As is often the case with event storylines, the best work appears around the edges, in crossovers. I had my reservations a couple of weeks back, but DC are playing fair in that while an engaging, worthwhile read, this issue doesn’t look to be essential to the Trinity War storyline in the Justice League books. On the other hand, it’s Trinity War-branded, so non-Phantom Stranger readers may feel they have to read it. In which case, they see the excellent work of which the creative team is capable, and an under-loved series gets, at the very least, a one-issue sales boost. Everyone wins.
And so it is that writer JM DeMatteis, artist Fernando Blanco and colourist Brad Anderson produce a terrific wee tale in which the Stranger leads the Justice League’s Batman, Justice League Dark’s Deadman, and Justice League of America’s Katana to Heaven. Katana and Deadman are there because both have expertise when it comes to dead people – the former having a sword full of lost souls, the latter being, well, dead. They’re looking for the newly passed Dr Arthur Light. Fried by Superman’s heat vision, Batman wants to interrogate him for information that would clear his friend’s name.
The story begins with the heroes in ‘Heaven’s basement’ which is, surprisingly, a rather horrific place. It’s from here that souls unable to accept their deaths send tendrils down to suck the experiences and emotions of the living. The scene provides a snapshot of the team members’ very different approaches to the lunatic life they’ve embraced (click on image to enlarge) while showing that Heaven isn’t going to be all fluffy clouds and harp song.
The next page sees Deadman resolve the issue and Phantom Stranger claim credit. Typical. Perhaps he needs to cheer himself up – last issue he attempted to return his murdered family from Heaven, failed and was told by the angel Zauriel that if he ever returned to the afterlife he’s be ‘erased from time and history’.
A flashback set between the end of the afore-linked Justice League Dark #22 and this issue acts as a handy recap of recent relevant events in this series and the Trinity War story, while showing how plans were made and team members picked. Then it’s back to whatever passes for the present in Heaven, and a very intriguing look at one corner of the place, demonstrating the relative nature of the realm.
The Stranger’s colleagues vanish, wafted away to their personal paradise – Katana is reunited with her late husband and Batman gets one more Christmas with his parents. Katana embraces the sweet, sexy fantasy, and lashes out when the Stranger nips it in the bud. Batman, though, manages to view his childhood dream at one step removed, enjoying the scene of father Thomas reading A Christmas Carol to him as he sits beside mother Martha. Not in an ‘I’m the Batman, my will is STRONG!’ way, but in a calm, accepting manner, showing the hope and expectation he has that when his war on crime is finally done, there’ll be a reward.
(Given that astral versions of Katana, the Stranger and, finally, Batman are watching the idyllic scene at a heavenly Wayne Manor, the choice of A Christmas Carol is clever.)
And Deadman? Heaven has nothing to offer him, he’s happy with his lot doing more good dead than when he was alive – a lovely insight into one of DC’s best, most underused characters. So far as Katana goes, there’s nothing more to be shown – she’s a slash-happy freak, a liability who doesn’t deserve to be on a superhero team.
Side trips over, the heroes find Dr Light, and frustration. And Zauriel, glimpsed in a mirror earlier in the book, finds the Stranger – he sends the Leaguers back to reality, but will he make good on his threat to blow the Stranger to oblivion?
The image of a regretful Zauriel is the capper on a truly fine issue, one which feeds into the Trinity War while shining a spotlight on a few of the players, plugging into individual continuities without getting bogged down, and progressing the main storyline of the Phantom Stranger series, balancing action and character along the way. DeMatteis is one of comics’ finest writers and I dearly hope that on his days off he’s passing on his knowledge of how to structure a compelling tale along to a new generation of writers and editors.
That last Zauriel image is typical of the thought Blanco puts into this issue – from the opening splash, which invites us to gaze upwards, suggesting Heaven, every frame looks to have been considered for individual impact and overall effect. And every frame looks wonderful, full of well-drawn figures glowing with personality – the Stranger with his weight of secrets and shame; Deadman with his jackrabbit joie de vivre; Batman, business-like until he fears he’s failed a loved one; Katana, slow to trust and quick to re-don her mask of pain; Dr Light, emerging from a cocoon like a confused newborn; and Zauriel, resplendent in a new version of his Nineties costume.
Anderson’s colours are superb. The deep reds and pale blues of a Japanese garden, the gorgeous glow of a Christmas tree in a room lit by a fire, the Heaven illuminated by Dr Light – there’s immense contrast on the pages, but individual scenes never battle one another.
Letterer Travis Lanham does a fine job too, ensuring words have appropriate weight, while Guillem March’s scratchy cover illustration, which he apparently coloured too, is a lovely tease of what’s to come.
I hope new readers brought in by this issue’s crossover are intrigued enough to track down back issues and stay awhile – the Phantom Stranger is perhaps DC’s most-improved book, and I want to see it stick around so DeMatteis, Blanco and co can progress his story.