Of particular interest to me during this zero-numbered blitz was The Phantom Stranger's book. Why should I care about the Phantom Stranger? Up till now, he's been only a wary traveler, arriving in different books to send superheroes on mystical journeys, while his own affiliations remain deliciously mysterious. He was, in fact, created by Carmine Infantino and John Broome, to be an occultist without any home or religious community. The two times I have encountered him in my years of reading comics have been decidedly non-spiritual affairs. In the much-lauded and often-reviled Superman #666, Clark Kent finds himself haunted by a Kryptonian demon while he sleeps. You know things have gone off the rails by the time a dreaming Superman has fashioned himself a space palace, and is muttering about buying a possibly-pregnant Lois "pickles and ice cream" in his sleep. But an early indication that something is up comes on the first pages, when crows swarm multiple panels, as Wonder Woman, Hawk Man, and the Phantom Stranger all warn Big Blue that "HE is coming," he being the aforementioned demon. My second encounter with the Stranger came in the famous Batman Elseworlds tale, "To Kill A Legend," where the Phantom whisks Bruce Wayne to another dimension, so that he can save a young alterna-Bruce from the gloom of losing his parents. In both these errands, the Phantom takes no sides, makes no moral pronouncements. He is simply a guide into the unseen, a representation of the magic that exists out there in the great beyond, a beyond that remains hazy even to Batman and Superman.
This was the Phantom Stranger as I knew him: mystic, tour guide, untraceable. Well, not anymore! In Dan DiDio's hands (that's the man behind the DC reboot), good old P.S. is no longer a stranger. He stands besides new addition Pandora and oldie but goodie The Question as "the trinity of sin." What is the Stranger's sin? Hang onto your hands, it's a doozy: he is responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. That's right. The unnameable spirit now has a name -- and one heck of an origin story! He's Judas, and he will spend an eternity not in hell, but in wandering the earth, looking for a way to pay back his major misdeed.
Of course, the name Judas and Jesus are never once spoken in DiDio's story, but the implications become pretty clear, pretty quick, as Judas' blood money is somehow sewn to his skin by a high council of magical, vengeful beings (none of whom I don't recognize):
If this cop character sounds familiar to you, that's because he's the pre-Spectre model of the Spectre. That ghostly green-clad character was created by none other than Jerry Siegel back in 1940 (the Phantom Stranger first appeared in 1969, for those keeping score), and he has almost always served as an avenging angel or God's Spirit of Vengeance -- a job given to him after his girlfriend's death and his own demise at the hand of mobsters. Since DiDio's work is clearly set on showcasing the twisted creation of mystical creatures in this zero issue, I was pretty sure things weren't going to end well for Officer Jim Corrigan. And I was right! He dies, largely because of the Phantom Stranger's inaction, and suddenly things get a little freaky ...
I didn't intend to slip into such a glib tone while writing about this book, but I can't seem to stop myself, because DiDio has committed his own sin in scribing this story -- the sin of utter and complete laziness. Rather than explore the deep-seated persecution and anger, or the formative religious values, carried around by the Jewish Siegel, he creates the Spectre from an entirely Catholic perspective here, which only confuses readers, instead of enlightening them about which God or purpose the Spectre is serving. Wiping away the Old Testament fury that goes hand in hand with Spectre stories doesn't guarantee a clean slate; you need to substitute one driving force for another. Siegel's fantasies almost always had anger or sadness at their core. What lies at the core of this Spectre? Catholic anger? Catholic guilt? I'm not sure. All I see is a rote repetition of his anger (generated by the Phantom Stranger this time). If all we get from DiDio's tale is a new starting point, divorced from the real-world perspective that created comics in the first place, then we get no authorial voice leading us somewhere new. We get nothing lasting out of the Spectre's journey, spiritual or otherwise.
P.S. exists in Purgatory before he meets Jim Corrigan, and he only starts working off his debts by leading the man to his death. Such compounding negative consequences could lead to an interesting statement about religion and how our values shape our actions. But DiDio doesn't even seem to realize what iconography he's playing with here. He thinks labeling the Phantom Stranger as Judas is enough; he doesn't do any other work developing the complex issues surrounding possibly the world's most famous betrayer. Instead, he sets the Phantom Stranger on a simplistic quest that, frankly, defames Biblical stories, when he could be using those stories as engines to examine old-world and contemporary issues of morality and spirituality.
My major beef with this book is not that DiDio displays such ignorance/insensitivity (a comic so devoid of belief can't shake me to my core as a Christian), or that answers are provided where I had no need for them (did I seriously need to know the Phantom Stranger's real name?). My problem here is that DiDio turns past comics work into a religion. The Spectre's separation from God's guiding hand, the swapping of Jewish and Christian influences, The Spirit of Vengeance's creation by an enemy of God who's now been turned into a comic book fantasy, aka the Phantom Spectre -- it all leads me to believe that what DiDio worships is not the reality that influenced these characters, or any past writers, or any God; he only worships the world he's playing in, and what he brings to it, as a creator. Why would he question what he's building, when he's the all-powerful narrator? Why would he push past obvious conclusions about the Spectre and the Stranger, conclusions that could bring the silliness of his narrative to the fore? Because he wants to be right. Because he wants to be powerful. Because he wants to bend this world to his needs, rather than examine it with a well-developed sense of doubt, questioning, and well-won belief. And that's a pity. This book could have started an interesting spiritual journey. But as it is, we're given just a journey by the numbers, for characters meant to be anything but super-defined.