The Phantom Stranger #10-13 by J. M. DeMatteis (Comics Review)

Part of DC’s third wave of launch titles for its New 52 reboot from 2011 was The Phantom Stranger, written by DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio and drawn by Brett Anderson. I picked up the zero issue (which was the first of the new ongoing) in September last year but I wasn’t too taken with it. The story just didn’t work for me, and I ended up ignoring the title altogether. But then came the Trinity War event this year and since a different writer was on the series at the time, I decided to read the tie-in issues and see if things had gotten better. They had.

I’ve been reading The Phantom Stranger since issue #10 (July), and I have to say that I’m really enjoying. There’s something about DeMatteis’ writing that really draws you in, presents a compelling character that you can really follow, with some great premises in each issue and a great build-up of all the mysteries in Phantom Stranger’s life. It also helps that Fernando Blanco is an excellent artist. All of which means that, first with Trinity War and now with the Forever Evil: Blight arcs, I’m really enjoying this series.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Trinity War and possibly the Forever Evil story so far.

Phantom Stranger 10The tenth issue deals with Trinity War only peripherally. It is in fact a prelude to it, or at least a tie-in prelude to a side story that happens during Trinity War. As such, if you are here to find out about Trinity War specifically, then this issue is easily skippable. But, I’d still recommend reading it because what happens in issue #11, which is the actual tie-in issue to the event, this contains the perfect setup and it gets across exactly what kind of a sacrifice that Phantom Stranger ends up making.

This was a story that had a lot of heart. It was a personal story that hits where it matters most for Phantom Stranger in his identity as Philip Stark: his family. From what I understand through this issue, the backstory here is that the Stranger is sent to kill someone, a sinner, and the man’s family ends up being collateral damage down the line, for which Stranger blames himself. Now, he is given a chance to bring a soul back from Heaven to the real world, and he has to choose. Consumed by the love he came to feel for Stark’s family when he presumably took over his identity, this is not an easy choice for him to make, and there is a big twist toward the end.

DeMatteis writes one hell of a story, especially for someone who has no idea of who the titular character is and has largely not read any of the previous issues. That proves to be only a minor inconvenience because this story stands on its own and it is the better for it. The story flows along really well, with some excellent characterisation of both the Stranger and the… personification of the Presence (God himself perhaps?) as a dog who follows him around in the meta-physical world. Some really intriguing back and forth between the two, considering who the Stranger is supposed to be, based on DiDio’s #0 from last year.

The art by Blanco, with colours by Brad Anderson, and letters by Travis Lanham, was always on the money. I really enjoyed their take on the Stranger on what is meant to be Heaven, or at least, the… courtyard of Heaven. It reminds me a bit of the Elysian Fields from Greek mythology, a place in the Greek Underworld where those who are pure and righteous and good are sent. And another thing I loved was the journey that the Stranger takes alongside the Angel Zauriel while in Heaven. An amazing splash-page that showcases many different religions from all over the world in vertically-thin panels. Nice to see that diversity in there, which of course implies that all the religions are part of the same metaphysical… source, I suppose you could call it.

This was, to be completely honest, a really great issue, and I had a blast with it.

Rating: 9/10

Phantom Stranger 11Issue #11 is set right after Jeff Lemire’s Justice League Dark #22 which has the Stranger appearing to the various Justice Leagues and suggesting to them that if they can talk with the dead Arthur Light’s soul, and even bring him back, then they can solve the mystery of who killed him. In Justice League #22 we saw that Superman had somehow lost control of his heat-vision and that he had blasted Arthur Light to smithereens. But, Superman isn’t someone who kills, especially not when the person on the opposite end is a fellow superhero. So in this issue, DeMatteis tells of what happens when the Stranger takes Batman, Deadman and Katana to Heaven with him to talk with the dead Arthur Light.

This was a really emotional issue to read, given what happens in the end, something that Zauriel had warned the Stranger would happen, back in the previous issue. This issue is about the sacrifice that the Stranger has to make, to prove that he is a good man, that he is atoning for the sins the Council of Eternity sentenced him for more than two thousand years ago. This issue also involved the Stranger opening himself up to Batman, share his fears and his pain. With Batman. How awesome is that? As the Stranger himself says, Batman is someone who hides his compassion and his humanity, who hides his feelings from others. And yet, he will go  the distance to save the people he cares about. In this case, that’s Superman.

So many great character moments in this issue. I can’t really express how well DeMatteis writes all these characters, most of all the Stranger. He is the ultimate sinner of the world, and yet he is willing to help others, people he doesn’t know at all, no matter what the cost is for him. With each panel, each page, DeMatteis made me care about the Stranger, despite my unfamiliarity with the title. And in Zauriel, he gives us a great secondary character for the series, someone I hope comes back in future issues.

Once again, Blanco, Anderson and Lanham impress with the art. This is a team that is really gelling together. I loved their take on characters like Batman and Katana, who are new to the series. Deadman is a bit inconsistent, with some weird expressions that seem out of context almost, but overall, the artwork is pretty solid. Clean and sharp with some excellent colour-work that shows off Anderson’s skills. I am a fan.

This was a great tie-in issue to Trinity War, something that really adds a great side-story to the whole event, and has actual consequences with a trope that the comics industry has used for ages.

Rating: 9.5/10

Note: A major spoiler for issue #11 will be mentioned from here on out, so if you don’t want to find out, don’t read further.

Phantom Stranger 12This issue, the first issue of the series with the new Forever Evil event going on, brings back the Phantom Stranger from the extinction that he had suffered at the hands of the Angel Zauriel in the previous issue. In #10, he was warned that should he ever return to the afterlife to bring back a soul to the real world, he would be struck down, his existence terminated. Despite knowing the danger and the cost, he did exactly that in #11, and so he had to suffer. He had to be erased from existence because he broke God’s own command, and Zauriel was his executioner.

But, he returns, and the very first page of #12 shows us how he comes back. How, bit by bit, he regains… consciousness and returns to an immortal life once more. The Phantom Stranger, who was once Judas Escariot, was sentenced to an eternity of redemption for betraying Jesus Christ and accepting coins in return. But given recent events, given the changes that God has seen in him in recent times, he is offered a small redemption to keep him going, to keep him… motivated. God considers part of the Stranger’s sins atoned for, and thus he burns two of the coins that represent those sins, coins that the Stranger wears around his neck.

The issue focuses on Doctor Thirteen, who killed the Stranger with the Spear of Destiny a few issues back, and with Chris, the kid from Philip Stark’s neighbourhood who used to babysit his kids. Chris is the soul that the Stranger brought back from the afterlife in #10, and the boy hasn’t had an easy time of things. Through the two of them, we see a lot more of the Stranger than we would have otherwise, and we see how much he has really changed with his reincarnation.

DeMatteis continues to make the character more compelling and developing his supporting cast. He weaves together a lot of different subplots to present an overall story that is just as compelling as the characters that it is presenting. DeMatteis’ dialogue is always spot on, and his pacing is really good. There is a very cyclical nature to the story in this issue. It ends where it began, and then takes the Stranger forward to get him to face the biggest loss in his long life, the death of Philip Stark’s family, his wife and two children. Based on this issue, and Justice League Dark #24 and Larfleeze (which he is co-writing with Keith Giffen), I have to say that DeMatteis is really proving to be quite a solid writer.

The soft muted undertones that Anderson has been using in his colours since he came on to this series continue in this issue too. I’m really enjoying his colour-work on the series, which complements Blanco’s pencilwork/inks. There are no splash pages here for the two of them to sink their teeth into and present something spectacular, but they still to do a great job. With them on the team, The Phantom Stranger is definitely one of my favourite books in the New 52.

Rating: 9/10

Phantom Stranger 13And finally we come to this week’s release, issue #13 which acts as a prelude to the ongoing Forever Evil event. Or, to be more specific, Forever Evil: Blight, which is a tie-in crossover event to Forever Evil. It is the fourth such crossover, and was announced just recently. It is going to be a massive crossover over four titles and will continue on for a good long while. With his work on both Justice League Dark and The Phantom Stranger, DeMatteis is in the best possible place to shape how this crossover is going to pan out.

In the last issue, we saw that the real Philip Stark, who had become the demon known as the Sin Eater sometime back, had returned to get some measure of justice on the Stranger. He started by burning down his own home, the home where he had committed his sins, where his family had died, where the Stranger had lived his life in imitation, and where the Stranger had finally found a home of his own. Now its all taken away from him (the Stranger), burned down and destroyed. But that’s not all that happens here.

With his resurrection, the Stranger has a lot of things to do, things that he promised to a dead man, to Arthur Light, all the way back in #11. That cyclical nature I was talking about in the previous issue? DeMatteis does all that on a more meta level. Given all that the Stranger has gone through lately, the man needs closure, and helping him get that closure are the Sin Eater and Arthur Light. In a lot of ways, it is weird that the Sin Eater helps the Stranger make peace for the sins that the Stranger has committed, and that he himself has committed, but I suppose it works in a way. It shows that there more to all these characters than I’d thought, more than what DeMatteis himself had let on.

And its nice to see that change, see that the characters can all still grow. It what makes these comics so good.

Not that there is any point in repeating it, but I’ll say again that the art team of Blanco/Anderson/Lanham is a solid team. They prove that in the first few pages with all the scenes showing the Stark home burning, with Sin Eater and the Stranger facing off in the presence of the former’s familiar, Non, who appears to have some kind of a hold over him. Stirring stuff in all respects. And it continues on through once Zauriel makes his appearance in the real world, with a message for the Stranger. Or when the Stranger carries out Arthur Light’s last wishes. Or when the Stranger finally goes off against the Question. Or with the cliffhanger in the end that is going to lead into Justice League Dark #25 next week.

With this issue, The Phantom Stranger is definitely in my list of top books in the New 52. And much of that credit goes to DeMatteis for making me care for the characters, since that was something I’d struggled with in DiDio’s The Phantom Stranger #0.

Rating: 10/10

Posted on November 10, 2013, in Comics Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

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