The Phantom Stranger has been a character in the DC universe since his creation in 1952 by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. He exists as one a of number of supernatural ‘heavy-hitters’ who exist alongside the regular superheroes, sometimes working with them, and sometimes just providing advice or observing.
The origin story of the character varies but is intertwined with Judeo-Christian mythology including being a man spared from divine wrath, the Wandering Jew, and a fallen angel. As such, the Stranger, who appears destined to walk the earth for eternity, observing humanity, occasionally intervening, but forever separated from people and relationships.
As such, the character lends itself to the exploration of supernatural and religious elements, interacting not just with figures such as Superman or Batman, but also with Swamp Thing, John Constantine, Dr Fate, and the Justice League Dark. In order for this to work, the cosmology of the DC universe is brought more fully into the everyday – the Presence (God), heaven and hell, angels and demons, and interplay between material and spiritual dimensions.
In one of the recent reboots of the DC universe (2012), the Phantom Stranger’s origin is reworked to be that of Judas Iscariot (The Phantom Stranger #0), who was judged by a supernatural council (as a proxy for the Divine) and returned to earth to walk forever as a stranger amongst human for the crime of betraying Jesus of Nazareth. (The Phantom Stranger is also named in this reboot as part of the “Trinity of Sin,” comprising the Stranger, Pandora, and The Question.)
This identification of the Stranger with a figure from the Christian New Testament, and especially one who is closely connected to Jesus Christ, leads to narratives which become explicitly theological. Here, the Stranger is placed on earth to earn his redemption by carrying out tasks for God, often at great personal cost to the Stranger and those around him, but which are part of the great ineffable plan. For each task completed, willingly or unwillingly, the Stranger loses one of the thirty silver coins around his neck – a necklace that is a constant source of awareness of the sin and suffering in the world.
The current story arc leaves the Stranger as something of the free agent, though as one might surmise from this conversation with the Presence/God (manifested through most of this incarnation of the Stranger as a small dog) the Divine still has an interest in him and the Stranger own nature has started down the road to redemption, if only he will believe it himself.
As an aside, while Jesus Christ is often referred to in the series, he doesn’t make an appearance, though he is dealt with respectfully in the comic’s text.