As Trinity War focuses on the mystery of why Superman killed Doctor Light, the answer may rest with the dead hero himself.
Or rather, the answer may be with Doctor Light's soul in Heaven itself, and in the DC Universe, that doesn't mean it's beyond reach.
In Phantom Stranger #11, by writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Fernando Blanco, the lead character — who has been playing a central role in Trinity War so far — brings the murder mystery to his solo title. In the issue, Batman and other Justice League members follow Phantom Stranger (or "PS," as the title's writer calls him), into the Afterlife to find Doctor Light's soul.
As we found out a couple weeks ago, in our first installment of Newsarama's "Trinity War Weekly," the August 7th release of Phantom Stranger #11 will continue the investigation into why Superman killed Doctor Light.
"A group of Leaguers follow the Stranger to find Doctor Light's soul and learn about what really happened in the moments before his death," Cunningham told Newsarama. "The consequences of that side-trip will continue to haunt Phantom Stranger too."
It isn't the first time the New 52 version of Phantom Stranger has visited Heaven (it will actually be the second that readers have seen), but this visit should be a lot more dangerous for PS.
In July's Phantom Stranger #10, the DC angelic character Zauriel warned PS that he could "never return" to Heaven, and could "never again" bring a soul back to the living world. "If you so much as attempt it," Zauriel said, "you will be erased from time and history, from existence itself."
Of course, for Phantom Stranger, being erased from existence might not be a bad thing: In the New 52, he began existence as Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ, and has been condemned to walking the Earth ever since, looking for redemption.
The Trinity War tie-in may also give an "afterlife" of sorts to the Phantom Stranger title, which DeMatteis took over in May as solo writer. Because Phantom Stranger #11 is the only issue of Trinity War coming out on August 7th, the "tie-in" label may help bring new readers to the title. DeMatteis, who is also co-writing Larfleeze and the upcoming Justice League 3000 for DC, is hoping the new readers who check out Phantom Stranger during Trinity War will come back for issue #12 in October.
Phantom Stranger will also pick up the story of The Question, another lead character in the Trinity War story, when it picks up again in October.
Newsarama talked to DeMatteis about the Trinity War issue, and what the visit to Heaven means for the Trinity War event — and Phantom Stranger's future.
Newsarama: Marc, the last issue was a sad one for P.S. (my new nickname for him, since our last interview). As a writer, what were you hoping to accomplish for the character with this turn of events with his family, and was it difficult to do that to him?
J.M. DeMatteis: I thought the relationship with the Stark family was one of the most intriguing, and inspired, elements that Dan DiDio brought to this new interpretation of the Stranger. It's the area where PS is the most vulnerable, the most human, and thus the relationship allows us to see him in an unexpected light. Putting that relationship on the line — and giving the Stranger his "Sophie's Choice" moment — brought him to an entirely new place that perfectly sets the stage for our Trinity War issue.
Was it difficult to do? Well, on the one hand, as a writer it's my job to put our main character through the mill, to throw him into situations that push him to the brink both psychologically and spiritually — to find the Stranger's vulnerable spot and poke at it — and this story certainly fit the bill. On the other hand, part of the process is totally identifying with the character, feeling what he feels — and there were times writing this when I found myself profoundly moved by the Stranger's situation, my heart breaking along with his.
Nrama: We now know that Doctor Light is the murdered Justice League member. Why/how does Phantom Stranger get involved with that character's story?
DeMatteis: I really don't want to give anything away and spoil the story. That said, given the sacrifice that the Stranger just made...and given that Doctor Light left behind a wife and children...there's an emotional resonance there that may be too deep, too raw, for the Stranger to ignore.
Nrama: Readers of Phantom Stranger #10 also know the repercussions of the character's involvement in Trinity War, because Zauriel told him that he must not return to the afterlife. Why does Phantom Stranger feel compelled to return anyway?
DeMatteis: Again, I don't want to give away too much, because that's the core of the story. Stranger has been warned by Zauriel. He knows that, if he returns to the Afterlife, he's risking his very existence. For him to make the choice to return is either an insane decision...or proof of how far the character has come, how much he's evolved. Why would he risk everything for a man he doesn't even know? You'll have to read the story to find out.
Nrama: What other characters are you getting to write in the next issue? And how would you describe the interaction of each of them with Phantom Stranger?
DeMatteis: We've got Batman, Deadman and Katana joining PS on the journey. Batman and Deadman are two characters I absolutely love, Katana was new to me. I read through a number of Ann Nocenti's recent stories and saw that she was a perfect fit for this adventure.
Each one of them is important to the story and each one gets his/her moment in the spotlight. That said, I think the Stranger-Batman connection in the book is the most interesting. You'd think that, given their personal histories, these two would view the universe in very opposite ways, but they find a common ground here...and I'd love to see the two interact more in the future. (In fact, I'm hoping Batman will return to the book in an upcoming storyline.)
Nrama: Batman has been shown to be very "science"-focused so far in Trinity War. How do the events of Phantom Stranger #11 mesh with his ideas about science vs. supernatural?
DeMatteis: Well, just as recent events have pushed PS into emotional and psychological territory he's never entered before, the Trinity War — most notably the tragic situation Superman finds himself in — has pushed Batman to places he's never been before. In fact, the idea of heading into the Afterlife to confront Doctor Light is Batman's, not the Stranger's. Bats will do anything it takes to help Superman...even stepping, without reserve, into the world of the supernatural.
Nrama: How does this issue play a part in the overall story you're telling about Phantom Stranger?
DeMatteis: When we first discussed the Stranger's participation in Trinity War, the thing that was most important to me was that the story not be just another tie-in that disrupts continuity and doesn't have a real impact on the book. I wanted a Phantom Stranger story that really mattered. Geoff Johns and the whole Trinity War team agreed (Geoff has been an incredibly supportive and generous collaborator) and I'm happy to say that this story is, in many ways, the single most important PS story we've told so far. Its impact on the Stranger's life will be felt for many months to come.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about the Trinity War issue?
DeMatteis: Just that our artist, Fernando Blanco, turned in his best job yet on this story. He came out of the gate strong with our "Stranger in Hell" story in Phantom Stranger #9 and he keeps topping himself every issue. With his ability to capture the series' fine balance of otherworldliness and humanity, he's a perfect fit for the Phantom Stranger.
Nrama: We've seen the solicitation for issue #12, and it indicates that Phantom Stranger has been "erased from existence." Is this the result of his return to the afterlife in #11?
DeMatteis: It could very well be...but you won't know for sure till you get to the last page of Phantom Stranger #11.
Nrama: The characters on the cover of issue #12 make it seem like something bad is happening to P.S. Even though you've implied in the comic that Hell only exists if we believe in it, can you speak to why that cover was chosen/what it means?
DeMatteis: You're assuming that visual takes place in Hell. It doesn't. That's Sin Eater — who's stepping up to be our primary antagonist — and another entity called Non, both of whom will be doing their best to make the Phantom Stranger's life miserable...and the cover clearly reflects that. Remember, Sin Eater is Philip Stark: he was sent off to limbo by the Stranger, who then stole Stark's family from him. He's got some major issues with PS...and they're deeply, disturbingly personal.
Nrama: We've been told that The Question's story, which has been spotlighted in Trinity War, will continue in Phantom Stranger. Is he part of the story in October and beyond?
DeMatteis: Yes. The Question, of course, is the one who murdered the Stranger and sent him to Hell. Who set in motion many of the events we've seen play out in recent issues. In Phantom Stranger #13, PS decides it's time for a reckoning and the result is a major confrontation that climaxes across the world in Jerusalem. In the course of the story, we'll learn more about the Question's motivations and his strained (to say the least!) relationship with the Stranger.
Nrama: Is there anything else you can tell fans about what's coming up in Phantom Stranger post-Trinity War?
DeMatteis: Phantom Stranger #14 kicks off a big, multi-issue arc called "Crack in the World" that puts a spotlight on Sin Eater and Non and brings in a variety of guest stars including the Demon (one of my favorite characters in the supernatural quadrant of the DCU), Superman and (with a little luck) Batman. (The seeds of this story are sown in the Trinity War issue. I told you it was important!) In the course of this arc we'll be developing PS's relationships with Doctor Thirteen and Chris Esperanza — the young man the Stranger rescued from the Afterlife in Phantom Stranger #10 — and bringing in an old, familiar face: Cassandra Craft. We're also talking about a crossover between PS and Ray Fawkes' excellent Pandora series. Now there's a relationship ripe for exploration.
The Stranger has come a long way in his journey to redemption...but he's got a long way to go. I hope that the book thrives and we can continue to explore this fascinating character.