This mystery man, who looks like a DC version of the Shadow or the Green Hornet, has all the pulpy potential of a film noir mainstay. But The Phantom Stranger's origins are actually in the white-bread 1950s, and his unrevealed backstory points — with their too broad a mix of fable and Biblical allusion — belie the kind of resonance his very cool look should possess.
Dan DiDio's attempt to tell his origin without explaining any more than has ever been explained leaves us with a cipher who committed some nameless wrong against some forgotten person (okay, it may have been Jesus and he may be Judas, but that doesn't help anything), and whose cowardly suicide brings him not before judgment in heaven or hell, but from a council of unfamiliar wizards. It had something to do with greed, and so his distinctive necklace is actually a blood money curse around his neck.
DiDio's not the writer to reconcile all of the contradictions (between mysticism and spirituality and the temptation to tell anthology stories) that are part of this newly blank slate, and Brent Anderson and Scott Hanna aren't the artists to capture what should make him special.
Anderson is an excellent anatomist with a fairly loose, expressive style in the Kubert mold. Hanna, however, is a tightly wound and careful hard-edged linear inker in the Joe Sinnott mold. Like a Silver Age mismatch of yore, the two gel like oil and water. Anderson's accurate but moody humans become generic and bland under Hanna's efficiency, and Hanna, rather than bringing out the best details from his penciller, looks stiff and limited. If ever a book called for Klaus Janson and big moody shadows, it is probably The Phantom Stranger.
Thus, the pantheon of mystics, meant to be intimidating in their big stone thrones, look like a spandex Halloween party that failed to launch. And when Jim Corrigan and the Spectre show up (they may or may not have always been tied to the Stranger, origin-wise), they look close to right (if dated) but come off as whiny and desperate rather than angry and vengeful, as it were. This is the least informative origin story ever, and the tacked-on "Who's Who" page, that reiterates everything we just read, is useless redundancy. This is not good enough as an explanation for an omniscient character as eternal (and as integral to the Justice League) as Vandal Savage.
Where's Cassandra Craft? Where are Tannarak or Tala? Where's a Lovecraftian tentacle monster, or even a hint of real mystery or terror? A ghost even? Or a conniving demon? For that matter, I'd settle for Constantine or Doctor Thirteen! Zatanna? Lemire is using half of them pretty well in Justice League Dark, but this bland Stranger wouldn't fit in anymore. He seems unlikely to become someone who at least knows all about people who matter. This is one big misfire, a disappointment.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.