I can't claim to be a huge Phantom Stranger fan from way back when, but I do like guys who rock classic fedoras. Thus, I'm predisposed to kinda like this guy. My understanding of the character was that no one was allowed to fully understand the character – he was this mysterious shadowy lurking character who would show up, be cryptic about what you had to do and help you along only in the loosest sense of the word 'help,' because he could never be straight with you. His past, unknowable, his methods, inscrutable.
However, back during Free Comic Book Day, the New 52 version of the Phantom Stranger was revealed (or heavily implied) to be Judas Iscariot, the guy from the Bible who betrayed Jesus. The Council of Wizards at the Rock of Eternity condemn him to walk the world in search of purpose as punishment for forever darkening the world with his greed.
In The Phantom Stranger #0, that implication is even more blatant, as it opens with the man who would become the Stranger killing himself out of guilt and remorse for his betrayal, which sends him to the Council to be further punished. Once condemned to the Earth, he is told to wear the robe of the man he betrayed. The Biblical names are never mentioned, but his is Judas walking the Earth in the robe of Jesus, trying to earn his way to his final penance. He has coins (symbolic of the 30 pieces of silver he took to pay for his betrayal) fused to his skin (or so he says, since they seem to be fused to his shirt), and one will drop off for each step he takes toward redemption. It takes thousands of years before he has the chance to earn the first coin, and he does it by accidentally leading Jim Corrigan to his death and rebirth as The Spectre – another guy known for his Biblical connections as the embodiment of the Wrath of God.
This is Dan DiDio's second attempt at an ongoing title in the New 52, as his first crack, O.M.A.C., was canceled a while back. Involving the Bible in superhero comics has an appropriately daring feel about it, but reconciling the Judeo-Christian god with New Gods, Greek gods and the like is always weirdly amorphous. It could be very interesting if DC dares to classify the old bean as just another minor deity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, no more important than Zeus or Darkseid. As it stands now, though, DiDio's dialog leaves something to be desired. It works well enough for the origin recap, but once the Stranger is directed to get involved in Corrigan's life, it falls apart. The exchange between Corrigan and his Captain Hopkins of Gotham City PD about his life of uncontrollable rage feels forced and trite.
However, it's kind of a neat twist to see that the Stranger's mission was not to help Corrigan find his kidnapped fiancee, but rather to get him killed by the men he hates most as a way of releasing the Spectre as a furious force of vengeance. It's a decent set-up for the ongoing premise that has a Quantum Leap sort of sense about it – he's never sure exactly why he's being told to get involved in the lives of these people, but he tries to help them and chances are the thing he's supposed to do is never the thing he thinks he's supposed to do. "Forces beyond your understanding," indeed.
The Brent Anderson art is pretty solid, and there's enough here to make us take a look at a second issue next month. It's probably not going to ever be the most scintillating read, but this is likely where all the important stuff about the upcoming "Trinity War" will be revealed, so it'll be crucial. Alas, it's a little hard to shake the notion that defining the Phantom Stranger detracts from how cool he is.