ART: Brent Anderson and Scott Hanna
And just like that, The Phantom Stranger became one of my favorite series. While DC (I still say unjustly) cancelled the phenomenal Resurrection Man - a series rooted in classic, episodic storytelling that slowly built up a genuinely interesting character - it has replaced that series with tales of the Phantom Stranger in the able hands of Dan Didio, a man who wrote O.M.A.C. so well it was literally too good for most readers. Out of the pages of The New 52 #1, Didio brings us the exploits of the most enigmatic member of the "Trinity of Sin", and it is so, so, so good.
The Phantom Stranger was always a mystery. But unlike so many other characters shrouded in misdirection and facades, Phantom Stranger existed on his own level - his actions, his reasons, and his meaning were all unknown. He would appear seemingly out of nowhere, and act upon his own, unexplained predilections without notice. Truly, he was a stranger in a comic book universe where (almost) every character eventually gets a backstory, whether it's necessary or not. The Phantom Stranger fully takes advantage of the 'new' part of the 'New 52', offering a definitive origin, more fleshed-out character development, and an all-around kick-ass time.
Religious symbolism is an ample well for storytelling, and in the opening pages of The Phantom Stranger #0, it becomes pretty obvious that the Stranger was once Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Dan Didio deftly handles this symbolism, taking care to never mention either the Stranger or Jesus by name, but instead through Judas' suicide attempt and looming fate. "You are beyond forgiveness," a council of wizards explains to poor Judas (yes, a council of wizards. Though they all happen to resemble Shazam, suggesting a connection in future issues.) "Your greed has forever darkened the world." - it's enough to get the point across without sounding preachy. Didio understands that symbolism is just that: symbolic.
Judas is then cursed by the Band o' Wizards to wear a necklace made of coins, wear Jesus' robe, and walk the Earth for eternity until he's called upon again. While it seems like there's a lot to take in all at once, this is 'Issue Zero'. The whole point of the prequel issue idea is to offer a more comprehensive explanation of a certain character, in most cases through a look into the events that take place before the first issue. With The Phantom Stranger, we're literally given the entire origin of the character to the extent that we need it. Obviously, we don't need to know Judas' pre-judgement history because another book already took care of that. Didio tells us everything we need to know: who the Stranger is, how he came to be, why he does whatever he does, and where this series is going as it moves forward.
I was honestly quite skeptical of DC's "Third Wave", as two of my favorite series (Justice League International and Resurrection Man) were cancelled to make room for new titles. But after reading The Phantom Stranger, I feel better about the other three upcoming series. Dan Didio knows what kind of writer he is, and he recognized that his full-blown style (as presented throughout O.M.A.C.) was too much. For The Phantom Stranger, Didio reels in his bombastic style just enough to make the series more accesible to a larger audience without sacrificing the pulp and charm that make his writing so good.