REVIEW: The Phantom Stranger #4

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Or – “I’m Always A Little Leery When The Coach Wants In The Game…”

Dan Didio is a polarizing figure in the comic industry.  Whether you love him or hate him, it’s clear that he has very specific ideas about what does and doesn’t make for good comics.  His last few writing gigs (O.M.A.C., Outsiders and Metal Men) haven’t really impressed me, and two of them ended in the cancellation of the titles in question.  Will the revitalized version of one of DC’s oldest mystic types be the game-changer for him?  Your Major Spoilers review awaits!

PhantomStrangerCoverPHANTOM STRANGER #4
Writer(s): Dan Didio & J.M. DeMatteis
Penciler: Brent Anderson
Inker(s): Philip Tan & Rob Hunter
Colorist: Ulises Arreola
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Editor: Wil Moss
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $2.99

Previously, in Phantom Stranger:  Always a mysterious unknown figure in previous incarnations, the New 52 Phantom Stranger is expressly and deliberately identified as Judas Iscariot, biblical figure and betrayer of Jesus Christ.  For this betrayal, he has been sent out into the world to redeem himself, with his thirty silver piece reward as a necklace.  When each of the thirty pieces falls from the necklace, in theory, his labors will be finished.  Of course, there’s also the matter of his alternate identity as Philip Stark, normal husband and father.  There’s not way that THIS can end badly…

MAKING A DIVINE MYSTERY INTO SOMETHING MUNDANE…

When I was young, the Phantom Stranger was kind of a big deal.  Explaining his origin was a big no-no, which led to the clever conceit of his ‘Secret Origins’ appearance being four conflicting ideas on what MIGHT have happened with the character.  In the New 52, we know everything about him, from his greatest sin to his thoughts on EVERYTHING, as the character vocalizes every single thought that comes into his head.  This issue starts with a cute moment, as “Phil Stark” shops with his wife, and cannot choose a hat due to deep philosophical concerns, but it swiftly flies off the rails as the Stranger is summoned to the House of Mystery by John Constantine.  The meeting of former Stranger and now-cancelled Hellblazer is an odd one, with the JL Dark (whose membership changes more often than Stephen’s socks) standing by as their boss tries to recruit the man in the snappy navy-blue leisure suit.  Constantine’s characterization is pretty solid, and he’s one of the only characters in the issue to get off lightly in the dialogue department, with everyone else in expositionary cliché mode.  (Poor Frankenstein is saddled with “How did you dooo that?  How…” as he is summarily punked out by the lead character.)

SOMETHING AWKWARD ABOUT ALL OF THIS…

The pacing is suspect as well, with each JLD member attacking one-at-a-time like the proverbial pack of movie ninjas, and a two-page monologue by Constantine does set him up as a bad-@$$, at the expense of the Phantom Stranger’s character.  When he leaves the House of Mystery to return to the clothing store, even though he has proven himself quite powerful, he seems like an ineffectual whiner, Dante Hicks with arcane powers.  The super-clichéd (and strangely plotted) second half of the issue isn’t any better, ending with a long conversation and a revelation that Matt Murdock could see coming.  Visually, the issue is nice, though, with Brent Anderson channeling a real sense of darkness and menace into the House of Mystery, and making the Stranger look as good as he has under any artist since Neal Adams back in the day.  Even Frankenstein looks good this issue, making me wonder if his book would still be around if it looked this good.  Sadly, as Jay’s grandmother will tell you, a beautiful plate with nothing on it is still…  Something.  $#!+, I $&$@#ed that up.  Anyway, that Veronica chick is hot!

THE BOTTOM LINE: WORKING A BIT TOO HARD.

The first problem that I had with the issue, actually, was the cover by Jae Lee.  While I understand why people like his work, not every title is appropriate for his “endless-folds-of-fabric-on-weirdly-greasy-people” style, and that negative perception sets the issue off on bad footing.  Admittedly, I love the old version of the Phantom Stranger, and I’m extremely uncomfortable with overtly Judeo-Christian elements in a world filled with demons, psychic monkeys and a dozen other concepts that mesh very oddly with the biblical themes.  DeMatteis is responsible for dialoguing many books that I love, but this issue is filled with page after page of clunky exposition and melodramatic declarations, without anything really HAPPENING.  The Phantom Stranger #4 doesn’t look bad at all, but ends up being an awkward, predictable and dull read, earning 1.5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆

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