Sunday, April 14, 2013

5 Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

I was in the comic store talking with the owner. We go back a ways but nowadays because of my schedule, I don't see much of him when I visit the store. He returned a Sherlock Holmes book I had loaned him and we were talking Holmes and pulps and Dr. Moreau. As I was checking out with my single purchase of a Shadow reprint, he said, "you may be interested in this" and handed me the Image comic Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray by writer Frank J. Barbiere and art by Chris Mooneyham. Rick tells me, "It's about a man who's possessed by 5 spirits, only they are spirits of fictional characters." The spirits aren't named beyond their types as if they are found on a deck of Tarot cards: The Wizard, The Detective, The Samurai, The Archer, The Vampire. Obviously Merlin, Sherlock Holmes,..., Robin Hood, and Dracula. Only the samurai stumps us. With Dracula in the mix, it doesn't necessarily have to be a good guy.

The set-up echoes that of Fawcett's Captain Marvel, a well they went to many times in the creation of his extended family and several villains. The difference here is the artist comes up with a different visual language in communicating Fabian making use of his talents. His movements are echoed by the relative spirit whose talent he's using. The action takes place all over the world in the days of WWII though the actual date is not specified.

In the first issue, we are introduced to Fabian with him in the middle of the action, fighting Nazis and using his unique talents. Over the course of the issue, you realize he's being hunted by some creepy guys, he's looking for magic artifacts and a cure, apparently for himself and a woman friend who seems to be comatose but who he hears calling out to him.

The writing may be the weakest part. There's a lot that is introduced here, but there's nothing to anchor the story. We see him in action but we don't really know how his abilities work. Does he consciously call on each spirit, or is it innate and each one is always there, guiding him and coming to the fore when their particular skill set is needed. Are the two guys looking for him part of the same group or unrelated. The scene that Iago reveals his name to us is set up like it's supposed to mean something, but other than "Othello" it's meaningless... and that beat of the sudden full page reveal is lost..  How does the one woman survive being blown up by hand grenade? Why are the people hunting him? What happened to the woman who's comatose? And, exactly who is she to him or to his friend?

I don't expect that the first issue reveal all, that we necessarily get an origin story right off the bat, and a little mystery is good. However, there's a difference in starting a story as far into the action as you can and starting it so that it seems like you walked into a movie 15 minutes after it started and that you're missing some relevant information for it to make sense and hang together. I checked to make sure that I was indeed reading the first issue, although in this day and age of comics with Zero issues and point-five issues, a number one on the cover doesn't mean much. I wonder if it's a case where the writer is so familiar with the characters and the story he's telling, he forgot that the readers weren't. I also can sympathize in not wanting to write a "Basil Exposition" or "As you know, Bob" speech to get across information known by the characters but not the reader. They can be clunky and difficult to do. However, to have  relevant information on the back cover of the comic about his powers and that they are LITERARY ghosts and not that this is a world where Holmes, Dracula, Robin Hood, Merlin and nameless samurai guy all lived and died is even clunkier and worse structure than any bad internal exposition would have been.

That's the kind of information that's needed IN THE STORY, not after I finished reading the comic (or being told to me up front by someone who read it). Despite this, the idea, the concept and the storylines being set up are intriguing enough and strong enough to make up for it.

Fortunately, the artwork likewise is more than strong enough to carry the weight of the story. Mooneyham's artwork is reminiscent of Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar's work on The Question. The right balance of texture, exaggeration, grittiness, shadow and detail.. Fantastic use of layouts for dense action and epic feeling action and straight forward grids for quieter moments. The only complaint of the artwork that I could make is I couldn't tell if the woman he was in bed with and whom he retrieved some jewels for was supposed to be the same woman in the store that keeps hand grenades handy to blow up spook men. Neither writing nor artwork was particularly clear in that regard.

The pencils are backed by incredibly strong colors. As the color credit to S. M. Vidaurri is as "color assists" I'm assuming the reason it is so strong is that it's directed by Mooneyham. Either way, this is using color to set mood and tone and to supplement the line art, not to try to do the penciler's job or make "corrections" ie filling empty spaces with textures and gradients that don't need it or doing all the 3-D rendering of the figures and faces: providing cheekbones and muscle definition, and high contrast on every bit of skin that shows. The colors are lush and warm where need be, and cool, dark and moody where need be and the end result is where the artwork and the colors all work together.

After the first issue, I want more. I would like to read a novel based on this. I want to see the tv series and the movie. I wish I could buy stock in the character because I'd be surprised if a deal wasn't already being floated. The rest of the mini is as strong and ships regularly, this is already shaping up to be the best book of the year. And, competing against the Black Beetle, that's saying something.


Joe Bardales said...

I'm going to have to check this out. I wonder if the samurai is supposed to be Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi?

cash_gorman said...

I admit to knowing nothing about Samurai fiction and I'm assuming the character should be as iconic as the others, at least in his own culture.

Still, it's a fun start and interesting execution on the premise.