How can a betrayer be a hero? Is it possible for a character whose origin names him as one of history’s most vilified person to be a force for good in the world?
It has been apparent since the reintroduction of this character in DC’s The New 52 Free Comic Book Day issue of Justice League that the coming year will see a renewed focus on the mystical side of this rebooted universe. Since very few of these characters were a part of the initial relaunch, DC is going to great lengths to bring them back in such a way that they mesh with existing continuity and form the threads of their own corner of the universe.
The purpose of the “Phantom Stranger” title would seem to be to provide the proverbial connective tissue between these elements. Last month’s Zero issue showed the Stranger’s role in the inception of The Spectre, a character who will undoubtedly play a large role in the mystical DCU, and this month’s issue follows much the same formula.
Long-time Teen Titans fans will be able to deduce from the cover alone which heretofore-missing character is the focus of this month’s betrayal-in-the-service-of-the-greater-good, but those unfamiliar with that lore will encounter a heartfelt but ultimately tragic tale of a gifted girl on the run who makes the sad mistake of trusting the Stranger.
We who know the eventual fate of young Rachel realize that the Stranger’s actions will indeed result in a positive outcome for her and for humanity, but that doesn’t lessen the story’s impact or its poignancy.
The Stranger is a deeply tragic character. By virtue of his past transgressions, he is doomed to betray anyone he cares about, all in service to something larger. It is not hard to imagine that there is some metatextual significance to the fact that Dan Didio, DC’s Executive Editor, is the writer on this book. The longtime comics exec has repeatedly come under fire for his treatment of fan-favorite characters as vehicles to drive larger company-wide narratives. There is a certain similarity between his style of character management and that of the Stranger, in that both are willing to sacrifice a character’s individual well-being to ensure the long-term viability, health, and success of the larger DC Universe.
Right now, this book is still finding its way. We are slowly being introduced to the plot elements that will shape the Stranger’s own larger narrative outside of the monthly betrayal episode. What’s more, the use of his inability to act of his own accord or have a direct positive impact as a recurring theme would seem to indicate that, when the shift in the book comes, it will be in that arena. The Stranger has been shown to be an immensely powerful character, and it will be intriguing to see what happens with him if and when the shackles of his penance are finally removed.
If you are a fan of the mystical DCU, this is an essential book. It is clearly the “spine” of that side of the universe, and it would appear obvious that events within its pages will echo throughout the rest of the company’s line for some time to come.
Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website.
He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.