Ok, gang of four, its time to get back to one of the bread n’ butter parts of the blog: The Read pile reviews. You know the drill, I tell you about a comic book I’ve been reading and what I thought of it. You shower me with praise and heaping of gravy drenched meatloaf. We all end up taking a bath together and wonder why there’s not enough soap to go around. Pretty standard.
In any case, today’s review is the first trade paperback collection of “5 Ghosts”, a book put out by Image by Frank Barbarie and Chris Mooneyham. It contains the first 5 issues of this series, which was supposed to be all they were going to make, until the series did so well, that Image made it a ongoing monthly title. As a result, the series walks a fine line between being a self contained mini series story and teasing events that could come in the future, as a way to convince both the reader and Image that they should stick around for the long haul.
From the start, I’m going to say that my review of this book is more than a bit one sided, as not only did I devour the book in one evening when I first read it, but it’s was officially one of my favorite new books for years after it’s initial release. Yes, immediately upon finishing the book, I called up my local comic store and asked that the series be added to by pull list, where it remained until it mysteriously ended a couple years ago.
Regardless, for those of you that are looking for some sort of critical analysis, you can stop right here. This review is going to just be a bunch of glowing adoration for one of those books I was genuinely excited to read.
First some obligatory back story: 5 Ghosts is essentially a throw back to the days of pulp adventure from the 1920s-1940s. It stars a treasure hunter named Fabian Gray who after an “accidental” with a powerful mystical artifact called the Dreamstone now has the ability to channel the powers and experience of 5 fictional characters or “ghosts”: Robin Hood, Dracula, Merlin, Sherlock Holmes, and Musashi. He’s searching for a way to awaken his twin sister from a coma, which was also caused by the “accident” and is joined in this quest by his sister’s lover, an English “every man” named Sebastian.
From there, the first 5 issue story arc, mainly deals with showing you how Fabian’s Ghosts manifest themselves, his quest to gain better control them of them despite an incredible amount of difficulty, and a subsequent battle with another joker who also has Dreamstone related powers. Sebastian does a lot of “jolly” good work as the audience’s cipher and overall, the story ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, making you wonder will happen to Fabian and Sebastian next.
Writing: Although some might say that 5 Ghosts is a bit formulaic, not paving any new ground but instead relying on touchstones of pop culture like Indiana Jones and the actual 5 famous literary characters that make up the ghosts of the title, I can’t actually disagree with that. But like making an apple pie, it’s not so much that you need to reinvent the tastes of this time tested classic, but just execute it well enough that people go away satisfied.
That I feel, Frank Barbarie, does extremely well. It’s almost as if he’s downright scientific in his approach, ensuring to weave only the best parts of the stories and characters from the pulp era that we all know in our collective unconscious, and glossing over the bad. He knows Nazis and ninjas, underground caverns and lost jungle tribes, are all flavors that immediately grab a reader and pull them into the story.
It’s almost like the approach Roy Thomas had in those early years at Marvel. Roy was obviously a well read person, and being well read wanted to weave that into the stories he was telling about superheroes without hitting us over the head with it. So he cherry picked moments when he could interject that literary prowess without making it too awkward. Frank is similar in that he seems to possess an awful lot of fictional knowledge which he wants to share, but does his best not to let that get in the way of the telling a good story first.
Sure, Frank doesn’t really spend a ton of time fleshing out the characters, as even Fabian Gray who goes through the most growth in the 5 issues at times is still more archetype that flesh and blood, but given the type of story he’s trying to tell, I don’t think it’s necessary. This is escapism high adventure, pure and simple. Give us some back story and get the hell out of the way, let the action speak for itself.
I think all these things make for a writing style that suits the series like a glove. It’s smart, but not too smart, driving without seeming rushed, and action packed without skimping on the drama.
Plus, it had huge man eating spiders. Really that’s just whip cream on any piece of pie in my opinion.
Art: I remember the first thing I thought of when I read issue 1 was that the book reminded me of Bronze Age Marvel for some reason, specifically Conan the Barbarian books that were being released during that time. That and the ill fated John Carter series. At first I thought it was because of the Roy Thomasesque writing as I mentioned above. But the further I got into the story, I realized that it wasn’t the story as much as the art. Then all of it came together when I read the back cover biography of artist, Chris Mooneyham, and it said he was a graduate of the Joe Kuburt school of art.
Now I’m not very knowledgeable about what they teach at this school, but if there’s any influence of Joe Kubert in the curriculum (which I think would be kind of hard not to what with his name plastered on the front of the building), then Chris must have been tops of his class. The way the characters look in period dress, the poses, all seem to have roots in that classic Joe Kubert style made famous in Sgt. Rock and others at DC.
Not just Kubert though, there’s also a ton of Walt Simonson in there in terms of building story through page layouts, especially his work on the Manhunter series in the 70s and early in his Thor run.
I mean look at the below panel where Fabian channels some serious Dracula:
That’s so Simonson, that its not even funny. The way the character arches his back, the effects around the brain, the building of a row of smaller panels to tell a bigger story.
And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. Like the main character, Mooneyham seems to be channeling ghosts of his own , combining them, updating them, in a unique but familiar mix that complete works for the story.
Overall Read Pile Rating: Ok, I’ll just come out and say it, A++.
There’s no doubt that I really loved this book and will recommend it to all my friends and foes alike. It’s got a catchy hook with the ghosts idea. It’s easy on the eyes and the brain with its pop retro 30s look and feel, and yet there’s a lot of substance to the story and art with engaging characters and very strong visual set pieces.