Friday, 11 January 2013

The Phantom Stranger #4 review

The witty cover from illustrator Jae Lee and colourist June Chung says it all. The Phantom Stranger is dragged unwillingly into the murky business of Justice League Dark. On the coat-tails of John Constantine, no less. And all he wanted to do was get through a tedious shopping trip with his wife (click on image to enlarge).
Wife? Yes indeed, if you've not been reading this book, it turns out that these days the Phantom Stranger has a secret identity - Philip Stark, family man. How this came about, we don't know, but he's certainly protective of his time with them. So he's furious when a trip into a department store changing room leads to the House of Mystery, headquarters of the JLD. There stands Constantine, Black Orchid, Frankenstein, Madame Xanadu and Deadman.

Constantine makes the Stranger an offer, but it's one he can refuse. He shouts down the idea of a partnership with the team, even though he's lately made some powerful enemies that Constantine says will likely cause trouble sooner rather than later. To prove a point, the Stranger shows the mystical heroes that they're no match for him. So Constantine tries another approach, a bargain - join up, and he'll hand over the lost coin from the chain the Stranger wears, one of the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas - the future Stranger - for betraying Jesus Christ. Condemned to walk the Earth until he's exchanged every coin as part of a cosmic bargain, the Stranger desires the talisman desperately. But it's the hubristic Constantine who dismisses the Stranger, sending him back to Earth, convinced he's shown him a worm that will reel him back in on his terms.

Maybe, maybe not. The Stranger has other concerns, when he finds that 20 minutes have passed and his wife is missing ...

And there's more. And it's great. But I suggest buying this book, which has improved hugely with the arrival of JM DeMatteis to script Dan DiDio's plots. Suddenly the Stranger sounds real, whether he's in mortal guise or cosmic form. There's a personality at play, one that bears watching. DeMatteis even makes the headscratching notion of the Stranger's family life enjoyable, by giving wife Elena a fun, sexy personality and having Philip respond in kind.

As a longtime Justice League writer, having helmed its heroes in their lightest and darkest hours, DeMatteis can handle a League team with his eyes closed, and he immediately captures the JLD's voices and natures. And as a veteran of DC's mystical realm - if you've never read his Dr Fate, do yourself a favour and seek it out - DeMatteis elegantly weaves a dark mystery that makes next issue a must-buy.

So yes, securing DeMatteis's services is a big win for this book, and credit to DiDio for bringing him on side, and for an intriguing plot.
Brent Anderson produces his best pencils yet, capturing the various moods of the Stranger with skill, and conjuring up a great-looking JLD. He neither oversells nor undersells the moments of humour, the dramatic beats - it's a pitch perfect performance. Anderson is given excellent support by embellishers Philip Tan and Rob Hunter, while Ulises Arreola smooths out the differences in their linework with a clever, moody colouring job.

While it's undeniable Phantom Stranger is a contrived set-up for the upcoming Trinity War series - there's some of that here - this issue sees the book gain its own voice, and hints at a more interesting direction. It's one of the most enjoyable superhero comics I've read this week, and well worth a look.

Not convinced? Would a grumpy wee Scottie dog do it for you?

My thanks to the Grand Comic Database for the Doctor Fate image.

16 comments:

  1. I'm glad J.M.DeMatteis is having a positive effect on the book now. I jumped on the first issue and was willing to give Didio a try since I really loved his collaboration with Giffen on OMAC. But once I read Phantom Stranger #0 I realize DiDio really can't write very well on his own and I bailed out on the book. I'll try to pick up some of the issues when J.M. jumps on with him.

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    1. Great stuff, let us know what you think, if you have time Arvin.

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  2. I thought the cover was Kaluta or Vess and was surprised the credits said Lee. The man needs to take on interiors of a project I actually want to read!

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  3. Hmm, I like re-visioning heroes but I can't wrap my head around Phantom Stranger, Family Man, or him having an 'alter-ego.' I can see wanting to escape the conventions of the Mystical Figure who Guards Reality being so Serious and, well, Occult all the time, but why escape that convention to enter into what is really the most used one in comics, ever.

    Another thing I don't think I'd like is WAIT A MINUTE LOOK AT THATS SCOTTIE! Oh My Gosh he is so darned cute! Why so grumpy lil' dog! Awwww.
    It's like how I picture the dog from the Kipling dog stream-of-consciousness book!

    Maybe I will have to give this new rendition a look...

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  4. Oh, the family life bit is totally weird for the Phantom Stranger. And that's the New 52, I'm just waiting to find out more. The classic guy will be back.

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    1. This being the New 52 hif family will probably be killed by some bad guy in a set-up to a big Geoff Johns crossover...

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    2. I suspect you're a Naltorinan.

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    3. I think the classic guy *IS* back already. Constantine's dialogue -- telling PS that he's full of possibilities -- and Deadman's experience, finding in PS a portal to both heaven *and* hell -- makes me think that the Judas story that PS believes is only one of many backstories he has, and there's much more that even he doesn't yet know. I think they've given him and origin precisely so they can pull the rug out from under us and blow our minds.

      At least, I'm hoping so.

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    4. Oh, that's an interesting idea, Rob. It may be TOO smart mind!

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  5. I'd been curious about this book, but had never picked it up. But with your recommendation -- and your reminder that JMD wrote my favorite run on Doctor Fate, ever -- you've convinced me. And hey: Scottie dog.

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    1. It is a cute doggie. Probably Tannarak.

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  6. Of course, JMD will always make me curious about a comic, but you've convinced me to pick up a copy of what's so far been an absolutely shockingly bad comic. Indeed, many of the plot elements you describe where this particular issue is concerned seem similarly misjudged too. A private life and a marriage? Am endearing hound? For the Phantom Stranger? It sounds all too awful to believe, but then that's what the first two issues of the comic were anyway. The very idea of Judas etc etc ....

    Actually, what you've described carries the sense of a Bob Haney Sixties tale. If that's at all true, I have to buy it. (I don't believe that to be so from what you've said, but hope springs ...) And if nothing else, you've made me extremely curious to discover whether what you're saying can possibly be supported.

    Which is, I suspect, a mark of a good review :)

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    1. Oh, Bob Haney, that's a hoot. I can't wait to hear what you think of this issue - bear in mind, I'm not saying it's a brilliant comic, but it is much improved.

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  7. That Jae Lee cover is beautiful.

    By the way, I really enjoyed reading your review on FF, and I decided to write about it too.

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