REVIEW: Five Ghosts #7

Here is a comic that begins with a man fighting a shark.  I really should be able to end the review right there, because if that first sentence doesn’t make you want to stop reading and go buy this book now, I don’t want to know you.  But for the sake of thoroughness, allow me to continue all the same.

In my review of Five Ghosts #6, I complimented the contributions of fill-in artist Garry Brown by talking about how his stellar visuals ensured the absence of Chris Mooneyham was not too keenly felt.  But then Five Ghosts #7 comes along and reminds us of just how spectacular Mooneyham is, and just what kind of superstar-making work he’s doing on this title.  He really gets given a platform to strut his stuff here, with 9 of this chapter’s 22 story pages dialogue-free, leaving Mooneyham to shoulder the full weight of the storytelling.

One such silent sequence that’s particularly thrilling focuses on the introduction of a new character, master thief Jezebel.  Here, Mooneyham demonstrates how graceful – and dangerous! – this new foil for Fabian Gray can be, as we follow her on her latest daring heist.  It’s one of numerous examples of Mooneyham’s stylish use of negative space, with stark whites making for dynamic page compositions.  And in the more fully-rendered panels, colorist Lauren Affe steps in with a lush pallette, dominated by rich blues and oranges.  As shown by how her colors made Garry Brown’s fill-in feel almost seamless, Lauren Affe is a core part of the Five Ghosts visual DNA.

Not that this comic is only a showcase for art, as writer Frank J. Barbiere continues to craft an engaging yarn.  There is a subtle shift in the storytelling here, a sense of the comic entering a new phase.  With that first arc, “The Haunting of Fabian Gray”, originally intended as a self-contained miniseries in itself, the pacing was breakneck, with as much content and action as possible packed into each issue, making every chapter feel like a wild, dense thrill-ride.  This is Five Ghosts as an ongoing, with an established audience, and this has given Barbiere the confidence to take his time.  We are introduced to a larger quest to find the fragments of Dreamstone located around the world, something that can give the series a larger overarching direction moving forward, and spends this issue deliberately laying out the pieces on the chessboard: establishing a new (old?) enemy for Fabian, and further personifying the larger threat lurking in the wings.

Fabian Gray himself, meanwhile, remains a fascinating protagonist.  His interplay with Jezebel gives him someone different to bounce off, and the two characters have strong initial chemistry here.  But the more Fabian meets up with old friends and foes, and the more they talk about what kind of man he was in the past, the more I get a sense that Fabian Gray is more John Constantine than Indiana Jones: less a scoundrel with a heart of gold and more a genuinely toxic presence in the lives of those who have been unfortunate enough to know him.  Makes me intrigued to learn more about him!

And as if all the Five Ghosts goodness wasn’t enough to make you want to buy this issue, Five Ghosts #7 also features the first instalment of a new Doc Unknown story from Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody.  I gushed about the original series when it ran on ComiXology, and have thought of it as working as a kind of sister book to Five Ghosts, so I was very pleased to see it show up as a perfectly-matched backup story here.  Those unfamiliar with Doc Unknown and his pulp-flavoured adventures might only get an introduction to him in this chapter, but I’m sure long you’ll grow to love him as much as I do.  The road to a Fabian Gray/Doc Unknown dream match team-up begins here!

Five Ghosts is becoming one of those books that’s difficult to review.  How much more hyperbole can I engage to say this is a terrific read?  But “Lost Coastlines” is off to a fine start, standing as notably different in presentation from “The Haunting of Fabian Gray”, but thus far remaining consistent in its quality.

FiveGhosts7Five Ghosts #7 is available to buy from all good comic shops now.  You can also get it for half price this weekend from the Image Comics website!

30 Character Showcase #11: Doc Unknown

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

11. DOC UNKNOWN

DocUnknown2Created by Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody

The first entry in this series was Fabian Gray, the grim, tortured protagonist of Five Ghosts.  But Fabian is not the only uber-cool throwback pulp adventurer to break out onto the comics scene in 2013.  I’ve considered Doc Unknown to be like a lighter sister series to  Five Ghosts, and its eponymous hero is a more upbeat alternative to the haunted Gray.

Doc Unknown really was a delightful miniseries.  Ostensibly a collection of four chapters that largely work together as standalone adventures (with only 3 and 4 immediately following on from one another), they really converge neatly to tell the story of Doc Unknown’s eventful past, and quickly establish a colorful rogues gallery of monsters, gangsters, secret societies, mummies, vampire dragons and cyber Nazis for our hero.  It’s great, action-packed fun, all held together by Ryan Cody’s energetic visuals, and the old-school charm of its protagonist.

All 4 issues are available to buy from ComiXology now, with a graphic novel collection on the way.  And it was recently confirmed that Doc Unknown will return soon, with his continued adventures being serialised as backups in future issues of Five Ghosts.  So we can all hold out hope for a Fabian Gray/Doc Unknown dream team team-up!

DocUnknown1b

30 Character Showcase #1: Fabian Gray

Today marks the beginning of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

1. FABIAN GRAY

FiveGhostsFabianGray2Created by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham

The star of Five Ghosts, one of the breakout comic success stories of 2013.  It started as Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, a successfully-funded Kickstarter project that became an Image miniseries, and now it’s Five Ghosts, a freshly-minted Image ongoing series.  It’s a masterful pulp homage that plays like equal parts Indiana Jones and Hammer Horror, with star-making visuals from artist Chris Mooneyham and an endless stream of narrative invention from writer Frank J. Barbiere.  At the heart of it all is our troubled protagonist, Fabian Gray, a troubled adventurer with a terrible secret…

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.

With the first storyline wrapping in issue #5 and Five Ghosts #6 giving us a standalone adventure with fill-in artist Garry Brown, Fabian Gray was revealed more than ever to be the comic’s biggest strength.  Barbiere and Mooneyham have created a character whose unique skillset and whose dangerous mission (and more dangerous enemies!) leaves the road ahead for him highly fascinating, but he is also someone with the kind of checkered past that opens the door for countless more globetrotting adventures as we explore the hidden corners of his personal history.  Fabian Gray is more than just the product of a thrilling story, but he’s already a generator of potentially countless more thrilling stories built around him.  What more can you ask of a new character?

FiveGhostsFabianGray

REVIEW: Five Ghosts #6

Not too long ago, I talked about being blown away by Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, a 5-part miniseries that proved so monumentally successful that Image Comics opted to upgrade the title into an ongoing series.  And thus we now have Five Ghosts #6, which is tasked from transitioning Frank J Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham’s magnificently-realised world from something self-contained and finite into a more longform narrative.  Of course, anybody who read The Haunting of Fabian Gray will be overjoyed to get more of the story, but there are questions about whether something originally intended to be 5 issues long has enough fuel in the tank to sustain an extended narrative.  Thankfully, if Five Ghosts #6 is anything to go by, all signs point to that first arc being no flash in the pan.

But one big question mark that immediately pops up is the realisation that Chris Mooneyham is not on art duties.  If you recall my earlier review, you’ll remember I spent some time talking about how central Chris Mooneyham’s dynamic visual flair was to the success of the comic, with how he skillfully balanced this channelled essence of old-school pulp with a highly modern sensibility for pushing the boundaries of inventiveness on the page.  After reading the first 5 issues of Five Ghosts, it was nigh-unthinkable to imagine anyone else drawing the book.  And other Image comics like Saga and now Lazarus have popularised the notion of, “No fill-in artists here, the primary artist is worth the wait, so we’d rather take a break in between arcs rather than have anyone else drawing this comic.”  So, Garry Brown – perhaps best known for his work on The Massive – comes in faced with something of an uphill battle.  So it’s perhaps the best compliment I can give Garry Brown that by the third page of this story, I no longer missed Chris Mooneyham.

The style is noticeably different from Mooneyham’s, yes.  Mooneyham has more of a wild, energetic vibe that leaps off the page, whereas – save for the occasional flourish – Brown’s style is more rigid and structured, bringing more of a quiet confidence to his storytelling.  But Mooneyham and Brown take different approaches to achieving the same commendable goal: transporting the reader back in time and making them feel like they’re being immersed in an old adventure tale from a bygone era.  In particular, Brown’s understated style here is refined to read like an homage to Jim Aparo.  While there was a broad range of pulp/pastiche reference in Mooneyham’s visuals, Brown’s aesthetic feels laser-focused into recreating the vibe of a 1970s Batman book, to the point where I half-expected Ra’s al Ghul to show up.  And with Lauren Affe’s luscious colors, the tone all manages to feel consistent with what came before.

Something else that remains consistent is this title’s ability to seamlessly transition from adventure to horror, as Brown shows an aptitude for some quite horrific creature designs, from the tentacled creature that spies on Fabian and old flame Hisano through their window to the Mistress of the rival clan they intend to strike: she is wearing what appears to be a dress made out of skin!  Not that Brown skimps on the adventure side of things either.  As the climax descends into a massive fight scene, Brown meticulously frames the choreography of the battle, making the whole sequence feel very hard-hitting.

Frank J Barbiere continues to deliver the goods on the story front, too.  I remarked how dense and packed with story content each individual chapter of the first arc was.  Well, that is heightened even further with a tale that is completely self-contained, save for a few ominous references to a larger threat looming in the background.  If you have held off on trying Five Ghosts – for shame! – I think this works as an accessible jumping-on point for new readers, right down to how Barbiere concisely re-establishes Fabian Gray’s unique powers.

I think the real narrative triumph of this issue, however, is that it reaffirms that this is a story driven by character.  With the breakneck pace of The Haunting of Fabian Gray, one would be forgiven for thinking this was an incredibly plot-driven book.  But here, much of the trappings of the previously-established narrative are removed, and we are given Fabian Gray in a whole new setting, travelling to Japan to aid an old flame from his past.  It establishes that Gray is a figure with a rich and storied history to draw from, and it’s his magnetic presence that’s going to carry us forward from arc to arc.

The first 5 issues of Five Ghosts were one of my comic joys of 2013.  So I’m glad to see that the standard has been maintained through the comic’s transition from miniseries to ongoing.  Barbiere continues to craft compelling, action-packed stories, anchored by one of the best new protagonists to emerge in any medium this year.  And though I’m eager to see Chris Mooneyham return to the series, Garry Brown did a stellar job filling in, and I would be very keen to see him return for future guest spots.

FiveGhosts6Five Ghosts #6 is available in all good comic shops from tomorrow.