Fabian Gray’s foray across the high seas continues in Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham’s “Five Ghosts” #9. He and his crew find themselves in dangerous waters, and unfortunately that means their swashbuckling exploits give way to a tiresome torture interlude. This series has been at its strongest when it takes overdone action-adventure tropes and adds some new spice, but here it falls flatly into a let’s-have-some-fun-before-you-die scene. Torture scenes like this are dramatic dead space, but at least this one is saved by what surrounds it. Despite this misstep, “Five Ghosts” #9 is full of promise for Issue #10.
I’m always fascinated by the elements that “Five Ghosts” brings in, and this issue is no exception. The series seems to exist outside of time. Aside from its anachronistic combination of pirates, samurai and Nazis, Fabian himself seems to be of an eternally indeterminate age. This time around, it’s revealed that he spent an important chunk of his youth alongside Moroccan bandits (presumably after his youth in semi-feudal Japan). In a less fantastical series, these backstories might raise my eyebrow, but with “Five Ghosts” it’s all part of the mythos. Of course Fabian Gray has done all these things. If he hadn’t, this fun adventure wouldn’t be happening right now!
Part of the reason this works is Barbiere’s swagger. His isn’t a script that invites the reader to slow down and contemplate; it’s a script that invites excitement and engagement. When it slows down, the story suffers – which is precisely what happens here. When the vengeful foe from Fabian’s past strings him up to torture him, there’s no question about what will happen or what anyone will say. For all the gore, it’s a dull, predictable bit. Mooneyham and Affe do a fine job, though, and it’s not as if Barbiere’s execution is bad. This is just a disappointingly average exchange that doesn’t merit the page space it’s given.
However, the backstory that leads to this confrontation is in itself interesting. Fabian’s motivations are made fascinatingly ambiguous: why did he kill his partner? For greed? In rage at his actions? It isn’t really discussed, and the audience is left to wonder. Though Affe goes for the standard sepia tones on the flashback, it turns out very lovely. With her muted shading and Mooneyham’s swift lines, the scenes evoke a sandstorm that adds vigor to the action.
Mooneyham’s art is still pitch-perfect for this series. It feels so pulpy and vintage, like a grown-up Prince Valiant panel, but it isn’t stilted or contrived. There’s experimenting along with the homage, and Affe’s colors bring just the right amount of depth.
At issue’s end, I am so excited for the lady pirate with a ghost of her own to appear. Not only does she seem like a great character, but she deepens the mythology of the dreamstones. How did she get her ghost? Is it Sinbad? Is Fabian going to wake up? Despite my complaints about the issue, it’s geared the series up for a winning Issue #10 – and with serial storytelling, sometimes that’s the most important thing for an issue to accomplish.