Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing The Phantom Stranger 1, originally released October 10th, 2012.
Taylor: A long time ago I was talking to a friend about how we enjoy the use of biblical imagery and myth in our media. Neither of us is particularly religious but we both had to admit that there is something really engaging about the use of stories and symbols that have been a primary pillar of western civilization for over 2000 years. When an author is able to integrate religious themes into his or her work without bludgeoning you over the head with theology, the result is often highly entertaining, as fans of John Constantine will attest. However, it can never be stated enough that the author must have a clear vision in mind when alluding to religious imagery. While borrowing from a story here or a symbol there is fine, the most important thing is that it all hangs together with a clear vision held by the author. Phantom Stranger teeters on the edge of this abyss and in the proper first issue of the series the reader has to wonder on which side it will fall.
Issue 1 of The Phantom Stranger opens in a busy park with a perfect looking family enjoying a nice day outside. Their child Billy (really?) runs into The Phantom Stranger, loses his soccer ball, runs into the street after it and promptly is killed in oncoming traffic. Next scene we cut to Billy’s funeral where a mysterious woman named Rachel is absorbing the sorrow of all the mourners until it becomes too much for her and she runs out of the funeral. She meets The Phantom Stranger and unleashes a magical attack on him using all of the sorrow she had absorbed from Billy’s upset family. The Stranger, unaffected, introduces himself to her and tells Rachel about her own life and then they go to a diner to get coffee, because you always go to coffee after magic fights with strangers (it’s just polite). In the Diner, we get Rachel’s back story and learn about how her father is evil incarnate and plans to use her to enslave the world. But before anything more is revealed, bad guys show up to kidnap Rachel, so The Stranger teleports her away to Stonehenge. There, Rachel’s father arrives to take her back home and transform her into a weapon to take over the Earth while The Stranger, as always, looks on with indifference. He then returns home to his family after a hard day of work, getting people killed and kidnapped and possibly ending the Earth.
This being the proper first issue of The Phantom Stranger, one would expect to get a solid introduction to not only the character of The Phantom Stranger, but also the universe he inhabits. The 0 issue gives us some back story on The Stranger, mainly how he came to get his powers and who exactly gave these powers to him. We also learn that “the voice” (aka, GOD) gives the stranger direction so that he may atone for his horrible sins but that is pretty much all the reader knows at this point, aside from the knowledge that a powerful group of wizards judges the worst sinners. So upon opening this issue I expected a little more explication on what exactly was going on with The Phantom Stranger; you know, the essentials, like superpowers, personality, motivations and so on. However, Dan Didio seems too interested in moving the plot forward as opposed to developing the characters we will be spending most of our time with. The opening of the comic moves so fast, and seems so clumsy, that it’s hard to believe what you just read actually happened. The death of Billy exemplifies this perfectly, and mind you, this comes on the third page.
Just as fast as that Billy is introduced, he’s killed. It is hard to say if anyone should really care, or if this develops the plot or The Strangers personality in any real way. Perhaps this is part of “God’s plan” or perhaps this is simply lazy story telling on DiDio’s part. At this point it is too hard to come down on either side but I would like to believe this is all part of the world building process (religious allusions and all) for DiDio, or else this title could prove to be somewhat of a slog.
Similarly, it is hard to judge the artwork of this issue given that in some places it is well done and in others…not so much. The design and execution of Trigon is admirable and appropriately demon-like but other simpler designs seem to give Brent Anderson a bit of trouble. Rachel’s face undergoes some odd changes throughout this issue that certainly were not scripted and leave you wondering exactly what she is supposed to look like. Just look at her many faces in this single scene:
However, the characterization of the speech bubbles of some characters is of interest to me. The Stranger’s text is always encircled in blue, perhaps denoting that he is working for good, while the text for Trigon is appropriately red and evil looking. This effect could either be redundant or quite intelligent. Does a blue speech bubble necessarily mean someone is good and a red bubble mean someone is evil? Or could these colors be misleading, deceiving the reader into stereotypical profiling of characters? Like the story, the art sits on the edge of either pulling off something good or simply being something that isn’t all that impressive.
Patrick, what do you think The Phantom Stranger? Do you see the possibility for a good comic here or do you think it’s doomed to make its readers suffer? Is there anything that really grabbed your attention in this issue? With all this supernatural stuff going on I expected to more interested in this title, but I’m not. Are you?
Patrick: There’s an interesting revelation at the end of this issue, but I can understand why it wouldn’t feel like a big deal to you, Taylor. Stranger returns to a house where he’s welcomed as a father and a husband. His wife calls him “Philip!” Somewhere in the Stranger’s endless wandering, he decided to take up roots and build a life. This is a strange choice to make if you’re an instrument of God’s will. The most intriguing pillar of this character is also his most problematic: he’s a stranger to everyone – in Trigon’s words “That is your fate — to forever live outside humanity. To forever live a life alone.” Oops – that’s not true anymore, is it?
The implied question here is “what happens when his missions put his family in danger?” It’s one thing to release the living embodiment of God’s wrath, or pacifying ancient demons when you’ve got nothing to lose, but when you’ve got wife and kids who love you, it’s another thing entirely. I suspect the intended result was like the end of that first episode of Mad Men – Don Draper’s in the city for two days straight, working and fucking and drinking, and then he goes home to his family in the suburbs. You literally meet Betty in the final 20 seconds of that episode. But while Mad Men makes a haunting moment of it, the Stranger mutters a cliched “Elena, my love, you have no idea.” It’s a jokey line, and it totally undercuts the gravity of what he’s doing. He’s juggling lives that should not be juggle-able.
I’ll agree that the penciling here is kinda hit-or-miss, and consistency of character models is the largest culprit of those “misses.” But there’s an interesting credit on this issue: Philip Tan provided “embellishments.” I presume that means he’s responsible for most of the special effects. And because this issue is packed with magic spells and demons, there are an awful lot of effects.
The light and color that come off Rachel’s magic is brilliant, and gives an other-worldly quality to these sequences. It’s lessened a bit by the fact that a sunburst on the second page uses a similar technique, but it’s still sorta cool. I also really dig the use of negative space, as shown above. Usually, it’s the Stranger himself that occupies it, but some of the mourners at the funeral also appear in this white space. It’s an odd effect, and I don’t totally know what it means, but it is nice to see one of the blockbuster titles embraces a less literal art-style.
And I’m counting this among the blockbusters because of the up-coming Trinity War. I guess this is me finally looping around to answering Taylor’s question about whether there’s a good comic in here somewhere. There’s a lot happening in The Phantom Stranger: God, demons, magic, wizards, superheroes, secret families and the world-detonating Pandora. And sorting through all of those dense mythological packages is a bit of slog. If the issue we just read his an example of his day-to-day (as suggested by his wife’s line “another rough day at work?”), then it could be really cool to his is life in crisis.
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?