Posted by Don MacPherson on September 9th, 2012
Phantom Stranger #0
“A Stranger Among Us”
Writer: Dan DiDio
Pencils/Cover artist: Brent Anderson
Inks: Scott Hanna
Colors: Jeromy Cox
Letters: Travis Lanham
Editor: Wil Moss
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US
It was clear from the title character’s appearance in DC Comics – The New 52 FCBD Special Edition #1, he’s intended to be a part of a larger event-driven story, likely the first of DC’s New 52 continuity, as he’s been linked to Pandora, the mysterious woman who appeared in all 52 first issues of the line back in September 2011. And judging from this origin issue, DC is employing the Phantom Stranger as a catalyst to bring more of its classic characters into the New 52 fold. There’s just one problem: the Stranger doesn’t seem to have much of a story of his own. Sure, there’s his effort to redeem himself by performing divine tasks to rid himself of his cursed coins, but his real purpose appears to be to make things happen for other characters. And it all seems rather pointless.
About two thousand years ago, a man who betrayed his friend to his persecutors attempts to take his own life, drowning in grief and guilt for what he’d done, but his effort fails. Instead, he finds himself before a tribunal of ancient wizards, who condemn him to walk the Earth for millennia. Clad in the robe of the prophet he’d wronged and adorned with a necklace of coins to represent his sins, the stranger finds himself imbued with power and immortality. In modern times, he finds himself finally tasked with the first of his labors of penance: to guide a good but angry man in his mission to save his true love from the grasp of criminals intent on revenge.
Brent (Astro City) Anderson was an excellent choice to illustrate a comic book about the travels and travails of the ghostly, enigmatic protagonist. His loose, rough style is a good fit for the naturally dark and supernatural mood that’s integral to a Phantom Stranger comic. Unfortunately, DC Editorial has opted to partner him with an inker. Scott Hanna is a talented finisher, but in this case, he’s bringing too much definition and polish to linework that’s stronger when it’s looser and more free-flowing. There are moments in this comic when one could see how Anderson would’ve brought a fluid, dark approach to the storytelling that would’ve been reminiscent of Tom (The Spectre, Creeps) Mandrake’s style. But Hanna’s inks bring a more conventional, ordinary look to bear that buries Anderson’s style almost completely. The cover art — which is in keeping with the generic motif that connects DC’s zero issues this month but fails to allow them to stand apart from other comics — shows us the kind of thing we could’ve seen from Anderson alone. He inks his linework for the cover image himself, and there’s a more textured, astral look at play that’s sadly missing from much of the interior art.
Others have scoffed at DC exec Dan DiDio’s efforts to write super-hero comics, but the irreverent fun and tribute to Jack Kirby in the most recent O.M.A.C. series, which was co-written by DiDio, made me open to his work. Unfortunately, his efforts here are more in keeping with the awkward, ham-fisted scripting and plotting of the Challengers of the Unknown feature from DC Universe Presents than the flair and bombastic entertainment of O.M.A.C.. DiDio’s script skates around direct references to Jesus Christ with all the subtlety of a roller-derby match. The dialogue is awkward and ham-fisted.
Most frustrating is the fact the Stranger is put to use to guide another DC character to his dark, supernatural fate, but the intervention adds nothing to the other character’s mystique. In fact, we’re meant to see the Stranger as the hand of a higher power, arranging people’s lives to suit His needs. It seems to eliminate the notion of determinism in the DC Universe, making larger-than-life events little more than cosmic dominoes falling and striking the next ones in line rather than adventure on a grand scale.
DiDio’s story (or, I suppose, DC’s story, as I suspect there was some work-by-committee work on this new interpretation of the title character) clearly owes a lot to a Mike W. Barr-penned origin story from Secret Origins #10 in the 1980s. In that comic book, the Phantom Stranger, in one of four “possible” origin stories, is revealed to be the Wandering Jew, a man cursed to roam the Earth under the Second Coming for having taunted Jesus (or, as Barr wrote, for wounding Jesus) on his way to the crucifixion. With Judas cast in the role of the Stranger, DiDio’s plot renews the connection to Christianity. For a one-off story such as Barr’s short origin piece, it’s an interesting idea. For an ongoing premise, it feels… disingenuous. It feels like DC is trying to bring gravitas to a rather bland supernatural hero story, and it falls flat. Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder if this incorporation of Christian lore into DC continuity might be off-putting to people of other faiths. My hope is the Judas angle will be downplayed from now on, and the title character will once again be cloaked in a spectral and mysterious quality, as his name suggests. 4/10
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.