Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Phantom Stranger #0 review

Each of DC's zero month issues features a Who's Who in the New 52! page, summing up what's known about the characters in each book. So far I've found the World's Finest and Earth 2 entries nice and straightforward. The Phantom Stranger's, though, gets rather coy: 'What little is known about the Phantom Stranger remains rumour and conjecture. His true identity forever unknown, it is said that the Stranger committed a great evil against the universe.'

Actually, his identity is made apparent in this very issue - the Stranger was once known as Judas Iscariot. He's not named, but script and art tell the tale.

Years ago, the identity of the Phantom Stranger was indeed a mystery to comic fans. When DC printed a Secret Origins special devoted to the onetime horror host, four creative teams gave us four different beginnings, with none favoured (read more about that issue at the excellent, if apparently dead, Phantom Stranger blog).

Writer Dan DiDio and artists Brent Anderson and Scott Hanna don't name names, but unless the DC Universe had another situation in which a man with infinity capacity for forgiveness was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, and those coins were used to buy a field, and he left behind a robe, well, we're talking Judas.

You can't have it both ways, revealing all in the story, then denying what we've just seen on a text page. It's Judas - in a surprisingly traditional reading of his motivations for that betrayal - and I think readers can cope with that. It's not like Mike W Barr and Jim Aparo, in that Secret Origins issue 25 years ago, didn't already link the Stranger to the Crucifixion, although they invented a man named Isaac rather than use Judas.

The story opens with another perspective on the mystical trial of Judas, Pandora and an unnamed fellow as seen in this year's Free Comic Book Day special from DC. Judged one of history's greatest sinners, Judas is condemned by a Mysterious Voice to walk the Earth, clad in the robe of Christ and wearing a necklace made of the silver coins, until called on to make amends by helping someone. Thousands of years later he's guided to help desperate detective Jim Corrigan find his kidnapped girl, Gwen, before his temper gets the better of him and he kills someone. Using his mystical gift ('I catch glimpses of the future and tie them to the present'), the Stranger reveals to Corrigan that Gwen is in an abandoned warehouse.

But she ain't, Corrigan gets killed by hoods, transforms into the Spectre and accuses the Stranger of betraying him. He's about to stomp the Stranger when Mysterious Voice sends him off to inflict his wrath on the more deserving.

Yup, God (ssssh, don't call it God!) set the Stranger up to set Corrigan up because he wants a Spectre.

As payment for being a patsy, one coin drops off the necklace and the Stranger realises he has a fair few encounters ahead of him before he's forgiven. Going back to the Who's Who page, there's a detail in there that you'd think DiDio might have given us in the story - the Stranger will always betray those in whose lives he intervenes.

That's not a bad set-up. The Stranger has a finite number of missions, and there's no guarantee he'll be helping individuals in that old Touched by a Quantum Leap way. I fear DiDio may have shackled himself with such a rigid formula, but we'll see.

It's odd that God - oh all right, DC likes us to say The Presence - couldn't find someone else to plug into a New 52 origin for The Spectre, but Dan works in mysterious ways. DiDio's script is decent, workmanlike for the most part, though actively bad in the pages detailing Corrigan's exchange with his boss - editor Wil Moss might have gotten out the blue pencil and made it less wooden. But I feel I got to know the Stranger a little, which is necessary if we're going to be reading him as protagonist rather than short story host, his most familiar function.

The art by Anderson and Hanna is exemplary; the draftsmanship elegant, the finishes lush. The Stranger and the Spectre both look superb, unknowable and powerful. The only thing I'd tweak would be the necklace, which looks rather too Disco for something meant to be made of ancient coins. The pages are coloured by Jeromy Cox, as moodily as you could wish for. Cox also colours Anderson's cover, which is spooky, but a little too murky to my eye.

I remain to be convinced that the Phantom Stranger can work as series star rather than occasional guest, but it could be that the series debuting next month is secretly limited, existing mainly to set up the Trinity War event trailed in that Free Comic Book Day Special. On the basis of this issue, I'll at least give the strip a chance to impress me.

26 comments:

  1. I try to stay far away from DC's always-peculiar version of Judeo-Christianity. Thanks for the warning here!

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  2. By giving away The strangers origins, explaining that he has to do penance, and showing that he'll always betray those he tries to help what else is there left? The story has already been told, so why would a reader stick around to see it being played out? This story baffled me. Why make something that can be so full of mystery and conjecture so banal and prosaic? This book is a mystery already solved. Pointless.

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    1. Yep, it seems as though this comic has put all it's cards on the table in the first issue, but perhaps the ongoing penance angle will yield some entertaining stories. I shall report back!

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  3. I've always tried to refrain from criticizing a story I haven't actually read -- at worst I might say "that doesn't sound like it would appeal to me" or "I wasn't tempted to pick it up" -- but in this one case I must make an exception. I genuinely hate this comic book sight unseen. I find it offensive in premise, and the finest handling by the most skilled creators could not (you should pardon the pun) redeem it.

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    1. What is it you find actually offensive, Richard? The premise that this is Judas, or that the Phantom Stranger appears to be a bit player in cosmic shenanigans?

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    2. Sorry for not replying sooner, but I've been traveling …wherever I go a stranger, et cetera and so forth. Anyway, to answer your question, I object to having the Stranger be Judas for three different reasons at once!

      First, as a lifelong atheist, I have trouble with any comic book stating that the Gospels are literally true and having that as a necessary precondition for the story premise. Starting a story with this is hanging a sign outside the door saying "you're not welcome here" at best, and actively proselytizing at worst. I'm not looking to ban expressions of religion…but there's a big difference between having characters express views and opinions versus the author taking a side and saying "by definition, the atheist is wrong."

      Second, as a Jewish person (yep, there are Jewish atheists!) Judas in particular is a really prickly subject, given that his character has been the justification for centuries of anti-Semitic venom and violence. I get that DiDio hasn't got an anti-Semitic bone in his body, but he's incredibly naive or ignorant to think anyone can use Judas as a character without a lot of Jewish readers feeling put out. (Admittedly, it was even worse when Mike Barr pulled out the legend of the Wandering Jew for his vile PS origin, which isn't in the Bible but is a grossly anti-Semitic fable invented solely to justify hating Jews. In that case, the dialogue in the comic explicitly references the meaning of the story, so it's harder to claim Barr didn't know what he was doing.)

      Third, I have friends who are deeply committed Christians, and the Gospels are deep and powerful to them. It isn't an adventure story to them, but the underlying narrative that gives meaning to all our lives. Judas betraying Jesus isn't just a dramatic twist; for them it's a living metaphor of how our human weakness makes us all betray our own better nature. I may not hold those views myself, but I can understand how belittling it would be for them to see their core personal ideals reduced to mere story props.

      I hope you aren't sorry you asked! I should emphasize, my ire is solely directed at the writer of this alleged comic; if other folks liked it, I never even read it so I can hardly fault them. But I still think this one should never have been written.

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    3. Richard's objections are eloquently put and reasonable. I would respond though that 1. as an atheist I've found the opposite to be true, that making "God" or gods characters in comic books lets the religious think their beliefs are represented in their beloved comics while allowing folks like me to see them simply as 'super-heroes' 2. while the history of the vile uses of the Judas character is awful it seems that the intentions here were different as that character is, after all, the hero of the book; 3. though I totally understand why the Christian friends you mention might find the use of characters from their faith in comics as cheapening, others might find a total silence about such matters as taking a 'secularist' worldview for the comic universe.

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    4. Thanks Richard, glad you got back from your travels OK. And cheers for explaining your problems with the use of Judas. I'm a Catholic, always hated the scapegoating of the Jewish people and felt Judas likely was trying to provoke Jesus into starting a revolution. I'm OK with DC presenting a Judas because they're not claiming Phantom Stranger as a work of history.

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    5. And thank you Mr Whiskas, it's good to get the differing perspectives. I wonder if there's any concensus among readers on the use of Judas Iscariot.

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  4. I guess to see who else he betrays until his penance is done. Might lead into the Trinity War, who knows.

    I do agree though that bringing in and trashing Christianity to an extent should stop. This is comics and make believe, not a dumping ground for any grudges or grievances against religion. Even if they're trying to cover their asses by not outright naming God, god, and the Stranger, Judas.

    I liked the Secret Origins Special better, as you had 4 different versions of his origin, each left up to the reader to decide which one was legit. Brilliant idea on that one, as it left the Stranger...well, still a stranger.

    Damn Didio regime!

    At least they're bring back the "Who's who" concept, who's time has been long coming, and is desperately needed to help figure out this new rebooted universe.

    Great work on posting all these reviews Martin, especially so much in one day. Are you trying to make up for Labor Day or what? Wait, do you even celebrate Labor Day across the pond?:)

    Glad Brent Anderson's still employed. Good for him:)

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    1. Hi Dale, I wouldn't say the book is trashing Christianity any more than, say, the movie The Robe. It is annoying to me, though, that comics, TV and movies would never put Islamic relics at the forefront of a fictional character's, for want of a better word, gimmick.

      No Labor Day, here, but we do get two bank holidays in August, which delays comics - hurrah for digital!

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    2. Yeah, I don't get that DC trashes any religion when they do this. They have a bit of a fine line to walk when dealing with cosmic characters; to not acknowledge religion might seem offensive, to acknolwedge any specific religion too much might also, so they keep it vague and let us fill it in.

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    3. It'll be interesting to see if DC has relaxed the rules generally as regards religion and the New 52.

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  5. Ha, ha, yeah I guess so with the digital thing. You'll have to tell me how that one works. I'm a strictly paper guy myself, so......

    As for the Islamic part, well with a new Islamic GL in the forefront, we'll see how that one goes. From what I understand, 9/11 plays a huge part in this guy's origin, so again, we'll have to wait and see how far Johns' dares to go on that one.

    Otherwise there have been a few mentions of Islamic culture, like Sandman#50, and recently Frank Miller's Holy Terror, but on the whole, no not to much mention there. That is curious, although maybe not in a post 9/11 society, especially in the US.

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  6. Cheers for that. Which reminds me, I actually bought GL #0. Excuse me ...

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  7. wonder what deal the stranger strikes with trigon as weel as what trigon's role in trinity war will be

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    1. Perhaps he helps Trigon get a job at a certain Tiny school?

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  8. Brent Anderson regularly pencils ASTRO CITY, which is still going strong in periodic miniseries appearances unless I missed something.

    I found this occasionally interesting yet mostly blah -- sorta like DiDio's writing on OMAC, which seemed to go out of its way to make every character either a patsy or a complete jerk. He's no Stan Lee. He's not even Jim Shooter. And when he writes the Nu-DC Universe, it's a peculiarly unlikeable, sour place filled with unlikeable, sour people.

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  9. Jim Shooter - now there's a fella I'l like to see take on a New 52 book or two. It's a shame that won't happen, Jonathan.

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    1. Please no! For Secret Wars 2 alone Jim Shooter should be sentenced to walk the Earth making amends ;)

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  10. The comic was dull, but not terrible. I was weirdly bothered, though, that the artists knew well enough to make the background characters dark-skinned, but still made Judas impossibly white.

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  11. Great point, Unknown.

    And nice one, Jonathan!

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  12. I was at the mall today, and I was a little bit early for the 12:45 showing of Resident Evil: Retribution. So I walked over to the comic book store at the mall. It's not such a great comic book store - they seem to specialize in super-hero/manga trinkets - but I browse there frequently and a friend of mine works there.

    I try to buy something when I'm there - I get my regular comics at a much more reliable store - so that I'm not wasting anybody's time, and today I bought Phantom Stranger #0.

    Nice art. But overall, it's pretty bad. If they couldn't come up with something coherent, they should have left the Stranger's origin a mystery.

    (Resident Evil: Retribution, on the other hand, was AWESOME, and I recommend it for prople aho like that sort of thing.)

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    1. I agree, mystery would have been better, Hoosier X. I'm buying #2, but if there's not a big improvement, that's it.

      I've not seen a Resident Evil film or game, but I was once introduced to Milla Jovavich (it felt like 'presented', the woman is magnificent) and Nick Chinlund during a press trip to Hong Kong. They were just lovely.

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