Get out your cutlass and psychic projections, we're reviewing Five Ghosts Vol 1, by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham!
Fabian Gray has the power to recall the memories and experiences of five literary heroes: the detective, the vampire, the wizard, the archer, and the samurai. With that and the help of his brother-in-law, Sebastian, he'll need to find a way to get a handle on his powers and wake his sister from a deep coma!
I've been wanting to talk about this book for awhile, because it's one of those books where I want to love it, but part of it keeps me from doing so. It's a generally great book, or it would be if for a couple of fatal flaws.
First of all, the premise is really cool. I can totally get behind the idea of a someone having five other people in their head, all of which are famous literary characters that can be brought up to use special powers. It sounds awesome, like some sort of videogame. It's a cool gimmick. And it takes place around the 40's leading to some beautiful environments. It is very reminiscent of classic pulp adventure tales like Indiana Jones or Doc Savage.
And the art! The art is ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS. I wanted to pick this book up on its art alone. While the story and time period takes a lot of nods from 30's and 40's pulp, the art style is reminiscent of the dirty, messy 80's. You might be mistaken for thinking this book was done by classic Frank Miller(in more ways than one, unfortunately). Mooneyham's got this beautiful classic inking style that uses plenty of dry brush and splatter and just the right amount of black on the page to make it look contrasted and a bit noiry. I love the way the shadows wrap around the characters, seemingly engulfing them in black. And it helps that colorists Lauren Affe and S.M. Vidaurri have these super vibrant but still classic colors. They really set the mood. They're perfect in dream sequences, flashbacks or especially explosive shots that have these crazy purples and yellows. Like I said, it's a gorgeous book.
But here's my beef with it: It's a book that's set in the 40's that feels like it's written in the 40's. It is not diverse at all. Which in some pulp adventure books with a classic male adventurer I might not have that big a problem with, or even if I thought the main character could be a woman, it might not have hurt the book. The difference here is that, with Fabian's Gimmick of recalling 5 different personalities, there are effectively 7 characters on their good guy team, none of which are women. Sure there ARE women in the story. There's Fabian's sister, who's a comatose damsel in distress. There's the woman Fabian sleeps with in the beginning that gets killed by the bad guy to show how bad he is. There's all the servants of their pal, Zhang Guo, who fan him in cheesecake poses and then get taken over by evil spirits and have to be killed. That's it. Those are your female roles. What the hell?!
How much easier could it have been to make Sebastian a woman and instead their saving Fabian's brother? How easy would it have been to make any of those five ghost characters a woman? Or two? I know they're supposed to stand in for famous literary icons like Merlin and Sherlock Holmes, but listen here: You can't honestly tell me that it wouldn't be more interesting if you'd exchange Sherlock Holmes for Nancy Drew. That could even go into some really cool territory like, maybe Fabian now has trouble around really hot college dudes in glasses! Or change out Merlin for Morgan Le Fey? You already have one evil character in the vampire, would it really be that big of a deal to make him a woman instead? Would it really hurt the story THAT MUCH to have a woman's point of view in his head?? Come to think of it, if he had a sexy femme fatale as one of the ghosts, could he seduce straight men or just gay men? Do you see the interesting story options you're cutting off by not making this team more diverse??
While we're at it, why NOT make the main character the sister instead? Just doing that changes so many dynamics. In fact, it would be a great subversion of classic tropes if you started off in a flashback and you think the brother is going to be the classic swashbuckling hero but then BAM he gets damsel-in-distressed and it's up to the sister to save him! How interesting would it be to have all those dude ghosts in her brain? How would that conflict with her being a woman in a man's world but having the intellect and (probably backwards thinking) views of classical male story archetypes? Already this is a more engaging and interesting story dynamic.
Also, it has some SERIOUS racial issues. For one, only one of those seven is a person of color, and that's because they couldn't make the Samurai a white guy. And that's...kind of problematic in itself. They do have some other Asian characters but they're kinda stereotypical and also problematic. Like why does Zhang Guo look like a hun before he finds his magical stone and then a Chinese monk after? That's a little weird, right? I guess it doesn't matter since he gets killed 2 issues later for REASONS. Also, we have to talk about the fact that the only black characters in this are mutated spider-savages that don't speak and try to kill the white protagonists and sacrifice them to their god. Sure, mutated spider-savages are cool but that is the kind of inherently racist shit that keeps people from reading classic pulp comics. Like really, Five Ghosts? Really? You couldn't have maybe one more black main character that wasn't a native? why couldn't Sebastian be black? Why couldn't one of the five ghosts be black? If you're saying that they needed to be famous literary characters and there weren't any classic black literary characters at that time(there definitely were), 1) stop being racist and get your head out of your ass, 2) IT IS A FICTION BOOK. A FANTASY. MAKE SOME UP. How is it that creators make stories involving dragons and supernatural powers(all in this book)and the inherent racism of the time is the only thing they keep true to the time period??
From the last couple of paragraphs you might think I loathed the book and think the creators are racist and misogynistic. That's not what I think. I really really like the book and want to love it, but the misogynistic and racist issues keep me from truly embracing it. I think the book itself is misogynistic, but I don't think the creators are. I mean they could be, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. I think what happened is they wanted to make this classic pulp story and they used all the material and examples from classic pulp stories and didn't realize how problematic the story was. That can happen when you're a straight white dude and you grow up in a society where all the media you ingest are only about straight white dudes. What do you think happens when straight white dudes only read stories about straight white dudes? They make more stories about straight white dudes! This is why it's so important to make books and comics and all kinds of media more diverse, so we don't get another generation of this. So the NEXT generation can grow up and make stories and don't think it's inaccurate that half the cast of their stories are people of color and women and people of different sexual orientations etc. I'm not writing this review because I hate the book and want the sales to go down. I'm writing it because I want the creators to know their book is problematic and they need to make some changes ASAP before I read any more issues or recommend it to anyone.
Five Ghosts has a killer premise and some beautiful art, but until it changes these super problematic issues, I can't seem myself picking up another issue or trade paperback.
THE GOOD: Great premise, beautiful art, beautiful inking style and colors, looks like classic stories.
THE BAD: Not diverse enough, women are damsels in distress or objects to be sexed and killed off, black savages.
THE VERDICT: $$$ This should be a five star book. Maybe you can like it. But I can't in good conscious recommend it. It's a painfully beautiful book, but the racial and misogynistic issues really drag it down.
BOOKS LIKE IT: Satellite Sam, Iron Man: Noir, Noir, Doc Savage
ONE-PAGE METAPHOR: The flashback to Fabian and his sister growing up and being swashbuckling adventurer treasure hunters is really well-done and beautiful in every way, but I can't help thinking I'd rather SHE be the main character with Fabian in a coma. I mean Fabian looks like a classic pulp hero, but his sister has the same abilities AND she's got green eyes and a white streak through her hair. She's already cooler than Fabian!