When you’re strange, you’re probably gonna team up with batman at some point.


Batman/Phantom Stranger

Written by Alan Grant, rider of the British Invasion, and illustrated by fellow 2000 AD veteran Arthur Ranson, we have an untitled (and beautifully unheralded) team-up between Batman and the best dressed mystic in the DC Universe, Phantom Stranger.

As rendered by the definer of his visual style, Neal Adams, whose imagery has haunted this blog (and almost everyone’s conceptualization of Batman) since.

Cursed with a terrible power from the Word, Phantom Stranger finds himself in good company with the Spectre. As he states in this comic,

he will not know rest until every man has made the conscious path to doing good. Just like the Spectre will never tire until men stop committing evil to each other.

Also, he is omnipotent, but not omniscient. So when crimes are committed, it will take an admission of guilt, a brief revelation of honesty, in order for his incredible power to make things right. This puts him in observation mode for most of the comic, basically worshipping the humanity of Batman as he locates the stolen goods of a lost civilization.

Really, with all his omnipotence, he never acts in the story. Checking out Arthur Ranson’s official website, and the reasons soon become clear: Either bigwigs at DC or editor Scott Peterson, asked “Alan not to do anything spooky so Phantom Stranger was largely a spectator”. This allows him to champion Batman’s humanity, his impressive skills at self improvement, above all else.

They spent the entire comic in search of a lost message from a destroyed civilization, “Lemuria”, they call it. Embedded in a valuable emerald ring,  the comic’s style resembles the michael fleisher and jim apart spectre comics more than anything. Men doing terrible things, sometimes popping off fingers in gratuitous torture as is the case here. Real EC Crime comic stuff, where you just know the gavel is goon a have to fall eventually.

Thankfully, it isn’t illustrated by just some random hack. Arthur Ranson, a man known for his illustration and scifi parodies, instead of his superheroics, contributes the engravings.

And he does a marvelous job. With a classical line an eye for anatomy his work resembles Gene Colan’s, but instead of fading away borders, he designs many unorthodox pages throughout with fragments of vision colliding to form a fight scene:

All in all, it’s the kind of work that makes you fear a random creator on a comic a little bit less. Maybe something you don’t know just doesn’t come around very often. It doesn’t have to mean that the unknown can’t amaze and astound! Plus the comic is probably lurking in half price books everywhere.

And it’s a doozy of a narrative, one that has its heroes finding a lost gospel from the Lemurian civilization. Alan Grant, a proud member of the British Invasion of comics in the eighties, pens this tale. After entrusting some low-selling superhero titles to British writers such as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol, DC soon realized that the one thing American readers wanted more than anything else was a version of their heroes written by people who defile tradition. Which isn’t to say that these authors weren’t mindful of tradition. Certainly Alan Moore’s imagination and adept world building skills comes from his childhood love of Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four comics. But it was not those qualities people admired. It was the boldness of wagging a penis around on panel, it was the extreme lengths Rorschach would go for justice, it was the sexual tension between superheroics that really sold those comics.

And so DC got more writers from across the pond. Garth Ennis, that foul mouthed lover of Texan culture, would go on to write Preacher, Warren Ellis would go on to tear down pulp and early superhero conventions in Planetary, and Alan Grant, the author of this comic, would be given the keys to mainstream batman comics for most of my newsstand buying childhood. When I just assumed that the imagination of this guy was normal. This serial killer who scarred his skin once for every victim is one of his creations:

Judged against his other compatriots from the United Kingdom (although not his Scottish colleague Grant Morrison), who couldn’t keep a deadline to save their lives, Alan Grant soon settled into a role not dissimilar from Bill Mantlo, popular as a fill in author eventually given the keys to the fancy cars based on his own dependability. He would go on to make mangy wonderful additions to the Batman mythos: the gangster scarface, who is quite possibly an invention of the schizoid ventriloquist who legitimately acts scared by every action his hands make:

And who can forget the anti-villain Anarky, “a child prodigy with knowledge of radical philosophy and driven to overthrow governments to improve social conditions”, as the very adoring wikipedia page for him describes. Even planned at being the third Robin while Tim Drake was still developing, the ghost of Bill Mantlo rears his head again: “Marv Wolfman had already created the new Robin. Bastard.” (from an interview with Alan Grant. Wolfman also forbade Mantlo from using almost every major spider-man villain during his two independent runs of Spectacular Spider-man.)

yea, I know who I’d want to be the third Robin. Thank god they let Grant Morrison, one of the initial British upstarts, invent the fourth Robin, Damian Wayne. He needs a kid to push him to consider the more impulsive urges within himself.

This comic, however, is all about becoming an adult. Changing one’s self. The Phantom Stranger, in his brilliant original series in the seventies, acts as a modern interpretation of the myths of disguised angels and greek gods testing the hospitality of humans. Given incredible power, the phantom stranger feels no need to show it, and on his mission to inspire all conscious minds to do good instead of evil, he must present himself as vulnerable. A stranger in need of hospitality. If one gives him it, they receive his blessing (although it’s been a while since he’s entertained friendships), and if one does not?

he shows them a mirror of their soul, and they die. All in all a much more human way of meting out judgment than the Spectre’s vicious old testament justice.

And the biblical references do not end there. The storyline follows the lost contents of the Lemurian civilization, somehow encased within an expensive emerald. The narrative of Batman and Phantom Stranger finding it soon becomes both their paths because the spreading of its contents will make humanity make better decisions. Batman just wants to recover a stolen artifact from the museum.

The ring turns out to do more than look pretty, though: it allows the wearer to sing a song, letting them feel the lyrics. Telling the story of a civilization about to be flooded, a robed man is depicted spreading an important word before a small select members can escape certain doom, and send one message throughout the ages, that man might learn from their past mistakes.

This is a comic where the gospel is music, and it’s a forgotten memory for a paradisiac time. It’s about how to change the world, by changing yourself. Entrusted with the last souvenir of an advanced race, after being saved by superheroes, the fifteen year old kid looks up and asks how to change the world:

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