First teased in May 2012, DC Comics finally launches “Trinity War” into comic stores this summer, a multi-part crossover event that begins with the death of an unnamed hero and ends with possible repercussions for the entirety of the DC Universe.
In July, DC’s premiere super teams and Trinity of Sin characters go head to head in an event playing out over the publisher’s three Justice League books: Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis’ “Justice League,” artist Doug Mahnke, Johns’ and Jeff Lemire’s “Justice League Of America,” and Lemire and Ray Fawkes’ “Justice League Dark” with artist Mikel Janin. The event also includes with Fawkes’ two solo series, “Constantine” and “Trinity Of Sin: Pandora,” and writer J.M. DeMatteis’ “Trinity Of Sin: Phantom Stranger.”
With “Trinity War” fast approaching, DeMatteis and Fawkes joined CBR to discuss of the event, the internal politics of the Trinity of Sin and the challenge of keeping Constantine and Phantom Stranger on the outskirts of the traditional superhero world.
CBR News: The event begins this summer, and beyond the “Justice League” books, “Constantine,” “Pandora” and “Phantom Stranger” are all going to tie-in to “Trinity War.” In the course of working on this, have you two gotten the chance meet or to talk with each other about the Trinity of Sin characters and how they all interact?
J.M. DeMatteis: We haven’t really gotten the chance to talk about anything! [Laughter] We did this DC conference, but other than that we’ve really been working in isolation. I’ve been talking to Geoff Johns, and everyone’s passing along everyone’s scripts, but we haven’t had the chance to talk at all, so maybe we’ll work some stuff out right now!
Ray Fawkes: Though I wonder if that is reflecting our characters’ completely independent views of what’s going on.
DeMatteis: That’s true; the essence of the Phantom Stranger is he’s really a stranger, he always stands apart and alone. So it kind of makes sense! [Laughter]
After thousands of years the Trinity of Sin must have formed some pretty strong opinions about each other. We’ve seen Pandora and the Phantom Stranger’s acrimonious meeting; to your minds, how do the Trinity of Sin characters view each other?
Fawkes: There’s no love lost between [Pandora] and the Phantom Stranger and the Question. In my opinion she thinks that she’s the one who’s hard done by and they deserve what they got. They would have different feelings about that, I’m sure, but from her perspective it’s, “Why did you throw me in with these terrible people?” I think there are readers who will side with the Phantom Stranger or The Question or any combination of the three, and there definitely will be some who think she’s in the right.
DeMatteis: I think the Stranger hates being a part of [the Trinity]. The only thing he hates more than being a part of it and these other two people is himself. This is a man who was walking around for two thousand years with the burden of what he sees as the ultimate sin. Out of the two of them, I think he’s got a stronger hate on — and we’ll be seeing it coming up in “Phantom Stranger” where there’s going to be a big confrontation — there’s going to be a much stronger hate on with the Question. Even though there’s nothing in the stories to indicate it, I had a sense from the first time I wrote a scene with the two of them that there’s more of a human connection between the Stranger and Pandora, but with the Question, there’s nothing but absolute loathing.
Pandora was a pivotal part of the ending of “Flashpoint,” the event that transformed the previous DCU into the New 52. Will that fact come into play at all in “Trinity War?”
Fawkes: Absolutely, yes. In “Trinity War” and in her own book, we’re going to find out what it is she was trying to prevent when she took part in creating the new universe. At the end of “Flashpoint” she talked about how the universes needed to be recreated to strengthen them. We’re going to see what the actual strength she had in mind was.
The Phantom Stranger is more on the outskirts of the New 52 and is not a central member of any Justice League group, and he doesn’t really strike me as a “joiner” in most senses. What’s his reaction to all these Justice Leagues and the events of “Trinity War?” Why is he a part of it?
DeMatteis: Without giving anything away — I have to talk carefully — I have to say right off the bat: I hate crossovers and I hate being involved with crossovers. [Laughter]
I have avoided them like the plague, and when I’m pulled into them, it’s very reluctantly! Every once in a while there’s a fun story. The thing I’m really enjoying about this is, we decided from the outset that this wouldn’t just be an issue that ties into some bigger story. This will be a story that’s very important to the Phantom Stranger as a character and a real turning point for him, personally. If you’ve been reading “Phantom Stranger,” it’s not a month you want to skip because it’s a hugely important story for him and his growth.
All that said, I wanted to make sure he got pulled into the story in a way that matters to him. It’s not, “Oh, there’s a big thing going on and here I am!” It becomes very personal for him. There are emotional reasons he gets involved. It’s very hard to talk about a story you don’t want to tip any of the details to, so all I’ll say is, the issue that ties into “Trinity War” is a very important story for him. It’s one you don’t want to skip just because you don’t like crossovers. How’s that? [Laughter]
Fawkes: A really interesting thing about “Trinity War,” definitely in the case of Phantom Stranger and Pandora and several of the other characters involved, is that while the stakes are very high, the stakes are very personal.
DeMatteis: That’s what makes a great story. You have to have those personal stakes. If it’s a big cosmic slam-and-bam, then for me as a writer and reader, there’s nothing interesting to sink my teeth into. You want it to matter to the characters individually. Hopefully this will be true for the whole story.
Of the three Trinity of Sin characters, it seems that, initially, Pandora really got the short end of the stick. What’s her driving force in “Trinity War?” Does she still deserve our pity?
Fawkes: [Laughs] Well, her driving force is sort of two-fold. One is that she selfishly wants to be released from her curse, which, honestly, she believes she doesn’t deserve. We’re going to explore that a little bit for the readers, who can decide for themselves whether she’s a bad person pretending to be innocent, or whether she was totally innocent and was manipulated. But in order to escape her curse or end her curse, she really does want to save the world and do something that she believes will purge all the evil from the world. We’re going to see how that works out for her.
“Trinity War” is also two-fold in that we have superheroes fighting each other, but we also have this mystical Trinity of Sin backdrop and the machinations of magic-users like Constantine. What’s the difference between how Constantine, Phantom Stranger and Pandora see this event versus a magic-based superhero?
Fawkes: Speaking on behalf of Constantine, John sees a very strong delineation between characters who have gotten where they are by working hard and educating themselves — like himself — and superheroes who were struck by lightning and now they have superpowers. He believes a lot of the metahuman characters are extremely dangerous because they don’t understand their own power and they don’t quite understand the threat that they pose. Flash sees a problem and tries to deal with it directly; John is going to consider the angles and, like a chess player, try to think four or five moves ahead. John finds the superheroes’ way of handling most things extremely irritating because they’re so direct.
DeMatteis: It’s interesting — once upon a time, the Phantom Stranger was the guy that nobody knew who he was or what he was. He showed up in a puff of smoke and got involved in someone’s life and then puffed out again. But in this interesting mythology Dan DiDio’s set up, there’s much more of an involved back-story. Right now, his life has been almost a sort of puppet for the universe. What the Voice says, he does, because his goal is his own salvation, his own atonement. I don’t think, on one level, he cares about these people. He’s selfish in that he doesn’t care about the individuals at all. Whether it’s Joe Schmoe down the block or Superman, he doesn’t care. He cares about if can he get this done, if can he get through it and if can he get this burden off his back.
What Dan did, which I thought was brilliant and flips all that at the same time, is he involved him in a human family. It suddenly grounded him in humanity in a way he’s never been grounded before. I know when I was reading issues before I got on the book, I got to the end of the issue where we see he has a wife and kids and how the hell did that happen, which we just explored in the eight issue. There’s suddenly whole other layer to the character. So there’s this pull between the man who is just concerned with his own salvation and is doing whatever the Voice of God tells him to do, and sometimes it’s horrible things that allegedly will have a good payoff down the line. And then there’s this other person who is learning to care in a way he never has before. Those are elements that are going to play into “Trinity War,” because his motivation in those stories will be a level of caring and personal involvement we’re not really used to in the Phantom Stranger. He’s not doing this because the Voice of God told him to. He’s doing it because he cares. To me, that’s the big switch in the story.
Before the New 52 relaunch, Constantine was in his own, separate Vertigo universe, and Phantom Stranger existed on the fringes of the DCU, almost like the Crypt Keeper, introducing other characters’ stories in his original incarnations. In some ways, it seems like it would be easy to bring them in by turning these guys into magic-based superheroes, like Shazam/Captain Marvel. How do you integrate characters like these into the interconnected New 52 without making them just traditional DC heroes?
Fawkes: In straight up terms of raw power, John is much less powerful than many of those characters. He would never have been able to stand toe-to-toe in a fair fight with somebody like Shazam or Black Adam. But what John does have that they don’t is a very, very clever mind and a quick wit. We keep the con man aspect of him, because he plays things very close to his chest and because he knows the only advantage he has over these guys is remaining a mystery and doing things they wouldn’t expect. One of the things that define John Constantine is that he’s a trickster, a character you’re never really sure where you stand with him or what he’s capable of. That’s something he carefully cultivates so he can end up in the arena with more powerful creatures and end up on top.
DeMatteis: I think it’s all there in the kinds of stories Phantom Stranger was involved in. The themes we’re dealing with, which are the classic themes of the search for meaning and redemption, all these big sort of cosmic, spiritual themes run through there. The book itself really does not get involved in the superhero side of the DC Universe. I love the supernatural corners of the DCU, I love these characters. I said before, usually when someone offers me a gig, I’ll take a day or two to think about it, but with Phantom Stranger, I kind of went “Ok, I’ll do this!” [Laughter]
I think the trick when you get involved with the more traditional superhero characters is to look at them through the eyes of your character, who views the world in a very different way. It allows you to recast them; you’re seeing them with new eyes and you’re not seeing them the way you’re used to seeing them. It’s really through the more metaphysical and supernatural lens that you’re looking at them which makes your characters interactions all the more interesting, I hope!
You guys are both heavily entrenched in the magical side of the New 52. What draws you to writing the supernatural and mystical characters in the superhero-infused DC Universe?
Fawkes: First off, like J.M. I just really love them. I’ve always been more into them than the other superheroes ever since I was a kid. But I think the draw is two-fold for me. One part of it is, the supernatural characters tend to be more openly flawed than a lot of the superheroes. They tend to have a bit of darkness right on the surface, which makes them, even if they are the craziest supernatural creatures, more human and relatable.
The other thing is, in the supernatural titles and the Dark titles, you can take a more head-on approach to being more philosophical and dealing with greater philosophical questions. You can get right down to the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, ethics and morality much more directly when you’re dealing with magical characters because they have to consider this stuff all the time when they’re flexing their magical muscle.
DeMatteis: That is exactly the same for me. Their whole lives exist in a metaphysical, spiritual, cosmic universe. Those are the themes that always interest me the most: Who are we? Why are we here? The interface between Earth and Heaven and Heaven and Hell and right and wrong and all these things, these characters allow us to jump in directly because their very existence poses these questions.
As Ray was saying, there’s always that darkness there. When you’re dealing with the Phantom Stranger, you’re dealing with sin and redemption; that’s something, in a small way or a large way, we’re all dealing with in our lives. We’re all looking for redemption, some sort of absolution. Not in the way the Phantom Stranger is, because most don’t feel directly responsible about Jesus Christ! [Laughs] But these are themes that run through our lives. The big primal questions, asking what is real — it fits like a glove. It’s not as easy to do a Batman story that’s about the nature of reality, but when you deal with Pandora or the Phantom Stranger, it’s easy. Since these themes have always fascinated me the most, that’s why I love working with these characters.
Looking at Pandora, Constantine and Phantom Stranger, one of the big things they have in common is that they’re all tackling established mythologies. Pandora is the Greek myth, Phantom Stranger has Christian roots, with the betrayal and thirty pieces of silver around his neck, and the Vertigo Constantine often tangled with Heaven and Hell, angels and demons. Going into “Trinity War,” will those quasi-religious elements be a part of the crossover?
DeMatteis: In my story, it is very much a part because the previous two issues of “Phantom Stranger” involve a journey to Hell and then a journey through Heaven. Again, I don’t want to get into the details, but the “Trinity War” issue carries through with that theme, so we very much get involved with those sort of ideas. I’m tripping over myself trying not to give anything away! [Laughter]
But yeah, my story goes full bore into that. It doesn’t avoid that arena at all — it jumps right in. One of the things I like to do when I go there is make sure that point of view is broadened. “Phantom Stranger,” even though it deals with Christian mythology — of course it’s not mythology at all to some people, it’s fact — it’s something that is part of something much broader. There’s an umbrella with all these theological and mythological viewpoints, and that they all co-exist, so it’s not just, “This is the Christian Heaven.” One of the things I do within the Stranger stories, both with Hell and with Heaven, is these places are, in essence, a projection of the individual who goes there. There are as many Heavens and Hells as souls who enter these places, or not even enter them, but create them out of their own consciousness. This way, it broadens it beyond the point of saying it’s the traditional Heaven and Hell, because I personally am not comfortable saying this is what it is or that is what it is not. I don’t believe that personally; I think it’s much broader than any one perspective. But to bring it back to what you first said, this “Trinity War” issue very much steps into that realm and deals with them directly, if that makes sense.
Fawkes: That totally makes sense! In “Pandora,” the mythology is dealt with, perhaps, in a more oblique way than it is in “Phantom Stranger” for two reasons. One of them is that I think Brian Azzarello is doing such a wonderful job with Greek myth over in “Wonder Woman” that I wouldn’t want to implicate his work or step on his toes. The other one is Pandora is not just a Greek myth. As the name Pandora, she is, but the archetype of the guilty woman who unleashes sin on the world is common across many religions: she is also Lilith, she is also Eve. So we’re a bit more oblique in her issues. She’s less a figure of Greek mythology and more the person who shoulders the blame across the world in different guises.
DeMatteis: That makes it all the more interesting, too. You’re not locked into one particular mythology, so this character becomes something bigger and far more interesting, I think.
Fawkes: Yeah, and one of the things she carries on her shoulders — which in her perspective is less something to feel guilty about and more something to feel angry about — is that her name is the one that is used to demonstrate that women have brought evil into the world.
Pandora is a character who was introduced in “Flashpoint,” essentially for the purpose of tying into “Trinity War.” After “Trinity War” is done, where do you go with her?
Fawkes: [Laughs] For Pandora, it’s going to represent the culmination of something she’s been trying to make happen for ten thousand years. It’s going to go down in “Trinity War” and what happens after that — how can I put it without spoiling anything? She will not experience what she expects to experience in “Trinity War.” After that, she will have a very clear, but very different future goal that will reveal itself to her during “Trinity War.” I think it’s going to be a wild ride for readers once they see what she intends to do and how she goes about it. It’s going to be pretty exciting.
“Trinity War” kicks off this July in the “Justice League” and “Trinity Of Sin” titles.