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Deconstructing The Phantom Stranger #2

The Phantom Stranger #2 doesn't undo or justify any of the odd choices that have been woven into this reboot of the character, but does introduce some interesting potentials for stories down the line.

This issue seems intent on introducing the cast we'll be dealing with for... well... until the book gets cancelled. They are the most interesting things that have happened here so far, but we have to wade through a bit to realize there's a small glimmer of potential here.

The cover shows a dramatic pose of the Phantom Stranger locked in mist clouded battle with the woman known as Pandora. And there, to the right, is a soccer ball. Look again, yes... it's a soccer ball. Among the drama of guns, smoke and the banner reading The Secret of Pandora's Quest! there is an unexplained soccer ball. There's something going on with that soccer ball, we're seeing it far too often.

Am I kidding? Maybe. Maybe not.

But that is all you need to know to understand just how wrong this title is going. Is The Phantom Stranger DC Comics' emergency escape plan, a reboot solution, or just a colossal mistake? Is it possible it could be both? Yes, and actually very likely.

Listeners to the Fanboy Planet Podcast have already heard the staff complain about the changes to this character that violate most of what was cool about the classic, pre-New 52, Phantom Stranger. The carefully tended decades of oh-so-cool mystery behind him is gone, unceremoniously stripped and replaced with a heavy-handed reference to his actual identity as the Biblical Judas. Now carrying some uncounted number of silver pieces, he is cursed by a weird pantheon of godlike beings for the sin of greed. Cursed to wander the earth and betray friends and witness their tragedies.

We learned that much reading The New 52 Special Edition #1 and Phantom Stranger #0. For long-time fans it created a horrible mess, and we suspect new readers were equally confused.

Since then, two regular issues of the series have introduced some new, even lamer, elements.

Apparently the Stranger decided he needed a family to ground himself when he wasn't out mystically betraying his friends. So, we find him in his own little Cleaver household where he drops the hat and cloak to become just plain Philip, relaxing at home with wife Elena and their two children. He has all the fatherly warmth of someone receiving regular doses of pentobarbital.

OK, that's just weird. Can you imagine the years of the Phantom Stranger wooing this wife, getting married, and the birth of the two children? And does he daily state to all that he's off to work at some unnamed office and unexplained job, just like Ward Cleaver? Nope, I can't either.

It's also weird because as of this sampling, the wife and kids have no real connections with other people. Even in the soccer game that begins this issue (ah, the soccer ball explained!) we see the children running and celebrating but not actually interacting with the other people. It might be undone with the next issue, but right now it sure feels like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense to me.

I'm going out on an M. Night Shyamalan branch here and saying up front - this lack of interaction might indicate that they aren't actually people, but more constructs the Stranger has either consciously or unconsciously created. Could be wrong, but if I am it's just because aside from the stereotype activities and dialogue, they have no real, defined personalities. They're like two dimensional comic book characters... oh, wait.

Let's move on to the what this latest issue seems to be most about, and that's cast building.

Probably most interesting thing in the whole issue is the introduction of a modern Terrance Thirteen. I say modern because a ghost-debunking Thirteen has already made an appearance in recent issues of Weird Western Tales. There "Wild West Thirteen" faced down the entirely non-mystical mystery of "The Highwayman."

Now in the present we have the descendant, also named Terrance Thirteen, with whom the Stranger seems to have an almost Batman/Oracle relationship. They have some past, and they're not BFFs. And, unlike prior Thirteens who chose to explain away the supernatural events they experienced, this doctor knows that there are paranormal things that go bump in the night. More, he is is tracking and cataloging them! He's easily the best thing about this series so far.

We've already established that the otherworldly Trigon and his daughter Raven have new incarnations in the New 52, and both have had business with the Stranger. That is put more solidly in place when Trigon's sons Belial, Ruskoff and Suge pay a visit to Casa Strange to warn (or invite?) the Stranger to stay out of their family's business. The Stranger obviously has more to do with that family in the future, especially with Raven, who he betrayed to her father.

This issue has two endings. One with an apparently supernatural version of The Haunted Highwayman coming for the descendant of the Thirteen he cursed with his dying breath. Holy unexpected cross-overs Batman! The Highwayman defeats the Stranger in combat and apparently hangs him up to die before finishing his business with Thirteen.

Cliffhanger. Come on, groan with me.

Or the second ending -- we cut across town to Detective Jim Corrrigan, who is hunting down the Stranger. He's at a diner, checking Stranger shenanigans from issue #1.

He does, of course, have "unfinished business" with the Stranger. We saw Jim Corrigan's betrayal in the Zero issue, where the Stranger lies to Corrigan and leads him to his death, which in turn gave birth to The Spectre. The Corrigan/Spectre connection is classic, there was tension between them in the pre-Flashpoint DCU, but the current incarnation seems unreasonable and weak. Well, Jim's back and hunting his betrayer, so there's that.

Like a sign listing upcoming exits on the highway, this spotlights the series upcoming storylines, but not the one we're most interested in reviewing.

We need to talk about Pandora.

Remember that during the Flashpoint lead-in to the New 52, we played "find the girl in the hood" throughout issues of DC Comics?

She meant something, something connected to the upcoming reboot, and even perhaps a way back to that original DCU. Well, none of the storylines are bearing any of that particular fruit, at least not on the surface. Pandora has recovered her "box," which is skull shaped and resists her attempts at opening it. Of course she's convinced that if she can open it a second time all will be made well (fyi- the first time she opened it she released evil into the world.)

She is certain the Stranger can help her crack the lid. But he'll have none of it, and she leaves promising that unless he helps she will "expose his lies." OK, so that means he'll lose his secret identity as Philip?

But it's what she says just before that that I found most interesting. In explaining her reasoning, Pandora says "I only want to help save everyone from what I unleashed! My salvation rests in this box. The world's does!"

Which leads me to the second branch I'll walk out onto today. Pandora's box contains something that will restore the pre-Flashpoint DCU. The Stranger, who it was hinted at during Flashpoint would remember the prior universe, can open it.

Of course, I may be wrong. I still haven't explained the soccer ball.

Ric Bretschneider compass@fanboyplanet.com

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