Did you spot that we have a new title this time? A longer title, announcing that we’re entering Crossover Land? Our guide is the Phantom Stranger, currently positioned by DC as one of the Trinity of Sin, the other points being Pandora and the Question.
One of them, the Question, cameos this issue, but really, event fans can safely ignore this month’s story as it doesn’t seem to touch on the upcoming Trinity crossover in the Justice League line. Good story fans, though, should grab this issue as writer JM DeMatteis – apparently no longer scripting from Dan DiDio’s plots – gives us one of the best looks at DC’s celestial realms in years.
Or rather, the celestial realm known as hell (we’re going to heaven next month). The book opens with the Phantom Stranger nailed to a tree in a very personal abyss, sacrificing himself in a bargain to release his mortal family from the horrific state they’ve been placed in by the Sin-Eater. If you read last issue, you’ll recall that this character was once Philip Stark, a serial killer who was about to murder his wife and children. The Stranger put a stop to that, casting him away from Earth, and taking over his identity and family ties. That’s one good act and one morally dubious act, and it’s the family who are now paying, and will continue to pay unless the Stranger’s sacrifice succeeds.
‘Burning Bright’ guest stars the Demon Etrigan, with the Spectre as the Ferryman. Hell, according to this issue, is filled with as many lands as there are souls, so finding one lost family isn’t easy; thankfully, the Justice League Dark are also on hand, and Zatanna eschews backwards magic to manipulate other energies and send the Stranger to the hell within himself. How the Stranger gets out again, after an uncomfortable meeting with the Sin-Eater, well, that would be telling, but DeMatteis plays fair with the reader, building on a relationship already established in this series.
It’s ironic that as the Stranger’s afterlife body is eaten by carrion, DeMatteis fleshes out the character, making evident the love he has for his ‘adopted’ family. We’re also shown the growing trust between him and Justice League Dark that will likely feed the Trinity crossover, as they fight on his side. DeMatteis also seeds a subplot, as the Nightmare Nurse promises to somehow bill her for saving his life last issue. Meanwhile, the man who killed the Stranger, Dr 13, is offered consolation by the Question, in the latter’s single panel appearance. And kudos to the writer for not shying away from the Demon’s rhyming tendencies, making story-progressing scansion look easy. This is efficient, stylish work from DeMatteis, who displays the imaginative mind of a tyro and the discipline of a veteran – whether he’s writing a dark comic such as this, or a lighter title in the Justice League stable, DeMatteis always delivers.
Drawing the book, Fernando Blanco provides the finest artwork we’ve yet seen, conjuring up a vision of hell to haunt nightmares, and contrasting it with the more mundane magical setting of the JLD’s House of Mystery (click on image to enlarge). He presents the Stranger’s suffering on a tree in a visceral, yet not gratuitous, manner, and follows up with chilling shots that see the Stranger carry his soul-deadened family through hell. Both sets of imagery recall the trials of Christ, presumably deliberate given that the Stranger began his life as Judas Iscariot. The most disturbing moments I’ll neither show nor describe – they require a strong stomach, but they’re certainly justified by the story being told.
If ever there was an argument for DC putting colourist credits on their covers alongside writer and artist, this is it – Brad Anderson perfectly captures the mood DeMatteis and Blanco are suggesting, enhancing the tale at every moment. The oranges, greens and browns of hell, the greys of the House, the blurring of red to pink as hell meets heaven …it really is stunning work.
Letterer Travis Lanham also adds to the mood, with different fonts for the various characters, distinctive colours for their narrative balloons and boxes – there’s excellent creative synergy on display inside this comic.
And outside it, another striking cover from illustrator Jae Lee and colourist June Chung, as a darkly humorous idea is superbly executed.
If the Trinity of Sin branding brings a few new readers to this overlooked book, I couldn’t be happier; it’s getting better by the month, and as a quality blend of horror and superheroics, deserves to be a hit.