Today, Mikyzptlk and Shelby are discussing Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger 11, originally released August 7th, 2013. This issue is part of the Trinity War crossover event. Click here for our complete Trinity War coverage.
Mikyzptlk: When Patrick covered issue 10 of this title, he brought up the movie What Dreams May Come. Okay, I know it’s not everyone’s favorite, but you’ve got to admit that it has it’s moments. I’m a fan of the movie myself, especially early on when we are first introduced to the concept of Heaven and its inner workings. Essentially, when you die you create your own Heaven. We get a similar description of Heaven’s mechanics in Phantom Stranger 11, which gives us a chance to peek into some of our character’s innermost desires. What happens, though, when all that is left for your main character to desire flies in the face of a Heavenly decree? Nothing good, surprisingly enough.
The Phantom Stranger, along with Batman, Katana, and Deadman, head into the afterlife in an effort to interrogate the soul of Doctor Light. P. Strange leads this motley crew (though aren’t they all these days?) into the afterlife where each (living) member of the team succumbs to their deepest desires and accidentally create their own slice of Heaven. P. Strange tracks down Katana and Batman just in time for Deadman to reveal that he’s found out where Doctor Light’s soul now resides. The gang tries to find out what Doctor Light knows, which turns out to be nothing. P. Strange tries to do what he thinks is only right, but Zauriel returns and makes good on his promise to erase the Phantom Stranger from existence.
This issue had a lot of fun moments, but what was most striking to me was how natural this very supernatural story felt. I’ve been reading this title since the beginning and -OH BOY- did it have a rocky start. It was difficult to determine what the title was trying to be, often times feeling disjointed and uneven from month to month. The only thing that seemed to be consistent was also the only thing that kept me interested in the series: Phantom Stranger’s family. I think I was interested in that element because it was so incongruent with what I was expecting from the character, and because I knew that it had to end at some point. That story arc is over now, but it’s amazing how naturally it has led this series into the events of Trinity War.
If you are still unfamiliar with that storyline, Patrick summed it up quite nicely in last month’s Alternating Current. Essentially though, I’m impressed with how J.M. Dematteis was able to conclude that storyline so naturally and effectively, only to use some of the elements from that story to tie his main character into Trinity War. As ridiculous as it might sound in some contexts, Batman wants to interrogate a dead man to try to find evidence leading to the exoneration of Superman. Who better to team up with than the guy who has recently come back from the afterlife? It takes some doing, but Batman is able to convince the Stranger to become a Heavenly sherpa.
Dematteis effortlessly ties the events of Trinity War and the character of Doctor Light into what has been the emotional throughline of this series. It’s top-notch work, which has made this issue, in my eyes at least, a shining moment in Trinity War. That’s Zauriel standing in the mirror, he’ll come into play a bit later. Before I get into that though, I want to talk about what I saw to be the theme of this particular issue. Shortly after our heroes enter Heaven, the living members (Katana and Batman) create their own versions of Heaven. Katana finds herself back in the arms of her husband, while Batman finds himself (at least in part) as a child, spending time with his parents on a Christmas that never was. Both Heavens are touching and heartbreaking moments in the issue, but it shows us what these characters want more than anything. Our undead members (Deadman and the Stranger) are not susceptible to the charms of Heaven, though Dematteis is still able to explore their innermost desires as well.
Deadman’s idea of paradise is being a hero, whereas the Stranger knows that he has already found and lost his paradise. It’s an inspiring and tragic moment, respectively. So, with the Stranger’s biggest desire out of reach, where does he go from here? Well, the Stranger has shown himself to be a bit impulsive at times and willing to do anything to accomplish his goals. While that has made for some great stories, it’s also proven to be a dangerous trait for our hero. It was only one issue ago where Zauriel threatened the Stranger with total erasure from time and space if he ever attempted to bring anyone else back to life. However, as fast as you can say “eternal damnation,” the Stranger finds himself doing this.
Things go as horribly as they probably can at this point as Zauriel appears, banishes Batman, Katana, and Deadman, and makes good on his promise to eradicate the Phantom Stranger from history. Before he disappears though, the Stranger thinks to himself that the man he once betrayed might be proud of him for what he tried to do. Does the Stranger see his acts of recklessness as a potential source of absolution? With his family gone, does he now view “oblivion” as his Heavenly reward?
Shelby, I’m not really sure what to expect from the next issue, and it’s a shame that I have to wait two whole months to find out. Regardless of that, how did you find this issue? Did you enjoy it as a tie-in to Trinity War? Did you like it as the next chapter in the life of Phantom Stranger? Also, what do make of the strange black orb that Doctor Light gave to the Stranger? That was weird.
Shelby: I feel I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage with this issue. I don’t care much for Trinity War, as Justice League has fallen flat for me and I’ve never much cared for Justice League of America. The only League I care about is Justice League Dark, and Trinity War just seems to be interrupting it. As far as Phantom Stranger goes, I gave up on it after the first couple issues because it, as you so gently put it, “had a rocky start.” So, I can’t really comment on this issue as either a TW tie-in OR the next chapter of Stranger’s life. That being said, there are still some very interesting things happening this issue to our ragtag team.
The first is the very nature of Stranger’s punishment: to be erased from time and memory. For a comic book character, this has to be the most laughable punishment in existance; I know I chuckled when I read it. It is utterly impossible for a comic book character to be erased from time and memory. It’s why Hal Jordan has been in his late 30s for over 50 years. It’s why Barry Allen was dead for 23 years. It’s why if you try to map out the continuity of any main character in a comic book, you’ll go mad before you finish. Comic book characters exist forever, which is why the thought of a Silver-Age character actually being erased from time and memory makes me shake my head and smile ruefully. Maybe this is Dematteis’ commentary on the permanence of comic book continuity: “You want to get rid of a character? Fine, but it’s going to take an angel of the Lord to do it.” The point is driven home by the fact that we know he’ll be back; this wasn’t the last issue of this title, so apparently not even divine intervention can really kill off a character.
The most interesting thing to me were Katana and Batman’s experiences; I don’t think it was so simple as creating a personal heaven. Sure, Katana was finally with her husband in a non-sword form, but when Stranger shows up, he floats the idea that it wasn’t her husband, just a projection of her own desire. Or worse, some sort of limbo emotion vampire, taking advantage of her feelings. Her response, naturally, is to “behead” Stranger. Even in heaven, Katana is stuck in this loop of pain, loneliness, and violence; will she ever know peace? Oh, and speaking of never knowing peace, let’s look at that Wayne Family Christmas. Bruce didn’t even try to make his own heaven, he just spied on a something he wished had happened. Once again, we’ve got a character who’s given a chance to create heaven, and all he can do is observe it from the outside. That’s either the most stoically selfless thing I’ve ever heard, or the saddest. Since we’re talking about Batman, it’s probably a little bit of both.
Erased from time and memory or otherwise, this Phantom Stranger is light-years away from the sappy soccer dad I read back in issue one, and I’m glad for it. Dematteis is tackling Stranger’s Christian roots in a surprisingly inclusive way, and the Trinity War tie-in has just given us an opportunity to more deeply explore more characters from the DC Universe. I may have a lackadaisical response to the Trinity War event as a whole, but without it I probably would not have given Phantom Stranger a second chance. If it accomplishes nothing else, I would still consider it (at least) somewhat successful for that reason.
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