(a) Fernando Blanco
** SPOILERS AHEAD! **
Ah, the issue of the year.
A friend and I already dubbed Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger #11 as 2013’s best single issue simply from premise alone: The Phantom Stranger leads Batman, Katana, and Deadman into Heaven to search for the soul of Doctor Light. Just that sentence alone was enough to make any fan of any of those characters excited. And who wouldn’t want to see Batman in the afterlife? As a principle, I dislike the flimsy nature of death in comic books. In recent years, death has lost all meaning when everyone that’s six feet under starts coming back to life. And while I was excited for this issue for the characters involved, I was also skeptical about DC devaluing the idea of death in the ‘New 52’ so quickly. Fortunately, J.M. DeMatteis has put some of my concerns to rest in a very unlikely way: by tackling the issue of death head-on.
The firs few pages of ToS: The Phantom Stranger #11 are jarring because the Stranger, Bats, Katana, and Deadman are already ascending through the various levels of the afterlife on their way to find Doctor Light to question him about his own death. With no preamble to set the stage, it’s weird to see Batman talking about journeying through Heaven while still being dark and brooding. The whole scene makes a lot more sense once Matteis jumps back a few hours to give readers the backstory as to why and how these four heroes ended up traversing the afterlife. Batman feels the most out of place in this situation, to the point where it almost seems as if Matteis doesn’t have a grasp on the character. As the issue progresses, though, it becomes obvious that Batman is simply the only one of the group that doesn’t deal in death and magic on a regular basis — he’s completely out of his element and acts accordingly.
Fernando Blanco does an excellent job throughout this issue visually conveying the broader setting that these heroes find themselves within. The Phantom Stranger describes Heaven as a state of perception and consciousness more than a physical place, and Blanco goes above and beyond to flesh out this concept. The panel layouts are also fantastic, combining more traditional page framework with instances of stylized formatting when the context of the story demands it. Seeing the Stranger’s head fly off the page while Katana’s panel shrinks until it disappears is just awesome.
I was very, very worried that Doctor Light was going to come back to life. What would that mean for the ‘New 52’ as a cohesive and strong shared comic book universe? If you’re important enough, will some mystical hero always find a way to bring you back from the dead? Will the consequences of dying become null and void in the name of bigger sales and shocking deaths that mean absolutely nothing? Fortunately, we don’t have to ponder these terrible thoughts because instead of ignoring the gravity of death, Matteis actually makes it a point to remind readers over and over that the implications of breaking into Heaven are dire, and that the Phantom Stranger cannot, in the end, do whatever he likes whenever he likes. For a series that’s been rooted in it’s main character constantly challenging the laws of nature and divine existence, it’s nice to see the Stranger get knocked down and peg to remind him that he’s still someone’s bitch.
I very much enjoyed Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger #11. Though it doesn’t take the cake as ‘Issue of the Year’, it’s still the best issue of the series, and one of the better “Trinity War” tie-in issues there’s been so far. Matteis does misstep a bit when it comes to exposition about “Trinity War” itself, using Batman as a proxy to outline exactly what’s going on in the Justice League books: “Doctor Light is dead, Stranger. Killed–or so most people believe–by Superman. That single event triggered a chain reaction that’s rippled across the world. Brought three Justice Leagues to war–and then uneasy peace.” It’s all pretty much laid out right there, I guess. There’s no real finesse to this method, but I guess it gets the job done and it’s not overbearing.