Five Ghosts Volume One: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

Collecting Five Ghosts #1-5

Writer: Frank J. Barbiere

Artist: Chris Mooneyham

Image, color, $9.99

I wanted to like Five Ghosts, but I'm not sure I did.

The premise is a soldier-of-fortune character in the 1930s, Fabian Gray, who is on a mission to find what he needs to bring his sister out of a coma he helped cause, abetted by the sister's boyfriend. The complication is that what caused the coma was an exploding "dreamstone" that imbedded shards in the protagonist's chest, which connects him with the Jungian collective unconscious from which all stories spring (in this book's philosophy), resulting in him being "possessed" by five story archetypes -- the upside being he can access their abilities, the downside being that it is killing him.

That latter part is the most interesting, as the "ghosts" are, more or less, Robin Hood, Merlin, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and a samurai (Ogami Itto? Kikochiyo?). A character able to access the skills and abilities of those five is pretty formidable, even if he does have a tendency to pass out a lot after doing so.

The rest of the book ... well, I have a little trouble with it. To paraphrasae Legionnaire Chris Fluit's review of Lobster Johnson, there's a thin line between homage and pastiche, and -- IMHO -- Five Ghosts often falls on the wrong side of it.

For example, the story is set in the pre-war years of the 1930s, one of my favorite periods in history. Barbiere does avoid the pitfall of making the Nazis the main bad guys -- so far -- although they are in evidence. But does every 1930s adventure character have to be loosely based on Indiana Jones? Fabian Gray seems to be, without Indy's redeeming qualities -- he's a treasure hunter, but in service to his own greed rather than history/archaeology. There are also dollops of other 1930s characters, themselves often homage/pastiche characters, so all of it is so very familiar that I could actually predict some of the story twists and/or dialogue.

Speaking of the latter, the dialogue often did fall to the level of cliche. I can actually excuse it a little bit, because today's writers are limited in what they and the reader know about 1930s dialogue. Most of that comes from surviving fiction of the time. So it's unsurprising that 1930s dialogue often sounds lifted from Clark Gable movies or pulp fiction, because it probably is. But must it also go through a Raiders of the Lost Ark filter?

I had similar deja vu with the art. I'm unfamiliar with Mooneyham, but it's easy to see where he gets his inspiration -- I actually double-checked the credits to make sure Klaus Janson wasn't involved. There are hints of other artists from Janson's late-1980s heydey, like early Frank Miller and Sal Buscema, but mainly this looked like Janson's scritchy-scratch inking and unique hand gestures. And, given, the subject matter, I thought I saw a little Howard Chaykin (Scorpion/Dominic Fortune), too.

Now that I've beaten that horse to death, I have one more complaint, which is that where the story veers from formula, the writer fails to shine. Sorry for the partial SPOILER, but near the climax Gray must pass a test set by each of his "ghosts" to earn the right to continue to use their powers. This is an opportunity for some powerful psychological or philosophical storytelling, but instead the tests don't even rise to the level of making sense. Maybe I need to re-read that section, but instead of forcing Gray to be clever or competent, or to establish character, the tests are pedestrian and/or vague, meaning no drama -- it's clear Gray is going to pass them all by writer's fiat.

Which brings me to my last pet peeve, that Barbiere's understanding of Sherlock Holmes seems to entirely informed by the recent Robert Downey Jr. movies erroneously depicting the quintessential armchair detective as a man of action. Which I enjoyed, by the way, so that's not a complaint. It's just that those films didn't depict a traditional Sherlock Holmes, and to use them as a template for the character misses the character entirely.

At no time, for example, do Holmes' abilities allow Gray to solve a problem; instead when that "ghost" is invoked it's either in combat ("Aha! I can use that object to hit my foe on the head!") or to do what any of us would do anyway ("How do I get in there? Oh, look, a tunnel that likely leads in there. And the ghost of Sherlock is pointing to it!") What a waste of a rich resource.

In summary, I liked the idea of Five Ghosts a lot better than the execution. That may be enough for most readers, and I really don't feel like I wasted my time entirely despite my many complaints. It's just could have been so much better.

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