Writing Phantom Stranger might be giving J.M. DeMatteis nightmares and tears, but that doesn't mean the writer is backing down from some challenging new storylines — both during and after this summer's Trinity War.
DeMatteis, who took over solo writing duties on Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger in May, has been utilizing DC's magical and mystical universe to tell some heart-wrenching stories about the character — from his current nightmare-inducing exploration of Hell to the upcoming Trinity War tie-in to DC's Heaven.
But the writer said he has a lot more stories to tell about the character, and he's hoping readers will give the comic a new look during Trinity War.
And next month, DeMatteis is introducing the New 52 version of Zauriel, a character who will be returning to the series and playing a pivotal role in coming months.
Phantom Stranger launched last September with DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio as writer, although DeMatteis joined him as co-writer with issue #4. In the New 52, Phantom Stranger is the condemned spirit of Judas Iscariot — the historical figure who sold out Jesus Christ. In the Phantom Stranger comic, he's not only seeking redemption for his "sin," but he's also trying to establish a new life and new relationships among multiple challenges.
The comic is getting a higher profile this summer as it crosses over with Trinity War, the crossover event that spins through all three Justice League titles: Justice League, Justice League Dark and Justice League of America, as well as several tie-in issues in other DC Comics, including Phantom Stranger.
In July's Phantom Stranger #10, the comic begins a two-issue tie-in with Trinity War, as it features guest stars Batman, Deadman and Katana. After a break in September because of DC's "Villains Month" event, the comic will return in October.
For DeMatteis, Phantom Stranger is just one of his many projects coming up at DC. The writer is also launching the new Larfleeze comic later this month with his frequent collaborator Keith Giffen, and the two are working together on the just-announced October debut of Justice League 3000.
Plus, as he hints below, he's got yet another Giffen collaboration project coming up from DC.
Although DeMatteis is well-known for his dialogue-writing skills with Giffen and other plotters, he's also a respected writer on his own, not only at Vertigo and DC, but on Marvel comic books like Amazing Spider-Man and a wide variety work for CrossGen, Image, Boom!, IDW and others. The prolific writer has also penned prose books and television series.
Newsarama talked to DeMatteis about what he's got coming up in Phantom Stranger and how important the series is for the future of the DCU after Trinity War.
Newsarama: First off, how has it been working on the book since you took over? I think last time we talked, you were working with Dan, putting dialogue over his plots.
J.M. DeMatteis: It's been great. Dan DiDio created a wonderful universe for the character — giving us a Phantom Stranger who echoes the classic version and yet is new and unique. Not an easy feat. I had a wonderful time co-writing with Dan — it was a great way learn about P.S. and his world — and now that he's generously handed the book off to me, I'm having just as much fun setting off in some new directions of my own.
Nrama: [Laughs.] I love that you used the initials "P.S." As you've gotten to know the character, has anything surprised you about him, or challenged you in a surprising way?
DeMatteis: It's always a challenge starting a new series, especially when the templates have already been set by another writer. I want to remain true to Dan's vision and yet bring my own vision to the book.
Phantom Stranger #9, which was my first solo issue, was a little intimidating for that reason; but once I started working on the story, it all came together. It helps that I've got a terrific editor, Wil Moss, and an equally terrific artist, Fernando Blanco, helping me put this together.
Nrama: Phantom Stranger is currently dealing with matters of Heaven and Hell. How did you come up with the New 52 version of Hell? What were your thoughts behind what we've seen of and been told about Hell in this comic?
DeMatteis: I've always been uncomfortable with stories that present some "definitive" version of Hell — or present Hell at all. I don't subscribe to a view of the universe that allows for a "loving" Creator who condemns people to suffering for all eternity. That's not God as I understand Him/Her/It. One of the points of the Phantom Stranger story is that Hell only exists if we believe in it; that each one of us projects a very personal, very unique, Hell.
That said, this was the first story I've written in a long time that could be classified as horror and I went full out with it. I literally gave myself nightmares while I was working on it. I had one of those classic "waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-scream-trapped-in-my-throat" moments.
Nrama: And despite how scary Hell is, as you've depicted it in the story, why is Phantom Stranger hesitant to deal with Heaven?
DeMatteis: If you were considered one of the greatest sinners of all time, wouldn't you be hesitant?
Nrama: Good point.
DeMatteis: That said, in the story in [July's] Phantom Stranger #10, the Stranger is seeking out the people he loves most in the world, so any hesitance he has dissolves pretty quickly. As we saw in the Hell issue, he will risk anything, make any sacrifice, if he can get Elena and the children back.
Nrama: Can you tell us anything about what we'll learn of the DCU Heaven?
DeMatteis: I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that the Heaven story features the New DCU debut of Zauriel, a character who will be returning to the series and playing a pivotal role.
Nrama: The cover of the July issue echoes Phantom Stranger's history as Judas Iscariot. How is that cover representative of what's inside the issue?
DeMatteis: That cover (and Jae Lee has done a series of brilliant covers) is a visual metaphor for a terrible decision the Stranger has to make in that issue. It's a kind of cosmic Sophie's Choice: No matter what he chooses, he loses. The story's not quite as intense as the Hell issue, but it's even more emotional. I found myself tearing up as I went over the lettered pages.
Nrama: Have you been doing any research as you write these stories, since they not only have a mystical nature, but also kind of skirt around real-life theology?
DeMatteis: The mystical side of life has, in many ways, been my primary obsession since I was a teenager and began questioning the nature of life and reality. I've done lots of exploring in those arenas for many years: reading, meditating, traveling to India eight times. I've always been fascinated by the "Big Questions": Who are we? Who is God? What's the reason we're here? And, as many of my stories have attested, I'm obsessed with exploring the "Why" of our individual psyches — and the "Why" of creation itself. All of which is to say that I haven't done specific research for Phantom Stranger, but I guess you could say my whole life has been the research.
Nrama: That's reflected in the approach you're taking. But let's lighten up this conversation a little to talk about the characters you're utilizing. It's been interesting to see a recurring supporting role from the Question. How would you describe his character, and will we see more of him?
DeMatteis: The Question really is...a question. It's hard to tell who he is, what his agenda is, because he himself doesn't know. In many ways, he's the ultimate embodiment of what I was talking about in response to the previous question: He's the guy in search of the Big Why...in the universe and in himself.
As part of the Trinity of Sin, he's got a deep connection to both the Phantom Stranger and Pandora — and let's not forget that he's the guy who rammed the Spear of Destiny through the Stranger's heart and killed him. There's no love lost between these two, and all of their issues are going to come to a boil in Phantom Stranger #13.
It's a big, cosmic knockdown drag out between the Stranger and the Question.
Nrama: What other supporting characters will play important roles in the upcoming issues?
DeMatteis: As noted, Zauriel will, over the course of the coming months, be a big part of the series, along with Doctor Thirteen and another character we've met briefly, but if I give away his/her identity, I'll reveal a major story point. We'll also see more of Nightmare Nurse, a wonderful character that popped out of Dan D.'s fevered imagination, as well as Sin Eater, who will take center stage as the Stranger's primary antagonist.
Nrama: Issue #11 requires Phantom Stranger to assist the various Justice Leagues as part of the Trinity War event. What's Phantom Stranger's role in the event?
DeMatteis: I don't want to give away anything about the Trinity War. I've read what Geoff Johns and Jeff Lemire have cooked up, and the last thing I'd want to do is spoil their terrific story in any way.
That said, we all wanted to make sure that the Trinity War issue of Phantom Stranger was a pivotal one. That it wasn't just a forced crossover story. That it mattered. And it does. It's a powerful turning point for the Stranger.
I'll also mention that some things that happen in the Trinity War issue will have major repercussions down the road. We're launching a major arc with Phantom Stranger #14, and the seeds are planted in the crossover story.
Nrama: Is he happy to help out with this? What are his thoughts on all this?
DeMatteis: You'll have to read Phantom Stranger #10 and #11 to understand the Stranger's state of mind and why he's doing what he's doing. I really can't say anything more.
Nrama: Then let's back up to his current status. What's Phantom Stranger's mindset now, as we head into this summer's events and Trinity War?
DeMatteis: His primary focus isn't on himself, his mission, or even his own redemption: The single thing he's obsessed with is finding his family and bringing him home.
Nrama: How has it been working with Fernando Blanco?
DeMatteis: Wonderful! We've had terrific artists on the book, but none of them were around for the long haul. Fernando is. Having a regular artist —especially one as good as Fernando — allows for the writer and illustrator to build a real chemistry, a unique language on the page.
Fernando hit the bull's eye with his first issue — his visualization of Hell was pretty spectacular and pretty chilling — and he keeps getting better. I was just looking over some of his Trinity War pages this morning and they're amazing.
Nrama: Your name doesn't seem to be among the September solicitations during "Villains Month."
DeMatteis: No, we're not participating in Villain's Month — and, as you'll see at the end of Phantom Stranger #11, there's actually a story reason for that — but we'll be back the following month, gearing up for our new, and fairly massive, arc.
Nrama: And you'll also be working on DC comics like Larfleeze and Justice League 3000. It seems like you're getting to play in a lot of corners of the DCU, collaborating with a lot of different people. Anything else in the works that you can talk about? Or anything you want to add about your current project?
DeMatteis: I'm having a blast, as I always do, working with Keith on Larfleeze, and we're getting ready to launch Justice League 3000, which reunites us with our old buddy, Kevin Maguire. We're all incredibly excited about this new project. Whenever the three of us work together, something magical happens. We've been doing this, on and off, for 25 years and the collaboration just gets better with time.
I've also got a third project with Keith, but that's still under wraps, as well.
I've got a number of other fun projects in the works — comics, animation, novels — and, at the moment, I can't get specific about any of them. The good news is they're all creatively challenging and creatively satisfying projects. Can't wait till I can talk about them.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell fans about Phantom Stranger as we head toward his role in Trinity War?
DeMatteis: P.S. is a fascinating, multi-faceted character inhabiting a fascinating universe that allows me to tell stories that explore the psychological, the supernatural and the metaphysical aspects of our lives. I'm hoping that Trinity War will bring in new readers for Phantom Stranger.