clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

No superhero hates God more than the Phantom Stranger

A look at the origins of DC Comics most mysterious ‘superhero’

DC Comics superhero the Phantom Stranger, a man in a dark overcoat and fedora, raises his hand in a warning. His eyes are pure white. Image: DC Comics

Generally, mainstream superhero comics go out of their way to avoid mentioning the Judeo-Christian religion, since it makes the existence of Norse thunder gods and Amazonian myths feel a bit awkward. The major exception to the rule is DC Comics’ Phantom Stranger.

Even though he’s served as an enigmatic advisor/guest star for a host of heroes, many of them still distrust the immortal, immensely powerful, and practically omniscient being because they don’t know who he is or where he came from. They also don’t know how mad he is at God.

Back in 1987, Secret Origins #10 revealed not one, but four potential origin stories for the Phantom Stranger, and almost all of them were atypically religious in nature. But even more unexpectedly, they also featured the Stranger’s personal grudge against God and Jesus.

Polygon has already spent some time on how long it took the comics industry just to be able to mention god. Here are four strange backstories where maybe god was mentioned too much.

The Undecided Angel

The Phantom Stranger (when he was an angel) and Etrigan (also when he was an angel) discuss rebelling against the Almighty, in Secret Origins #10, DC Comics (1987). Image: Alan Moore, Joe Orlando/DC Comics

Written by the Alan Moore and drawn by Joe Orlando, “Footsteps” imagines the being who would become the Phantom Stranger as an extremely handsome, white-haired angel who’s having trouble picking sides in the upcoming God-Satan war. On the one hand, the idea of openly warring against Yahweh (as He’s named) seems like a bad idea, but on the other, the angel is vastly upset by Yahweh’s plan to populate the Earth with “homunculi,” i.e. humans. So he accepts an invitation from the angel Etrigan — presumably that Etrigan — to hear Satan’s pitch. Satan, who is still considered an angel at this point despite being the only heavenly being to rock cloven hooves, fails to convince the Stranger, who sits out the battle.

When the rebellion starts getting its collective divine asses kicked down to Earth, Etrigan implores him for help again. The future Stranger continues to hem and haw until Etrigan slips and knocks them both to Earth. Now damned by default, the Stranger flies over to Satan’s fallen angels for shelter, who have all been malformed by Yahweh in addition to being cast out of heaven. Understandably somewhat bitter, they rip the Stranger’s wings off and tell him to get lost… for eternity.

This is actually only half the story, as it alternates with a story set in modern-day New York, a place so full of filth and packed with degenerates it might as well have been copied-and-pasted from Watchmen; at one point, the modern-day Stranger stands in the sewers, which are filled with monstrous-looking derelicts and muses, “I stand listening, here where all the abortions come, all the torn-up love letter and baby alligators and used people.” You can imagine that he’s just waiting to whisper “No.”

In what may be Moore’s least subtle, nuanced metaphor ever, a man considers joining the “Subway Angels” or the “Sewer Survivalists” and is rejected and assaulted by both. Luckily, the Phantom Stranger is there to give him a helping hand up … although the hero was also there, watching, when the guy was getting beat up, so his hand could have been considerably more helpful.

In this origin, God is definitely angrier with the Phantom Stranger than vice versa, although there’s something pointedly self-righteous in the way the Stranger helps someone who’s fallen get back up, an act of kindness he was not afforded.

Blessed But Bitter

The Phantom Stranger is significantly angrier at God in “…and men shall call him Stranger” by Paul Levitz and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. This time, he’s the only good man in an ancient city that is either Sodom, Gomorrah, or an incredibly close facsimile. Its inhabitants are all about gluttony, fornication, and not praying, right up until God gets His vengeance on the city, which is blasted by lightning, set on fire, struck by an earthquake, and then hit with a flood which washes away anyone left standing.

All this time, the only Good Man in the Bad City prays for the Lord to forgive and spare his people, including his wife and children. Instead, an angel arrives to take him away to safety as the city’s sole survivor. The man is not at all cool with this, and asks what is in all honesty two questions most moralistic religions have grappled with for centuries: “Even if it takes until the end of time itself, is it not better for evil to be turned to good, and sin to virtue? If all is possible in Heaven, why must my city be damned?”

The Phantom Stranger, still mortal, refuses God’s mercy and readies himself to commit suicide, as an angel commands him to stop, in Secret Origins #10, DC Comics (1987). Image: Paul Levitz, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez/DC Comics

This irritates the angel, who pulls the “it’s not for man to understand God’s plan” card, which in turn irritates the man. He holds his sword to his stomach, telling the angel if his city dies, he’s dying with it. This irritates the angel even further, and the divine being becomes straight-up livid when he holds true to his word and angrily commits suicide.

“Yet you have rejected the gift of life and even the mercy of the creator of life itself. For that you should properly be damned,” the angel says, grabbing his soul as it begins to float off and shoving it back into his body.

Here’s the crazy part: By essentially throwing God’s get-out-of-damnation free card back in His divine face, the man gets his way. The city and its inhabitants, including the man’s family, are spared. The price, of course, is that the man must wander the Earth forever, with no recollection of who he is, where he’s from, or what he did. It’s a very strange punishment that seems very arbitrary, but again, it’s not for humanity to understand God’s plan. Even if we can annoy Him into changing it sometimes.

The Jesus Torturer

The very first “origin” in Secret Origins #10 is, in my opinion, the most outrageous of the four, and one of the most outrageous things I have ever read in a comic. A few years after 0 C.E., a man named Isaac, his wife, and his very young son live a happy life in Bethlehem—that is, until King Herod unleashes the “Massacre of the Innocents.” It’s the grandiloquent name for the Judean ruler’s decree, after the Wise Men informed him the King of the Jews had been born, that all boys two and under in the Bethlehem tri-state area must be killed. This naturally includes Isaac’s son, but the king’s soldiers also kill his wife when she causes a scuffle. A few decades later, Isaac happens to see the guy whose existence (indirectly) destroyed his family, which is to say, Jesus.

Isaac hates Jesus so much, you guys. He despises the Son of God to a truly shocking degree, especially for a mainstream superhero comic published in 1987.

The Phantom Stranger, while still a mortal, seethes in anger at Jesus Christ, and bribes a Roman soldier to let him take his place, in Secret Origins #10, DC Comics (1987).
Pictured: Seething.
Image: Mike W. Barr, Jim Aparo/DC Comics

After the Lamb of God is arrested and sentenced to be crucified, Isaac bribes a soldier and takes his job for the day, because that job is torturing Jesus. Of the comic panels that have been permanently etched into my brain, the one where a future DC superhero whips Jesus with a barbed cat-o’-nine tails is first and foremost. When Isaac adds a bit of mockery to the torture session, a somber Jesus condemns the man to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.

Written by Mike Barr with art by Jim Aparo, “Tarry Till I Come Again” turns the Phantom Stranger into the myth of “The Wandering Jew,” a 13th century legend about a man who received the same curse after insulting and/or injuring Jesus on his way to his crucifixion. There are many different versions of said myth, but as far as I know, this comic is the only story where God tells the Wandering Jew he’s been forgiven and can finally die via text messages sent into a fireplace. However, the now-penitent Phantom Stranger asks if he can continue wandering around the DCU and helping people a while longer, which God OKs. So at least they end up on speaking terms.

STRANGER... I HAVE HEARD YOUR WORDS proclaims letters of living fire, as a priest looks on in amazement and the Phantom Stranger watches stoically, in Secret Origins #10, DC Comics (1987). Image: Mike W. Barr, Jim Aparo/DC Comics

The Great Betrayer

After DC cleared off its metaphorical table and served up the New 52, former co-publisher Dan Didio brought out a new Phantom Stranger series in 2012, giving the hero a very specific and canonical origin — one that was just as religious as his previous versions had been. This Stranger was none other than Judas Iscariot, the Apostle who effectively sent Jesus to the Crucifixion for 30 pieces of silver, making him the most iconic betrayer in Western culture, and his name synonymous with “traitor.”

Unlike the biblical character, a tribunal of seven wizards sentenced the comics character (along with Pandora and a guy who would become the Question) to wander the Earth for eternity as the Trinity of Sin, part of one of the New 52’s never-quite-picked-up plot threads. The 30 silver coins were transformed into a stylish necklace Judas could never take off until he performed 30 tasks, some of them even more tortuous betrayals, each commanded by “the Presence” (DC’s equivalent/codeword for the Judeo- Christian deity).

Whether he’s a fallen angel, a pious man, the Wandering Jew, or His divine employee, the Phantom Stranger and God have always had a rocky relationship. But it’s never too late to be forgiven. Maybe next reboot.


Rob Bricken has been a professional nerd for 20 years, the editor of Gizmodo’s geeky pop culture site io9, and was the creator of the fan-favorite, unfortunately named news blog Topless Robot. He lives in West Virginia, where he spends time writing and regretting action figure purchases.