Today, Drew and Peter are discussing Phantom Stranger 0, originally released September 5, 2012. Phantom Stranger 0 is part of the line-wide Zero Month.
Drew: I don’t remember when it is that I first stumbled across William Safire’s cheekily ironic Rules for Writers, but the last rule, “Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives,” has managed to nestle itself in my editing subconscious. I make a point of eliminating any cliche I see on the site (the odd exception aside), which has effectively lowered my tolerance for reading them. It rarely becomes a problem — this is one of the most well-known axioms in writing, after all — but every so often, I’ll come across a piece that indulges in cliches to excess, it’s beyond distracting. The Phantom Stranger 0 is one such example, offering sequences that are so dense with cliches, it’s hard to remember that this story was published in 2012.
For some, the fact that the issue reads a bit like a time capsule might be its greatest strength, but it can be hard to ignore years of genre fiction that have used the same tropes to the same ends. Take, for example, this sequence, where a cop is told he’s off a case both because he’s a loose cannon and because he’s too close to it.
Sure, okay, DiDio is just establishing this character and the stakes he has in this case — some cliches are used so often because they’re effective — but does it need to play out in the most cliched way possible? The lose cannon goes on to throw his badge on his Captain’s desk. Got enough cliches yet? DiDio hasn’t, so he makes sure the Captain’s response is as cliched as possible.
Never mind who Hopkins is talking to right there (besides the badge, I guess), he actually says “may God have mercy on their souls,” when talking abstractly about kidnappers courting a world of hurt. I’ve seen that scene so many times, I have a hard time picking one to compare this scene to, so I’m just going to say all of them; every cop movie ever has that scene.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The issue begins back at the sentencing hearing we all remember from the Free Comic Book Day issue. There, we get a few more strong hints that the Phantom Stranger is Judas, with DiDio all but coming out and saying it with all his talk about betrayal and avarice and Him-with-a-capitol-H. We then follow PS after he’s vanished from the hearing, where he’s made to wander the Earth for millennia, until the Council of Wizards (or maybe just God) calls upon him to do…something for the world’s most cliched cop. It seems like he’s there to help, but at the last minute, we learn that PS has inadvertently led cliche cop to an ambush, where he is promptly shot to death. Then the Spectre pops out of his body, and accuses PS of betraying him (it’s not totally clear if he means for this, or some prior betrayal), but is vanished by the Council of Wizards (or, again, God) before he can enact any revenge. A link in PS’s coin-chain pops off, and it becomes clear he’ll have to keep doing this until his debt is paid.
I should preface by saying that I have essentially no foreknowledge of the Spectre. That said, there’s not much here to be excited about. He appears for about two pages before being whisked away, apparently for “others” to feel his wrath. I suppose that last bit could be tantalizing for Spectre fans, but it just feels like a bizarre, useless beat in this story. “Wait! That guy way possessed by the Spectre!” “Wait! It doesn’t matter!”
I do like the idea that PS’s punishment is to continue to betray people to serve the “greater good.” He says early on that the crime he is being punished for is “avarice,” even though the thing he feels most guilty about is betraying his best friend. Ultimately, his punishment is to remind him of that guilt, but one can’t help but wonder if the Council of Wizards isn’t just taking advantage of his special talent (the way Ben took advantage of Sayid in season 5 of LOST).
It’s interesting to consider the Council’s motivations, but it’s not totally clear who is pulling the strings here. PS mentions that “what happened to them…remains an mystery to this day,” which suggests that something happened to them. It’s also not clear if or how a group of Magicians would be able to control the physical embodiment of God’s wrath, but then again, it’s also not clear if this Specter is that Spectre. When he first appears, he declares that he is “now a Spectre,” as though he wasn’t before. That is, this isn’t some portion of an eternal being, but an entity that was just now created. He still seems to be a wrathful motherfucker, but he might have a different origin in the New 52.
This is a weird title, but it’s hard to tell much based on this issue. The conceit of a character forced to reenact his worst crime over and over again in an attempt to absolve himself is a compelling one, and the fact that there are only 30 pieces on his chain adds a sense of finality (even though I trust DC can draw that out for a very long time). This could turn out to be something I’d really like, but this issue was too laden with backstory to give much of a sense of what it might be like moving forward. I guess I’m cautiously optimistic, even if this issue didn’t quite do it for me. Peter, I’m curious if your deeper knowledge of older DC lore gave you a different perspective on all of this.
Peter: I too am cautiously optimistic as well, but I am definitely intrigued. Mostly because, between this and Free Comic Book Day, this is a complete reinvention of the Phantom Stranger. Really any deeper understanding I have about the Stranger and the lore of DC is shot at this point. You know what though? I’m all about it.
The Phantom Stranger has always been, well a stranger. Even I don’t know who he really was back in the day. After some extra research, I still can’t pin down solid origins or identities and whatnot. Which is kind of exciting, because we now I have definitive Stranger. Except that it was always fun because not even the characters in the books really knew who the Stranger was. It was pretty meta. Now we have a Stranger with a pre established purpose and for the most part, he’s pretty familiar to everyone who has ever heard the story of Judas.
After all the hubub over the Free Comic Book Day issue, it was nice to see more of the mysterious Council of Magic. Obviously, they still play a role, but to what end? Something happens to them, but what? I have a feeling that it will connect to SHAZAM and Black Adam somehow. Maybe the wizard Shazam beat the crap out of the and took over their combined magical powers? Truthfully, it’s probably somehow tied to the wonky magic situation of the New 52, either way, intriguing!
Something about history; The Phantom Stranger and The Spectre have a long history and relationship. I am glad that they are carrying it over, since, especially in this iteration, they are very much the opposite. Hopefully it will provide some good back and forth between these characters as this story continues. Either way, I’m in this for the long haul.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?