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It is with no unearned hype and appreciation that I have to claim that The Phantom Stranger has not only increased a noticeable amount in quality of writing, but also that it has done so enough that it can now be said to be something special. J.M. DeMatteis has been doing wonders in terms of characterization, situations, and world-building with regards to this once forsaken series.
What the series had been missing was a fully identifiable lead along with an expanded mythology of its own. With DeMatteis it has finally gotten some mileage in that direction, and The Phantom Stranger #8 is an excellent example of that. For it is with this latest issue that more of the intricacies of The Phantom Stranger are more fully explored. This, in turn, leads not only to a deepened character arc for our main figure, but also a welcome dissection of said character arc. The Stranger is now no longer a one-note Judas figure, but rather something with depth, pathos, or at least something close to those.
The early monologues that the title spewed out were shallow excuses and attempts to be “deep” or analytical about religion, but now that has been turned on it’s head. We’ve gotten more into the mindset of the once elusive Stranger – the duality of his nature (as being Judas yet a redemptive one), and the love he has for his family, even though he’s an immortal spirit – delved into piece by piece. Didio was fine when he focused on the silly/outrageous aspects of the series (ex. the God Dog), but DeMatteis is great with the reflective/internal aspects. The ones that deal with the “why?” of our subject - what makes the Stranger tick. The Phantom Stranger #8 in itself deals with the much-questioned situation that The Stranger has with his family, a topic that is the very subject of the current story and the reason for the recent increase of in-story discussion of the Stranger’s very nature and motives. We discover exactly how The Stranger’s current life came to be founded which is a fountain spring for more interesting drama and narrative paths.
One of the better things that DeMatteis is showing the spotlight on is what exactly The Stranger is doing to receive redemption or salvation for his personal sins and what that has done to him on the inside. It’s not only some, admittedly, well-done backstory for the main character but also a fascinating introduction for the main villain of this arc – who turns out to be more related to the Stranger than one thought and plays directly to the overlying themes of identity and heroism that the title is now harping on. The villain is the thematic duplicate, or rather opposite, of the Stranger and so it plays off handily for the increased attention. For a character caught between the play of humanity and being the ultimate sinner it is a great villain to work with and to further that exploration. That’s what the series needed: emphasis on the hidden dramatic potential behind the lead that could very well go overlooked. How a character can be torn apart by the very things he is trying to protect, in no small terms.
In terms of art the well managed and suited art of Gene Ha has run its course and while that was a nice and respectable development the talents of Philip Tan have returned to the series. While Ha played to the eerie and supernatural side of the series that DeMatteis has been able to bring forth, Tan goes for the rough, brutal, areas of the dark – it’s an aspect as acknowledged as the former and still works in the overall view of things. It’s all about expanding and utilizing and DeMatteis is playing the skilled game with the series and one hopes he continues to do so as it goes, as The Phantom Stranger will, into Hell.