“Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray” #1 by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham is reprints work from their successful Kickstarter campaign.
Barbiere’s central character Fabian Gray is a treasure hunter, and he deliberately and squarely is drawn from two types: the adventurer, best typified by Indiana Jones and the gothic villain or Byronic hero who has a brilliant mind, dark secrets and a tortured soul.
Gray’s central affliction and rare talents come from a long-ago encounter with a mysterious artifact called “The Dreamstone,” which resulted in his ability to draw upon the abilities of five legendary “ghosts.” Although unnamed, it’s fair to guess that The Wizard is Merlin, The Archer is Robin Hood, The Detective is Sherlock Holmes, The Samurai is Musashi and The Vampire is Dracula. All these literary and cinematic influences heavily shape Barbiere’s characters and plot. “Five Ghosts” feels like a descendent of H. Rider Haggard’s swashbuckling adventure stories from the 1880s. It also shares the retro feel and some of the same narrative approach as Alan Moore’s similarly allusion-heavy and genre-fusing “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”
Barbiere ably plays with these archetypal heroes and pioneering figures in genre fiction. The problem is that although “Five Ghosts” #1 reads smoothly and predictably, but it doesn’t yet have a truly distinctive voice yet, beyond its central conceit. So far, Barbiere plays it completely straight, offering a story that conforms to old patterns, making “Five Ghosts” an elegant throwback, but a throwback nonetheless. Similarly, Mooneyham’s line is very attractive and his storytelling is smooth, but both the flow of action and the imagery feel deeply familiar, because the setting or even the camera angles so strongly resemble scenes from influential films within action, horror or period drama films. Much of the richness of “Five Ghosts” is borrowed, and in this introductory issue, it doesn’t yet transcend its own influences.
Like Indiana Jones, Fabian Gray fights Nazis. Like James Bond, he sleeps with beautiful women while globe-trotting all over first-world Europe. Like countless other heroes, he has a woman and loved one to rescue (in one) and faces impossible odds. The hero recaps his latest adventures to a new lover, Jezebel and then to his friend Sebastian, thus conveniently filling in the reader as well. Barbiere’s world-building and character introduction is smooth, but his plotting is just a little too facile.
The aesthetic dangers of nostalgia and of leaning on the old stories become a bigger problem at the end of “Five Ghosts.” In the last scene, Barbiere jogs out another cornerstone of pulp, the exoticization of Africa. I’m not thrilled by Barbiere’s revival of these ideas of native magic rituals, ancient sacrificial religions and savage tribal fighters, without any kind of recognition that comics readers are no longer living in the Victorian Era with Rudyard Kipling rhyming about the glories of the British Empire and pale-skinned civilized men in the background. I’m not saying these tropes shouldn’t ever be used, or that contemporary pulp must be packaged with postmodern irony. However, this is 2013, not the fin de siÃ¨cle, and these outdated worldviews aren’t merely just titillating visions of new lands. Even if cultural sensitivity isn’t an issue, failure to do something new in this context shows aesthetic weakness. In future issues, Barbiere’s story may subvert or justify these hackneyed postcolonial stereotypes, but in “Five Ghosts” #1, the effect is regressive.
Despite this criticism, Barbiere and Mooneyham’s “Five Ghosts” #1 is a successful debut issue that comfortably draws readers in. Mooneyham’s art is skillfully moody, with spacious backgrounds that are easy on the eye. With so much going on, the clarity and dramatic tension of Barbiere and Mooneyham’s work is impressive. I just wish the substance was as meaty as the style. Overall, the mythology of Gray’s power/affliction is interesting enough that I’m curious to see where “Five Ghosts” goes next.