Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray has been haunting me for a while. In this internet age where every book is announced and solicited months in advance and the next “sleeper hit” comic is seemingly pre-ordained by early buzz long before it actually hits shelves, it’s admittedly rare for my first exposure to a new series to be getting taken aback by an ad in a comic and go, “Ooooh, what the hell is this?” It was in one of the other Image titles I buy, and there was that awesome half-page ad they ran for Five Ghosts that concisely put forward the delicious high concept of an adventurer possessed by five literary ghosts and gaining access to their powers. I was immediately intrigued. But the creators were totally unknown to me, and I’d heard zero word on the project before seeing the ad. The release of the first issue came and went without any reviews popping up from the sources I usually go to for such things, and the only feedback I’d heard was some whisperings on my social media network about the title being a disappointment: looking back after the fact it turned out those people were talking about the similarly-titled Five Weapons, which I’ve never read and can’t comment on myself. A few issues had been released before I started getting wind of the acclaim for Five Ghosts, and when it came, it was like a tidal wave. Suddenly it seemed like all my comics friends who know what’s what had this on their pull lists. Then Image Expo announced that what had originally been planned as a 5-issue miniseries was getting extended into an ongoing. And the impending release of the graphic novel collecting those original issues became something of a big deal, at least in my neck of the woods. So, despite going into the book not really knowing anything beyond that initial half-page ad selling the concept, by the time I finally sat down to read The Haunting of Fabian Gray, I’d built up some quite hefty expectations. I can start this review by saying those expectations were utterly blown out of the water.
This seriously is an absolutely incredible comic. I was utterly hooked right from the first chapter, which is the finest example of comic book world-building I’ve encountered since Saga #1, or maybe The Private Eye #1. Like that jawdropping opening issue of Saga, Five Ghosts #1 is double-sized, and that was an inspired decision. Because while each subsequent chapter is like an adrenaline shot that the reader just ingests in a frenzy, that first issue really lets you luxuriate in this world, immerse yourself in the mythos being introduced to you, and it feels like a rich, full, satisfying read in its own right. Reading it, I got this powerful notion that I was reading something truly original, probably the best new idea I’ve encountered in any medium this whole year; a feeling that only continued to grow with each passing chapter.
Now, this whole review could just become directionless, waffling hyperbole: there are 5 issues’ worth of comic goodness contained in this first graphic novel, after all – that’s a lot of ground to cover! So, I’m going to try to organise my thoughts a bit, and look at each member of the creative team in turn, and examine what each of them brings to the table to enhance this unique, exhilerating comic experience.
First up, there’s writer Frank J. Barbiere. As I touched on earlier, this is my first encounter with his work, but it’s a hell of a first impression. With Five Ghosts, Barbiere displays an incredible gift for invention, and nowhere is that more profoundly clear than with the eponymous Fabian Gray himself. In a culture saturated with countless superheroes it feels like every kind of superpower has become variations on a theme, but Fabian’s gift/curse feels so inspired and fresh. He is possessed by five “literary ghosts” – five primal archetypes of fiction from which countless stories are derived – and by tapping into their essence he can channel their power. If called upon to exhibit a feat of spectacular marksmanship, he calls upon The Archer, inspiration for Odysseus and Robin Hood. If required to perform an act of magic, he channels The Wizard, spiritual father of Merlin, Prospero and Gandalf. If needed to become a master swordsman in combat, he taps into The Samurai, the figure that has created enduring heroes of Eastern fiction such as Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub, who is also relevant to famed swordsman of Western stories like Hamlet or Zorro. If he needs to use remarkable deductive reasoning to work his way around a problem, Fabian turns to The Detective, whose mystery-solving prowess has informed such brilliant fictional minds as C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes and Batman. And if all else fails, and Fabian is pushed into a desperate plight where the only option left is to tap into the deepest, darkest recesses of his soul and unleash violent destruction on all around him, he resorts to The Vampire, the primal, monstrous force who has emerged in the public consciousness in the shape of Dracula, Lestat and…erm… Edward Cullen.
It’s a fascinating concept that becomes thrilling in execution, as the action sequences (of which there are many!) become a kind of interactive exercise in which he try to guess what combination of acquired skills will get Fabian and friends out of the fix they’re in, with the frightening presence of the vampire – the spirit channelled least often – lurking in the periphery and creating a tantalising “When is Gray going to have to use the vampire again?” question. But Gray himself is no blank-canvas swashbuckler who is only made interesting by his skill-set. We see from early on what toll these powers are taking on him, and his journey over the course of this storyline becomes a quest to not only get these powers under control before they kill him, but to atone for something terrible that happened as a result of his past greed and arrogance. The Haunting of Fabian Gray refers not just to the literary ghosts, but to his own personal demons that he must conquer.
Around Fabian Gray, Barbiere builds a world that, as noted, feels breathtakingly fresh and original. But, appropriately given the story’s central conceit, this original world is in fact a patchwork of various forms of fiction. When I first started reading, the immediate comparison that jumped to mind was Indiana Jones. It has the adventurer element, the 1940s setting with the Nazis as the baddies, and has a serial-like opening sequence which plays like the end of a previous mission. But it quickly became apparent that a darker heart lies at the core of Five Ghosts, with an aesthetic that put me in mind of 1960s/1970s Brit film institution Hammer Horror: Hammer horror at its best, the Devil Rides Out era Hammer Horror, when it struck just the right balance between Gothic chills and high camp. Those were the two big touchstones that leapt out at me, but there’s a wide range of literary influence too: obviously, the pulp fiction of the early 20th Century, like Doc Savage, or the horror fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. There’s even a certain debt owed to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, what with the whole aspect of a realm of pure imagination where all stories come from: it’s even referred to as The Dreaming. This almost feels like it could be an unofficial spinoff from The Sandman, with even its 1940s period setting falling into the canon of Neil Gaiman’s text as during the era when Morpheus was in captivity and aspects of the dream realm were manifesting in our own in unusual ways.
Talking about the pedigree of its influences is all fair and good, but that would mean little if the comic itself wasn’t top notch on its own merits. And thankfully, Barbiere has crafted a stripped-down, relentlessly-paced machine of a plot here, with no room for filler or decompression. While all 5 issues are part of a single larger story, each chapter takes us to new and exciting places and is densely-packed with content. The first issue is a globetrotting affair that introduces us to Fabian, his ghosts, his friends, his foes, gives him a new quest and hurtles him into an edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger. Issue #2 we have murderous tribes and giant spiders. Issue #3 turns into a 1970s martial arts movie with mystical islands, oh, and a dragon. Issue #4 enters psychadelic fantasy/horror territory. Issue #5 brings it all to a climactic head. There’s no issue that’s content with just “Oh, more of what we got in the last chapter.” Barbiere is always throwing something new at us, always shifting the status quo and raising the stakes.
But what really hammers home the pulp dynamic are the absolutely stunning visuals of artist Chris Mooneyham, in a turn that marks the emergence of a new comics superstar. I initially thought that this was also my first exposure to him, but after looking at his back catalogue I realised I’ve been impressed by his art before. Some time ago I read the first issue of Anathema. Interesting story, but what really jumped off the page for me at the time was the moody, stylised art, reminiscent of Mike Mignola. Turns out the artist was Mooneyham. But he’s refined his style since then, toning down the jagged horror elements (though they’re still there when called for) and honing this real old-school vibe which nevertheless never feels like pastiche. Mooneyham employs ambitious, densely-panelled pages with bold, innovative layouts composed of daring, unconventional angles. It’s not so much aping a Jim Sterkano comic of the late 1960s as it is capturing the spirit of the kind of visual experimentation Steranko would be employing if he was making comics now.
Now, S.M. Vidaurri is listed as doing “color assists,” which to me suggests that Mooneyham was also involved in coloring his own art. Whoever took on the bulk of the coloring, they made a great job in advancing the whole aesthetic. The pallette is very washed out, almost monochrome, with a lot of blue and orange hues. It has this faded, washed-out tone, which means that, even if you’re reading it on glossy paper or on a computer screen, it feels like you’re reading it on old newsprint. It’s all working towards selling this experience of reading a lost pulp adventure from a bygone era.
On this subject, Dylan Todd is credited for graphic design. Now, if this means he’s involved in crafting the covers and the title pages, that guy deserves a medal. These are packed with all these authentic little touches that could convince you that you were reading a Marvel comic from the 1970s, or the kind of books Denny O’Nell and Neal Adams were doing for DC at the same time. On every level, the creative team overwhelmingly succeed not just in selling their story, but in selling an experience to the reader. Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray is the “that” in “They don’t make comics like that anymore.”
Now that I’ve finally read the comic, the decision to turn this from a mini-series into an ongoing feels like a total no-brainer. The ultimate arc of The Haunting of Fabian Gray is one of self-discovery, and Fabian Gray coming to terms with who he has become, but that personal journey is set against a much larger backdrop, a wide, weird world just asking to be further explored. There’s enough story here to sustain us for a long time, and Image would be mad not to want to see that story told. In a year where Image has been spoiled with a veritable heap of fantastic new series debuts, Five Ghosts might just be the best. Frank J. Barbiere has instantly marked himself as a major talent to watch, and Chris Mooneyham has already shot high up into the rankings of my favourite artists working today. A resounding triumph on every level. If, like me, you didn’t jump on this series right away, amend that grevious error and go buy the Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray graphic novel now: it gets my highest possible recommendation.