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The Phantom Stranger has been one of the most personal surprises that the "New 52" has had to offer, for multiple reasons, and not all of them necessarily in its favor. It has shown the tendency to be terrible, great, and just plain mediocre. It has shown fleeting hints of subtlety while having an air of overbearing hamfistedness. One could point to the obvious factor for all of these – that being writer Dan Didio, one who was/is at ease doing silver-age tonalities, is not one that should be placed onto a book that is grappling with such subjects that The Phantom Stranger does.
A series that deals with a very fragile interpretation of the character (taking hard cues from The Bible) should have someone with a soft touch, something that Didio has only the blunt variation of. Though the reason why it seems that I am wrapping up the end of an era for the series is because it sort of is the end. The Phantom Stranger #5 is the last issue that Dan Didio will be writing/plotting solo – noted mystic writer J.M. DeMatteis will be joining him on that front starting with The Phantom Stranger #6, and has been doing touch-ups for this and the last. Something that has been superbly done I might add. Now comes the big question – how does Didio’s last solo issue shape up?
I think that I can honestly say that this month’s issue is quite likely the most solidly good issue that the series has gotten so far. What I mean by that is that while other issues might have gotten a few points for entertainment value it was mainly due to how ridiculous things seemed. More to the point – it was that we could laugh at the book, not with it, if you catch my meaning. With this, however, the story actually draws you in as an audience and not just as a snark-happy observer. This is not to say that there still aren’t moments of unintentional hilarity – there are. It is just that these moments are actually fewer than the ones that used to seem good, but far and between. It is very likely that perhaps with the help of DeMatteis, Didio was able to pull this off. If only this weren’t the end of said arc. It would have been more solid, given that some plot threads converge here that weren’t given proper emphasis beforehand and so it pulls it down somewhat because it comes off as very shoddy. Which it was, but other than that this issue is able to feint some sort of landing, and for that it deserves a small pat on the back.
One of the biggest things that The Phantom Stranger brings forth within this issue, and perhaps one that has already been discussed at great length, is the proper introduction to an oft-anticipated character – The Question! We’ve seen small glimpses of him before, but now he has finally landed and has done so within a title that many are probably overlooking. If only this book was some sleeper hit that was being overlooked, but it is not and The Question’s presence is as worrisome as it is exciting.
The Question has been fundamentally changed in ways that strike at the heart of any devoted fan, so it would be necessary that his character be handled by a writer who would be able to pull off such a change convincingly. Unfortunately it has become the duty of Didio and DeMatteis, the latter of which is hampered by the former. While the idea of a mystery character who speaks only in questions is intriguing, when put under the guise of “The Question” it becomes baffling – and is easily the weakest thing about the issue, due to how distracting it is. On its own, it is an enticing concept – but the execution definitely needs some touching up
The art, as always, has been serviceable. There is clear room for improvement, but as it stands it does the job and it does it competently. The draftsmanship that Anderson brings is eye catching and very dynamic in its execution. Philip Tan’s embellishments perhaps go a bit too far and could have been toned down, if just a little. The team will be supplanted by Gene Ha for the next two issues, and while it would be nice to say that I will miss them in the meantime, I’m more excited about what Ha can bring to the table. The Phantom Stranger keeps making strides in improvement and I hope that it continues to do so as J.M. DeMatteis makes his proper co-writer premier next month.