Review: Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger Vol. 1: A Stranger Among Us trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 08, 2013

The Phantom Stranger, kind of like Oracle Barbara Gordon, was a character that in the pre-Flashpoint era sometimes became no more than a plot device -- need technical jargon, enter Oracle; need to move characters from one mystic place to another, enter Phantom Stranger. Oracle, at least, had her own supporting cast; Phanton Stranger was just an entity that fit whatever the day's plot called for.

For that reason, I don't mind -- and actually really enjoyed -- the changes that Dan Didio makes to the character in Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger: A Stranger Among us, though I recognize that what Stranger purists there are might not be so sanguine. Here, DiDio gives the Stranger an origin, a supporting cast, and makes him something of a lovable bastard, too, all of which positions him well in the "Dark" corner of the new DC Universe.

[Review contains spoilers]

The first two issues of Phantom Stranger (the Zero Month issue and issue #1) establish that even as this is the Stranger's title, at times the Stranger will play almost a Cryptkeeper role, introducing and facilitating the story but not necessarily being the main actor. Even if the reader isn't necessarily a Stranger fan, it's hard to resist the one-two punch of the introduction of the New 52 Spectre in the first chapter and long-time Teen Titan Raven in the second chapter.

Justice League Dark, at least the first collection, wasn't so "dark," but Stranger achieves something a little closer to the I, Vampire/Animal Man side of the Dark titles -- moody horror and twist endings. Artist Brent Anderson helps immeasurably in this regard.

Purposely incongruous with all the supernatural shenanigans, DiDio introduces Phantom Stranger's secret identity Philip Stark, and also his super-normal wife and children. Some may feel DiDio has pulled the curtain too far back on the Stranger, but in this post-Lost world, I don't mind so much learning most (but not all) of the characters secrets ahead of time, and then letting the actual plot drive the story.

Of course, the Stranger's family is so sickly sweet that we just know they're going to be kidnapped in the end, as they are. I wouldn't say I feel the same emotional connection to the Stranger's family as I do to Buddy Baker's, if for instance Elena Stark might discover the Stranger's identity and leave him, mainly because the Starks are so one-dimensional. Obviously the reader understands that the Starks are there more to show what the Stranger values and what he has to lose than they are as characters in their own right; I'm interested to see DiDio finally reveal how the Stranger came to the Starks, whether he took over someone else's life or what his real connection to them is (we can guess Elena and the Stranger didn't meet a speed-dating party).

Late in the book the Stranger runs afoul of John Constantine and the Justice League Dark. Constantine, of course, is traditionally an ornery character, but DiDio's Phantom Stranger too is a tougher, angrier character (more "New 52," perhaps), far from the wise, almost zen Stranger of previous depictions. Again, purists may not like this so much, but for me it made the Stranger more interesting, and I enjoyed his banter with Constantine and getting to see some of the pecking order of the supernatural DCU.

And aside from the Spectre, Raven, Dr. Thirteen, the Justice League Dark, and Pandora, DiDio really sells the book (and elicits my promise to be back for the next volume) when he trots out the Question. Naturally this isn't "my" Vic Sage (and it's a far cry from Question Renee Montoya), but I like enough DiDio's new version of the Phanton Stranger to give his Question a shot, too (and who can resist that this new Question actually carries on conversations solely in questions?).

Phantom Stranger is strongest when it gets down to the Stranger handling his divine-commanded tasks (especially when he's commanded to betray the people he's supposedly helping); it is less strong in handling the Stranger's biblical origins. The Stranger is obviously meant to be the New Testament's Judas Iscariot, bit the title seems unable -- maybe not allowed -- to use the word "Jesus" anywhere (though come to think of it I'm pretty sure David Hine's Azrael story did. On one hand I guess I'm encouraged by DiDio's willingness to handle "edgy" material (this is not so edgy comparitively but I imagine the material might be controversial to some). On the other hand it seems rather overcomplicated to position the Stranger within these biblical aspects if DiDio's not actually allowed to discuss them; better than that the Stranger once betrayed the wizard Shazam or someone instead.

I wasn't very enthusiastic about DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio's Outsiders, and he and Keith Giffen's OMAC was an enjoyable story but didn't seem to have the legs necessarily to make a series. Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger: A Stranger Among us isn't perfect, but in all I think DiDio achieves a better voice here than he did on the previous series, and certainly there's enough twists and guest starts to keep the story moving. I haven't been a Phantom Stranger reader before, but now I am; this is an interesting debut volume.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook pages]

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4 comments:

  1. I was really looking forward to this series, because I'd only had limited exposure to TPS before now, mostly in the major DC crossover events, but he always seemed really awesome. I was surprised with a lot of the negative reviews I've been reading, because I've thought it has been really good so far.

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  2. Mixed feelings about this one: the hook with Judas seems wonky, but the condemned-loner-has-family angle kept me onboard, even as I got tired of the anthology format. Around the time JM DeMatteis joins as a cowriter, the focus changes, and again I got tired of that plotline by the time it was over. With Trinity War, I'm curious where this title goes next; I'm worried it's not a sustainable title even in spite of its promise.

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  3. I'm moderately interested in this one; can anyone offer insight into how "essential" this is to the Trinity War story?

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    1. I haven't read any Trinity War yet, but I didn't get the usual "this is foreshadowing" vibes for Trinity War when I read the Phantom Stranger trade. Pandora shows up, I'm sure they talk about something bad that happened or will happen in the future (and the trade does reveal who the "Trinity" are, similar to the Free Comic Book Day issue a couple years ago), but overall I'd say "not essential." Someone who's reading Trinity War (no spoilers, please) can maybe tell us otherwise.

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