Phantom Stranger 1

Alternating Currents: Phantom Stranger 1, Taylor and Patrick

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?

22 comments on “Phantom Stranger 1

  1. Patrick is one hundred percent correct: there is a good comic in here somewhere. I love the idea of the Stranger having to betray everyone he helps in order to atone for his ultimate sin of betrayal. The character development potential there is huge: will he continue to betray others to pay for his betrayal? Will he say no, and decide to do the right thing? Shouldn’t doing what’s “right” be a better atonement? I hope Didio takes that path with this character, instead of this somewhat old-fashioned style of comic book story-telling; what’s the fun in reading someone betray everyone around him over and over again?

    • I think it would be kind of neat if The Stranger ultimately had to go against “The Voice’s Will” to ultimately redeem himself. That would remind me of some of the shenanigans we saw God pull in the old testament, which, if you’re up for allusions to religion, would be quite fun.

        • Actually, I think it’s totally legit to question who (or what) this voice is. Doesn’t it seem weird that the stranger has been wandering the earth for like 2000 years and he’s only starting to get orders that free him of his servitude now? Why would that be the case? It didn’t seem like he was judged by God, he was judged by those Wizards. Strange things are afoot at the Circle K, is all I’m saying.

        • It certainly could be Wizards, but good or bad, the deeds are knocking the coins out of his necklace. The Stranger has convinced himself that he’s working for the greater good, but wouldn’t he be just as likely to secure his eternal rest through bad deeds, if that’s what was needed? I feel like the morality of what he’s doing really doesn’t matter — he’s going to do it no matter what.

        • God creates the Stranger. God destroys the Stranger. God creates wizards. Wizards destroy God. Wizards create the Stanger. The Stranger eats wizards. Trigon inherits the earth.

    • I love the idea that each of his 30 penances will result in the introduction of meta into the DCnU. I am actually really digging this series, but I’m a gigantic Astro City groupie and just love Brent Anderson to begin with

      • He’s clipping along at a pretty good pace — one coin per issue — which may make this more of a maxi-series than an ongoing. Any guesses how that necklace will fit on his neck once he gets down to like 8 coins?

  2. Patrick, I think the comparison to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is totally apt — it’s exactly what I thought of when I read that reveal. What it highlighted for me was how uninvested I am in the Stranger’s working life. Where Mad Men cashes in on the allure of ’60s Madison Avenue, this title seems content with just showing the Stranger being a dick. Did he kill that kid just to drum Rachel out of hiding? After the zero, it’s hard to be surprised that he betrays Rachel in the end, but it still makes him kind of an asshole. Don Draper is also an asshole, but at least the shitty things he does are interesting.

    • Part of the allure of this title is the fact that The Stranger is a dick – he’s not exactly what we think of when we think of a superhero. However, what makes his dickishness hard to swallow (sorry) is the fact that we don’t even know if “the voice” he is following is necessarily a force for good. While the goofy lettering for its speech in the 0 issue suggests it’s godly, we also have no real reason to believe that it has anyone’s best interest at heart aside from its own. I hope this title can play upon some of those themes because they are interesting, more interesting than a typical good vs. evil story.

  3. So I think the negative space Patrick mentioned was more laziness than bold choice. I think those were intended to be black silhouettes, but Philip Tan didn’t ink them for whatever reason. That suspicion mainly comes from the funeral scene Patrick mentioned, where it’s not just foreground silhouettes in white — there are a few other spots of white that I suspect were intended as shadows. I don’t know if it matters, but it kind of distracted me, pulling me out of the art to consider why the choice was made.

  4. WOOHOO! Raven gets her New 52 debut! Didio is 2 for 2 issues as far as re-introducing characters I missed 🙂 Philip Tan inking was just plain weird at first but it made sense for the Trigon sequence. The pages I’ve seen of issue 3 look like he’s still inking though… kind of a waste of a good artist, if you ask me

    • “Embellishments” my friend – “embellishments.”

      So that’s Raven, huh? Forgive an old man his ignorance. With the Spectre last month and Raven here, it is like Stranger is acting as a second arm of DC Universe Presents. Which is fine, but requires a bit of a shift in my expectations. This is not one of those series that I’ll get to charge through blind (or even with my usual stable of cultural references), this is a “DC Universe” book, and not necessarily the story of the Phantom Stranger.

      • Yeah, it’s a weird format to be sure. I kind of like it though compared to, say, National Comics, because origin-story-after-origin-story can get a little old but here you’re using the format of the old Phantom Stranger comics to sneak in the origins and it makes it less painless. Also, the old Phantom Stranger comics where he’s just helping normal people with supernatural problems gets a little tedious, too. I actually like what they’ve done with the format here

      • “Embellishments” must mean inking + something else (effects is a good guess), since Anderson is listed as “Pencils.” DC has been pretty consistent in labeling anybody who does their own inking as “artist,” which is a sure sign that somebody else is doing the inking. Tan’s really the only one that makes sense (especially when you look at how aggressively inked this issue is).

        • Back on some of my old “The New Teen Titans” comics from the 80s the inker was listed as the embellisher, so that’s definitely what he is, but I don’t know if he’s providing more to the comic than that or not. I always assumed the effects were the work of the colorist.

        • I personally kind of thought he got the credential upgrade for doing more than just inking the Trigon sequence but altering the face and features from the pencils to give it more of a Tan look (the same way Al Plastino or Curt Swan used to replace any Jack Kirby Superman or Superboy faces in issues he drew)

        • It’s a weird effect – he seems determined to add a lot of realistic depth or maybe texture to what are essentially intentionally vague silver/bronze age styled figures by Anderson. I’d prefer Tan spend his time pencilling and Anderson get a mroe appropriate inker, personally

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