stranger.

Another possible origin was hinted at in The Kingdom (the sequel to Kingdom Come) in which it was implied that Jonathan Kent, the future son of Superman and Wonder Woman, might grow up to be the Phantom Stranger. This also tied some of his abilities into the Hypertime concept, saying that he had the innate ability to enter other alternate timelines and to exist in the spaces between them. However, the story ultimately revealed this a red herring. The character in question had been deliberately drawn in shadows to suggest that he was the Stranger; but when Wonder Woman finally saw his face, she said that she now realized he was not the Stranger.

Yet another story, in the mini-series Conjurors (outside regular DC continuity), has him as the Father of Magic, the first human ever to wield arcane forces through his medallion, which he had stolen from extradimensional Lovecraftian deities, arcane forces he then shares with humanity.

It's been shown in his appearances in Doctor Fate-related titles that the Stranger was a servant of the Lords of Order during the Ninth Age of Magic (at least). However, this may be a later development unrelated to his actual origin.

In his earliest appearances, the Phantom Stranger would prove supernatural events to be hoaxes perpetrated by criminals. He would directly confront the villains, and displayed no supernatural abilities apart from his uncanny ability to appear where and when he is needed and to disappear just as mysteriously, with nobody ever seeing him coming or going. In later stories, the supernatural events were real and the Phantom Stranger was given unspecified superhuman powers to defeat them.

In his second comic book series, the Phantom Stranger became a truly supernatural hero.

The Phantom Stranger played a major part in Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic, taking protagonist Tim Hunter through time to show him the history and nature of magic. He has assisted the Justice League on numerous occasions. The Stranger also had his own limited series, where, lacking much of his power, he tries to foil Eclipso's plan to cause a nuclear war.

During Kevin Smith's relaunch of Green Arrow, he prevented Hal Jordan from uniting the resurrected body of Oliver Queen with his soul in Heaven. This earned him Jordan's wrath; indeed, the Spectre threatened to judge the Stranger to see whether God had "punished" him properly by refusing him access to Heaven itself. Nonetheless, the Phantom Stranger assisted Hal Jordan during his tenure as the Spectre on numerous occasions as well, most notably in a short stint babysitting Hal's niece, Helen.

In 2005's Day of Vengeance, the Stranger had been turned into a small rodent by the Spectre. Upon the Spectre's confrontation and battle with the Stranger, the Stranger states that "You can't kill me. I doubt that the universe would allow it." He was still able to advise the Detective Chimp, who sheltered him in his hat while he recovered his powers. He changed back using recovered energies in Day of Vengeance #6 and aided the Shadowpact, allowing them to see the battle between the Spectre and Shazam. The series makes a point that the supernatural community generally regards the Phantom Stranger as invincible. The first reaction of some characters to the Spectre's assault on magic is simply to presume that the Stranger will take care of it. Other stories have shown the Stranger nearly as powerful as the Spectre.

In the Day of Vengeance: Infinite Crisis Special, The Phantom Stranger works with Nabu, Doctor Occult, Zatanna, the Shadowpact and other mystics to re-form the Rock of Eternity and help defeat the maddened Spectre.

The Phantom Stranger's relationships with the other mystic heroes are usually a bit tense. The Stranger has no qualms gathering various forces in order to combat a certain evil, often invading those people's personal lives. However, he does not usually extend them that same courtesy. The Phantom Stranger has resisted such people as Doctor Fate in this, although Fate is in almost any incarnation an ally of the Stranger. Despite this, he does get along well with Zatanna; in Justice League of America #6 he appeared by her side to help remove the influence of Faust on Red Tornado, and in the Justice series he seems to have a fatherly affection for her, calling her "my dear."

Since he is ultimately an unpredictable force, others often meet the Phantom Stranger's appearance with distrust. Nonetheless, most heroes will follow him, seeing not only his immense power, but also knowing that the Stranger is, in the end, a force for good. He has generally shown to side with humanity first in many supernatural-based problems, such as when he aided Superman in a confrontation with the magician Arion.

A notable exception to the heroes who will work with the Stranger is Madame Xanadu, who has refused to join the Stranger on a few occasions, although she is a member of his Sentinels of Magic. Eventually it was revealed that Madame Xanadu's hatred for the Phantom Stranger stems for his involvement in the events costing young Nimue her powers and heritage, and turning the young fey into the immortal yet powerless clairevoyant.

The Stranger also holds a unique relationship with the Spectre, as the two forces often come into conflict. He was responsible for gathering a group of mystic heroes in order to combat the Spectre, when its human host Jim Corrigan seemingly lost control of the Spectre. The Phantom Stranger participated in Jim Corrigan's funeral, when Corrigan's soul finally earned its rest and left the Spectre. The Stranger subsequently became one of the forces that stood against the Spectre when it went on a rampage without its human host, until the soul of Hal Jordan bonded with it.

In the pages of Shadowpact the Phantom Stranger has adopted the role of narrator. He is shown to be aware of the mystical happenings not only on Earth but across several dimensions; once again he is shown unable to interfere no matter how dire the danger he's aware of.

In Blackest Night #2, Black Hand refers to the Phantom Stranger as neither dead nor alive, meaning he cannot be killed, resurrected or raised as a Black Lantern.

The Stranger seems to be effectively eternal, never aging. The Phantom Stranger has demonstrated enormous powers and capabilities, the exact origin of which is undetermined. He can travel enormous distances in a very short period of time, such as to the JLA Watchtower and Apokolips, as well as to other dimensions, such as Heaven, Hell and the realm occupied by the Quintessence. He can fire energy bolts of great force, travel through time, dispel magic, reveal illusions, and survive in space without any type of life support system. The limits of his power have not been defined. In many cases, despite his obvious capabilities, he claims he is not allowed to end a crisis directly, only to guide others to take the necessary actions.

The Phantom Stranger's greatest and most well-known power is his mysterious omniscience; he seems to know nearly everything about any character and situation he encounters in the DC Universe, and in the JLA/Avengers crossover this extends to the Marvel Universe as well. This allows him to provide helpful advice and assistance to others. He claims that "nothing remains hidden to him".

Although the Phantom Stranger does not wear a mask, the shadow of his hat almost constantly cloaks his eyes. When shown unmasked in the Madame Xanadu miniseries, set in Arthurian age where the Stranger's disguise was a simple cloak, his eyes appear as white and devoid of irises and pupils even in broad light, and his eyes sunken in a gaunt, sad visage, thus perpetuating the shadowy look around them.

In other media, Phantom Stranger appears in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "Chill of the Night!" voiced by Kevin Conroy, best known as the voice of Batman in previous animated series. He and the Spectre observe Batman as he learns who murdered his parents. The Stranger wagers that Batman will remain on the path of justice, while the Spectre wagers that Batman will choose the path of vengeance and murder Joe Chill.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive, if admittedly a little atypical.

The Phantom Stranger isn't one of your spandex-wearing muscle-bound heroes. The suit he wears has more of a resemblance to something you might find at a fine tailor's shop instead of -- well, wherever it is that most super-heroes get their costumes. Talk about something I'd like to ask the supposedly omniscient Phantom Stranger about...

There is a set of molds for DC Universe figures that conforms to a man's body dressed in a good suit. It's seen several uses, with various modifications, for characters such as Riddler, Two-Face, Sandman, and a few others. The body is somewhat more slender than the average build of a tights-wearing hero, but one has to wonder a bit how good a more muscular character would look in a suit. I tend to be of the opinion that the result, at least on an action figure, would look a bit bulky.

The Phantom Stranger is dressed in a black suit, with what appears to be a white turtleneck shirt under the jacket, and white gloves on his hands. The gloves are especially well detailed, with all of the fingers separate from each other, and various seams on the gloves sculpted as part of the detail.

The Phantom Stranger is wearing black shoes, nicely detailed with laces. To add just a little variety to the otherwise entirely black suit, the shoes have been painted gloss black, as have some of the buttons on the coat.

The Phantom Stranger is wearing a dark, steel blue cape with a very high collar. The cape hangs nicely in the back, and although attached to the upper back of the figure, has two decorative plastic clasps on either side of the collar on the front, and a gold chain between them.

The Phantom Stranger is also wearing a long chain around his neck, to which is attached a gold plastic medallion with an ornate symbol on it. The symbol looks like either a sun or a flower, with a regular pattern to it that -- well, it looks like it was drawn on a Spirograph. Anybody remember that toy...?

Anyway, what's especially interesting about the chain on the cape and the chain to which the medallion is attached is that both are actual metal chains, with bright gold links! This is an impressive level of detail. I'm not sure, but I think the last time any "actual" chain found its way into the DC Universe Classics line, it was on the Lobo figure, a San Diego Comic-Con exclusive several years ago. I commend Mattel for doing it once again. It's likely not an easy or inexpensive step to take, and it's appreciated here.

Then we have the headsculpt. As indicated in the character profile, the Phantom Stranger's eyes are typically drawn in shadow. It's one thing to do that in a comic book. It's another to get away with it on an action figure, that must exist in three dimensions, be viewable at all angles, and work well with a variety of light sources.

I can only think of one previous action figure that ever needed to do this. When Hasbro was producing a series of three-packs of traditional-style G.I. Joe figures during the 2002-2006 run of the line, three-packs that were based on specific comic-book issues, one set that was released was based on a story that, in part, featured a flashback to when Stalker, Storm Shadow, and Snake-Eyes were serving on a recon patrol unit in Southeast Asia.

This was well before the G.I. Joe team was formed, before Cobra was a known entity, and before Snake-Eyes suffered the accident that ruined his face and cost him his voice. Nevertheless, in order to maintain some mystery about the character, Snake-Eyes was constantly shown wearing a hat that shadowed much of his face, which obviously was inked black in the comic book.

The solution on the figure was to take a headsculpt, give it a hat, and lightly airbrush black shadow around the upper portion of the face. Under the circumstances, it worked surprisingly well. There's a few angles of light where it doesn't always come off well, but for the most part, it works.

Mattel chose to do something very similar with the Phantom Stranger. They crafted a headsculpt, for starters. And admittedly, there's nothing all that distinctive about the Phantom Stranger's face. He's not disfigured or anything like that. The portion of his face that is seen appears to be a fairly average-featured male Caucasian. Such is the headsculpt for the Phantom Stranger. It's well-sculpted and nicely detailed, with a serious if rather neutral expression on its face, perfect for the character.

Then, Mattel gave him a hat. There's nothing all that unusual about the Phantom Stranger's hat, just as there's nothing terribly unusual about his suit. Really, what sets the Stranger apart, visually, is the cape and the medallion, as much as anything. The Phantom Stranger's hat is the same dark steel blue as his cape, with a black band above the brim. The brim isn't even especially wide. Granted, on the figure, if it were much wider than it is, it'd whack into the cape collar.

Then, Mattel airbrushed some shadow onto the upper portion of the face. Only, unlike Hasbro on Snake-Eyes, they didn't use black. And admittedly, that might have been a little extreme for these larger figures from a different concept. Instead, they used a darker shade of flesh-tone. And it works quite well, although in direct light, it does look a little more as if the Phantom Stranger somehow managed to sunburn the upper portion of his face as much as anything.

The Phantom Stranger has blank, white eyes, which were clearly painted after the shadow, and fairly short, black hair. The black hair surprised me. While I haven't followed the Stranger's adventures all that closely, I've seen a few illustrations that would indicate that the Phantom Stranger's hair is white. This might well be artistic interpretation to some degree. And the figure doesn't look bad with black hair. We're obviously not talking about a figure with an extensive color palette here, anyway.

The Phantom Stranger has nearly the same level of articulation as the spandex-wearing set. He is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivels, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, upper leg swivels, knees, and ankles. The only thing missing is the mid-torso articulation, which would've been a little difficult given the suit and such. Not a major loss in this instance, either.

So, what's my final word? Admittedly, the Phantom Stranger wasn't someone who was near the top of me "want to see in this line" list. On the other hand, the character certainly has a good prominence in the DC Universe, he's been around for over half a century, and I would certainly readily agree that he deserves this fine figure.

Would I have bought him at retail if the DC Universe Classics line had continued on course? Yes, I am quite certain that I would have, and I am very pleased to have him. If you're a fan of the character, or of the "Pre-New-52" DC Universe, then you will also welcome this fine figure into your collection, along with the other characters from the DC Universe Signature Series.

The DC UNIVERSE SIGNATURE SERIES figure of THE PHANTOM STRANGER definitely has my highest recommendation!