Travelling Man's Blog


Review: The Phantom Stranger Volume 1: Trinity of Sin by Travelling Man

Written by Dan Didio

Scripted by JM Dematteis (parts 5 & 6)

Pencilled by Brent Anderson

Inks by Philip Tan, Rob Hunter and Scott Hanna

Colours by Ulises Arreola and Jeremy Cox

Letters by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

£10.99

Mention the name Dan Didio to the right sort of DC Comics fan and you’ll get a crash course in creative expletives in return. One of the architects of the New 52, the man who tried to kill Nightwing, the man who seems to have a bizarre vendetta against Stephanie Brown, the anti-Levitz. Call him what you want (Including, I suspect, late for dinner) because when it comes down to it, he’s The Man. Capital letters and everything.

Didio himself took scripting duties for a couple of the New 52 titles and the most recent one, The Phantom Stranger, has just started it’s run of collections. But can he actually write?

…Mostly.

Let’s be up front about this, a good chunk of Didio’s dialogue is very clunky. The Stranger lends himself to this style pretty well, to be fair, but it’s not just him. This is a relentlessly po-faced book when it comes to dialogue with almost everyone declaiming with the same portentousness. It makes for hard work at times, but, in fairness, it’s a solid contrast with the genuinely light, well executed dialogue of the Stranger’s ‘civilian’ life. This is the one emotional area of the book that works, with Elena, the Stranger’s wife a point of light in his very dark world. It’s a sword of Damocles of course, and one that starts to fall by the end of the book, but it’s an effective beat.

Didio’s real strength lies in his ideas. First off, he nails the Stranger’s origin down once and for all. He’s Judas Iscariot, cast out into eternity by the Council of Wizards along with Pandora and a man who will end up as Police Detective Jim Corrigan and later, the Spectre. This puts the book solidly inside Judeo-Christian beliefs, albeit with a Power of Shazam! Twist and also neatly gives the Stranger something to atone for and a very strong central premise. The idea that he’s the instrument of…someone, who asks him to do awful things in return for a single coin being taken off the amount he paid to betray Jesus is a nicely unpleasant one and Didio explores it very well.

He also nests it inside some genuinely interesting cosmology, using the Stranger as the thread to tie several disparate pieces of narrative cloth together. Titans fans will recognize several guest appearances here and Didio cleverly has the Stranger act in a way which is either amoral or playing a very, very long game. He has no idea why he’s being compelled to visit, and manipulate, people and can only hope that their short term suffering is for everyone’s long term gain. In other words, Judas Iscariot is only able to survive through having faith. Ironic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The book focuses on this in the second half, where Didio and, later, JM Dematteis have the Stranger encounter Doctor 13 and Justice League Dark. Doctor 13 has always been a favourite character of mine; an endlessly, relentlessly rational paranormal debunker and here he’s reimagined as something halfway between the Lone Gunmen and the hosts of excellent paranormal podcast Mysterious Universe. He’s slightly twitchy, completely interested in everything and the family business of scepticism has become the family business of Forteana. The story focusing on him is the highlight of the book, as Didio explores the paranormal aspect of the New 52 and through it, the changing attitudes of the 13 family.

The book closes with the Stranger’s fragile human life starting to collapse around his ears, a fact which is, of course, prefaced by a visit from (or in this case to) John Constantine. Justice League Dark had one of the weakest openings of all the New 52 titles but has since pulled out of the nosedive and it’s nice to see this version of John embody so much of his beloved, and much-missed, Vertigo predecessor. It’s equally nice to see this story lead into a confrontation with the Spectre and JM Dematteis taking full scripting duties (Incidentally, the credits for this trade are incorrect, as Dematteis is credited on the individual issue covers before issues 5 and 6). Dematteis’ Spectre run is definitive and there are few writers more capable of exploring the spiritual and supernatural aspects of a story than he is. Plus it’s a Spectre story so there’s some wonderfully nightmarish, distorted action sequences. All of which is rendered in tremendous, scratchy detail by Brent Anderson. Anderson is one of my favourite artists and his work here is amazing, definitely channeling Tom Mandrake’s work from his time on The Spectre with Dematteis. There’s huge detail, huge shadow and a sense of cosmic scale that really helps paper over the rougher elements of the opening issues in particular. Philip Tan, Rob Hunter and Scott Hanna’s inks are clearly a vital part of this process and all of them turn in excellent work whilst Ulises Arreola and Jeremy Cox’s colours go from the fires of Hell to something as small as a softball game with absolute ease. Finally, Travis Lanham, one of the hardest working letterers in the industry does great work depicting multiple voices and levels of supernatural power.

So yes, Dan Didio can’t write dialogue for toffee but as an ideas man he’s actually pretty good. This is the tightest and most coherent the Stranger has been in years and by bringing Dematteis on board the book cleverly finds common ground with both Dematteis’ definitive Spectre run and its own voice. That voice may be overly serious and grim at several points but, with ideas this strong and a creative team this bootstrapped, it’s definitely one worth listening to.

Alasdair Stuart


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