Wednesday, July 15, 2015
The Phantom Stranger: A Stranger Among Us (comics)
Collects: Phantom Stranger #0-5
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the Phantom Stranger. Yeah, I know, I'm one of about three people. What can I say? He's got a certain air of mystery surrounding him that lasted all the way to Flashpoint, a tendency to make cool cameos and a killer outfit. Don't underestimate how important a great look can be for a character. The only reason Ghost Rider lasted as long as he has is because the visual of a leather clad biker with a flaming skull for a head is rad as hell.
Even so, that mystery can sort of work against him. I've seen dozens of appearances by the Stranger and it became pretty clear that he's a fine tool to use for the sake of setting heroes on the right track, he's kind of limited in regards to what he offers as a solo character*. After all, prior to Flashpoint, his main schtick is that he could not directly interfere in most threats short of The Spectre himself bugging out and trying to annihilate magic or something. He's the DC iteration of Obi-Wans ghost, really.
Regardless, DC decided to take a crack at it, spinning off the Strangers very own solo title from his New 52 status as one of the "Trinity of Sin".
All told, they make a pretty good go of giving the Stranger a solid hook in the New 52 continuity - something he lacked prior to Flashpoint - with enough depth to make him a viable solo character you might want to follow. The broad strokes are that the Stranger was once Judas - yes, that Judas - whom, after betraying Jesus, was lost in such a bottomless pit of self-loathing that he hung himself in an attempt to pay for his sins. Unfortunately, the numerous higher powers of the DC universe had other plans. Cursing him with a necklace made of the thirty pieces of silver he was paid for the betrayal of Jesus, Judas was cast back to Earth to forever walk, a stranger to all, until the time came when his services were called upon.
One piece of silver is destroyed for every divine task he completes; often, these tasks lead to him being forced to betray everyone he comes in contact with or attempts to help.
It's a clearer purpose than the Stranger has had in a long time. Not only does he now have a hook, he has an actual origin as well; something the pre-Flashpoint universe was unwilling to commit to**. It gives him a good excuse to interact with a lot of the DC Universe; in this volume alone, we see an origin for Raven - of Teen Titans fame - Terrance Thirteen shows up, the Spectre is in the house, Trigon drops some threats and even John Constantines merry band of dark Justice Leaguers decide to drop in. The Stranger touches a lot of lives, for good or ill.
Seeing that we've addressed the upgrades, we might as well move to the writing. Honestly, it takes a little bit for it to catch up to the potential of the concept. Dan Didio scripts a good two thirds of this trade. Dan's usually hit or miss as a writer - he seems to do his best work when allowed to cut loose with a crazy character or concept - but he's perfectly servicable. Even so, his issues, while inoffensive, aren't wildly interesting and his dialogue could use a little work. As interesting as issue number one is - that is the Raven issue, where we see how one single encounter with the stranger upends her entire life and ends up sending her where she does not want to be - it's a quick one. There are maybe three real scenes across the issue and while they do a pretty decent job of getting the concept across, it feels like it could have easily been compressed a bit to add more to it.
Luckily, JM DeMatteis - a writer I've yet to read a bad story from - comes on board as the scripter as of issue four and coincidently or not that's where the comic starts to pick up the pace. He immediately takes the setup Dan provided him with and turns it on its head, almost immediately leading into encounters with the Justice League Dark - a book I believe DeMatteis had taken over by the time this comic saw print, or would take over shortly after - and a knock down drag out fight with the Spectre.
The artwork is provided by Brent Anderson. It's not a name I'm familiar with, but he seems pretty good at what he does. My only real complaint is that he does a bit more crosshatching than I care for. We're not talking 90's level, where there's so much of it that every character looks to be in their late eighties, but enough to be noticable.
By the end, I was on board The Phantom Stranger. Be aware, though, that it takes a bit for the book to pick up. Prior to issue four I liked it well enough but wasn't sure I would continue. While it ended strongly, my score reflects that. Hopefully the second volume picks up well from where we left off. Anyway, give it a shot if your local library has a copy.
My Opinion: Try It
* I know he had a solo title way back in the 70's or 80's that went for a good forty issues, but I've never read it, so I don't know how they got around it.
** In the pre-Flashpoint universe, they kind of pulled a Joker style "multiple choice" deal with him. There was a special DC once did that presented four different possible origins for the Stranger. No two were alike. One of them was similar to the broad strokes of the current iteration; he was not Judas, but someone else inadvertently affected by Jesus in a negative way. Unfortunately, one of the stories was written by Alan Moore and, as DC tended to do with any Alan Moore work, was thusly considered about as official as DC was willing to commit. Say what you want about Alan Moore and his bitter rants - I've plenty, not a lot of it nice - but he does have a bit of a point whenever he alludes to DC being unable to let go of his work.