Phantom Stranger 0

Alternating Currents: Phantom Stranger 0, Drew and PeterToday, 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!”

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?

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20 comments on “Phantom Stranger 0

  1. Whoa, I hadn’t noticed that pool of blood on the floor of the Council of Wizards. What do you suppose that is about? They make a point of saying that these are humanity’s three greatest sinners, but do you suppose they spend the rest of their time passing judgement/bloodletting lesser sinners?

    • That’s a really cool thought, but I got the impression that it’s just the lightning bolt logo printed on the chamber floor, not blood.

      Nice LOST reference btw.

  2. The Spectre was my biggest source of confusion as well. Was this the creation of an immortal force (if so, not very exciting) or just the existing Spectre trying out being an angry cop for a while? Either way, I’m not sold yet.

    Has anyone read any great Didio stories, because although admittedly my experiences with his writing are limited, I have yet to be impressed. I can’t say particularly what I don’t like about it, I guess it just seems so bland and old. Cliche was a perfect description. But if there are highlights I don’t know about, please let me know.

    • It’s funny, it’s clear DiDio is going for homage, but he doesn’t synthesize it into anything new. It ends up feeling like an imitation of older comics and pulp fiction (that’s lower-case “p” and “f”). I can understand nostalgia for an older type of comic book, but unless he’s going to do something new with it, we’d all be better off looking in the back issue bins at our local comic shops.

    • I read it like the embodiment of wrath was trapped within Corigan – but not in any, you know, real way. Like Corigan is a proudly short fuse, and it’s the Stranger’s job to make that manifest in a spiritual, semi-physical being. Maybe he has to make 29 other abstract concept physical before he can stop…

  3. This title is strange, because so far it’s dealing with some really strange characters: The Spectre of God’s Vengence and The Phantom Stranger, who is maybe an angel who didn’t pick a side when Lucifer revolted, but is probably The Wandering Jew, aka Judas Iscariot. These are hard guys to pin down, and are pretty old-fashioned in their conception; it’s no wonder this book reads like a hard-boiled pulp from the 50s. I didn’t hate it, but we’ll see if it’s something I want to continue to read in the long run.

  4. Didio’s writing was stilted as usual and he’s still all about doing homage (while orchestrating the biggest DC reboot of all time in an attempt to modernized all of its characters…go figure). Anyway, I didn’t hate this book as much as I assumed I would and I am intrigued by the new status quo of the Stranger (even though I wish he was still an actual stranger).

    As for The Spectre, I assumed that what I was reading was the new origin of the character considering that Jim Corrigan was the original Spectre. With that assumption I’ll say it’s by far one the biggest disappointments to date in the New 52. It was just terrible, terrible completely deflated “well, I’m the Spectre now or something” writing. Simply put, I hated it.

    To say that I’m still interested in reading this book speaks volumes of my interest for Phantom Stranger despite the boneheaded writing of Dan Didio. Here’s hoping he’s replaced soon and that DC STOPS LETTING HIM WRITE COMICS.

  5. Hey is there any indication that the Spectre stuff is happening in the “present” or possibly like the 20s, 30s, 40s and the “homage” dialogue is intended to indicate time in addition to genre? NOT THAT THIS EXCUSES THE WRITING, but I’d actually really like to see some really heavily stylized dialogue that hits all those noir beats, just, you know, better.

    • Yeah, there’s certainly a period feel to the proceedings, but they don’t give us much in the way of context to actually guess when this might be happening. My guess is the future, since Hopkins can just speak to the abyss as though somebody is listening to him. My guess is that he has some kind of voice-activated communication technology that’s activated by the phrase “This is Hopkins.”

  6. Well, I’m not a fan of Didio the jackass co-publisher, but I do enjoy his throwback writing. I enjoyed the fun spirit he brought to OMAC. I very much enjoy Kirby’s artwork from the original 70’s series but his writing on OMAC and Demon left something to be desired for me. I think Didio distilled the fun of 70’s Kirby into something more readable on that title. I feel Phantom Stranger does an equally solid job for me with this character – I found some of those Jim Aparo PS stories from the 70’s to be difficult to read no matter how much I enjoyed the artwork. And I have to say, I LOVE Brent Anderson and I have ever since those first Astro City issues. If they could somehow get Kurt Busiek to take over all of the retro-style titles Didio would be writing we would be getting GREAT comics instead of decent ones.

    • I could also see where a stronger commitment to the genre in the art style would have sold the hammy dialogue a little better. I also feel like Didio’s got a pretty good handle on genre-fiction, and I think I would have just like the whole thing to be a little more balls-to-the-wall, if you know what I mean.

      I know it’s popular to hate on Didio for publishing choices, but like Johns is the chief creative at DC now. I’m sure “co-publisher” out-ranks that, but clearly the dude isn’t operating in a vacuum. He makes decisions based on the input of creatives and business types to keep this ungainly narrative moving forward (ever. fucking. forward.) So I guess I’m curious what makes people hate the guy so much? Is it because he makes decisions that upset continuity or because he pushes for cross overs or what is it? Mogs, you’ve articulated yourself well enough around here that I don’t think you’re just blowing smoke, but genuinely have a beef with Didio as a publisher, and I just want to understand that.

      • Well you never get an exact “this is the guy who put out this mandate” when it comes to DC. The writers tend to keep their mouths shut and collect their paychecks (and by all means I would be doing the same thing) but if you read between the lines he has been the most likely candidate for some sketchy calls and when you read his interviews he doesn’t do anything to disuade those notions. Banning Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain from use by writers is one of those calls – they went so far as to make Bryan Q Miller removie Stephanie Brown from Smallville Season 11 where she was going to be used as that universe’s Nightwing – and they made the call AFTER the solits were out and artwork had been produced. How big of a stick must be up your ass about a certain character if you’re going to spend money to have her physically removed from a comic that was *already produced* and *is not even in continuity*. He seems to have had it in for that character for a long time. He also made some really shitty remarks to a fan at an SDCC panel a year or two ago when they asked why female creative staff used to make up 19% of their creators and now they make up 1%… he basically went off on the person and was like “WHO SHOULD I BE HIRING? TELL ME RIGHT NOW WHO I SHOULD BE HIRING.” I just feel like somebody who is less of a dickhead wouldn’t be so quick to marginalize a *product-buying demographic* that is putting *money in your wallet*. But I do enjoy his writing most of the time… at the end of the day it’s just comic books so it’s not a huge deal or anything, but his publishing decisions do rub me the wrong way from time to time

        • Everyone misses Stephanie Brown! As primarily a New 52 reader, I can’t wait until they decide I can meet her. And I do feel bad for all y’all that miss Steph and Cassie and Wally – I understand that’s got to be frustrating.

          I sorta remember hearing about that outburst at SDCC. I don’t want to jump to the defense of institutionalized sexism, but it’s at least a little unfair to blame that all on Didio. Like I bet he snapped at the question because it’s something he’s tried to do (and it’s almost certainly not the first take he’d taken shit for that).

          Well, all good. I will keep an eye on him in the future. Between asking and getting your answer, I googled around, and most of what I read complaining about him falls squarely under the “butt-hurt” heading – including a few people complaining about his push toward diverse legacy characters. But as always, you provide a more even-tempered response than what I get from using search engines.

        • Yeah, you know, media is a funny thing… a lot of times we feel “close” to people we’ve never met, or that we kind of “get” their personalities… but who really knows? I just feel like, if Scott Snyder wants to use Cass Cain, then by gum let the man do his work! He clearly knows what he’s doing! Harper Row has been awesome instead, though. I can’t see Jim Lee or Geoff Johns being behind that call and nobody from the accounting side is going to give half-a-damn about fanboy politics so the list gets short when you think about who has the editorial muscle to make these mandates and would prefer the 70’s identity of a character as opposed to their 90’s identity. Johns has famously reverted Flash and GL back to silver age incarnations but he also seems to revel in thick continuity and obscure characters so I really don’t get the feeling its been him. You’re right though, there is no way for sure to know that Dan Didio has some grudge he’s acting out. I especially feel you’re probably right about the SDCC response, most likely he’s was just frustrated at the situation. Caught between having to run the business and take the heat… maybe there really *was* no decent female talent expressing interest in the company at that time, who knows.

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