The Phantom Betrayer, Betrayed!
This issue is almost trying TOO hard with the foldout cover. The main cover is just so over-the-top in showing you a shocking moment that hides the identity of the attacker; showing it from multiple angles on monitors that STILL don't show you who's holding the spear? But it's not bad, and I thought I knew who it was on the other side, but I was slightly off in a pretty clever way. And yes, the cover shows the end of the issue, like most of the weaker foldout covers, but based on the way the previous ended and the cover of the next issue, you kind of already know you're just waiting for the moment in question to happen.
I'm also super glad we've still got Gene Ha on art duties, because his consistent style works wonders for the flow of the story, and it has a haunting noir quality to it that perfectly suits this series. A good chunk of the credit must go to Art Lyon's colors though, because they're what REALLY sell the tone.
It hurts your point when you have your character who's making a philosophical point POINT OUT that he's making a philosophical point; and with that deflated a bit, it's just too goofy to have 'The Voice' speaking to The Phantom Stranger in the form of a tiny dog. But that's not my biggest problem with the dog, it's the whole concept. We're 7 issues in, and we have The Voice of God explaining things to the protagonist while they walk? This is the kind of stuff you save for the end of a journey perhaps before and epiphany, it feels so out of place here and the guise really isn't helping things. It's a bit of a minor deus ex machina to drive the story forward. God just shows up to explain that things appear unplanned because it's ALL plan, and point The Phantom Stranger in yet another side direction to drag out this 'missing family' story some more. It fits in with the entire theme of the biggest thing that bugs me in this series, giving the readers far too many answers to questions that were better left in limbo.
And this issue's story, while not bad, is just a rehash of pretty much every other side story thus far. The Phantom Stranger meets someone that longtime readers know has a bigger purpose, and betrays them to lead them there. Like I said before, because he's no longer much of a Stranger, he should be called The Phantom Betrayer because that's literally his entire gimmick. There are a few vaguely interesting things about this particular story, for starters we see that his 'victim' this time around is quite a bit of an asshole, and to know he has a future greater purpose to create a path of redemption actually makes his unintentional sacrifice more apt. And even after their shoddy DC Universe Presents story, I was actually pretty psyched to see The Challengers of the Unknown make a resurgence towards a greater presence in the DCU, though they seem to be filling the position of the Doom Patrol, and a DCU without a Doom Patrol is... well... definitely incomplete.
But I guess it was important to reinforce the sense of The Phantom Stranger's constant betrayals, because the key hook to this issue is him finally experiencing betrayal. It's a pretty intense moment at the end, being stabbed in the back right after showing Dr. 13 some genuine appreciation for once, and it sets up a bigger scale with a full introduction of The Question as a member of the Trinity of Sin. It's actually kind of intriguing that the three appear to be on different levels along the scale of morality. Pandora's 'sin' wasn't exactly evil intentioned to begin with, so it's clear she sees herself as good, and so far it's hard to argue that. The Question is appearing, thus far, to be evil. He's done some good deeds in the one Justice League backup, but his crime in the past was easily the most intentionally evil, and he definitely still has a darker edge to him. The Phantom Stranger is right in the middle, completely neutral. He's a tool for higher power, following the commands without moral judgement. His crime was evil, but not truly malicious like The Question's.
In Conclusion: 3.5/5
This series is beginning to head in the right direction, but this issue is bogged down by a lot of the same problems most issues have had. It handles a lot of them a lot better, but the sense of repetition counteracts that a bit. This is still a series probably worth reading for all the universe shaping it does, but it's not one I very often truly enjoy.