…In The Machine: Ghost #1 Reviewon October 26, 2012 at 9:40 am
I have never read Ghost before – when it debuted in the 90s, I was busy being a snob, snorting at every comic with a twin set of boobs and guns as a rotten Image knockoff, and buying only Preacher, Shade: The Changing Man and Transmetropolitan – so it turns out that I was at a distinct disadvantage when I opened the first issue of the Ghost miniseries, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Phil Noto. Who would’ve known that being dropped into the middle of an ongoing story – even though it’s labelled with a “#1″ on the cover – would make it difficult to know who’s who and what the hell is going on?
So you should be aware coming into Ghost #1 that if you haven’t read any Ghost stories (ha!) before, you’re likely to be somewhat confused. I’m sure there are a ton of comic readers who know who Ghost is, and why she doesn’t seem to know who she is after 19 years of publishing history, and who these two dingbats she’s traveling with are and what this box they’re talking about is, why Ghost seems to be shoveling donuts down her maw every few minutes, who the spaz with the taste for needles and ball gags is, and whether or not the Mayor Bobby guy we meet mid-issue is the same guy with, shall we say, a skin problem, at the end of the issue.
I, however, am not one of them, so I was forced to dive in and swim. So the question about this book, for me, was: would I be able to overcome my ignorance about these characters and their backstory, and figure out just what the hell was going on?
Ghost #1 focuses on Ghost, on the run with two bros names Vaughn and Tommy and suffering from what appears to be total amnesia prior to being summoned by these two guys via some kind of box at some point prior to this issue. And when I say, “on the run,” I mean, “They’re drinking coffee in a diner for a few pages.” We are then introduced to a woman named Dr. October who appears to be some form of mad scientist – and they say that your name doesn’t dictate your fate in life – who seems to have possession of the box, and is using it eliminate some pantsless schmo who stole something from her, as is the first thing one would do with a magic box. And when the dude is eliminated, Ghost seems to sense it and goes apeshit, and we learn that she can will her cloak costume into being, kick your ass and become intangible to rip out your heart (yeah: I dated her). Then suddenly there’s Vaughn’s ex-girlfriend and her new squeeze Bobby, mayor of… somewhere… and then we discover that Dr. October wasn’t just whacking out losers in their underpants, but summoning an antagonist that you will probably find familiar. Let’s just say that you’ll be pleased to meet him. I hope you guess his name.
If it sounds like I’m making a certain amount of fun of the storyline, it’s purely based on a certain amount of confusion. I simply don’t know who these people are, and being that this issue is pure setup for a future conflict, while clearly continuing a story that began at some unknown point in the past, there is ambiguity that just won’t go away. However, with that said, DeConnick does a reasonably good job setting most of these character us, with a combination of internal dialogue, expositional speech, and action description. And having read the issue a couple of times now, I’m actually feeling some admiration for what DeConnick was able to accomplish in this issue.
Because this is a situation where she is writing a first issue of a character that, based on its Wikipedia entry, hasn’t appeared regularly in about a decade, and who has years of continuity prior to that. So DeConnick is forced here to walk a fine line of spending the whole issue explaining everything for readers who’ve never read the original stuff, or explaining nothing and assuming we already know who all these people are. And I think she drives a good balance – by the end of the issue, I knew what Ghost’s powers were, and was able to suss out generally who everyone was and how they related to each other, but I rarely felt that I was being spoon-fed exposition. There were a couple of areas where I could see the man behind the curtain, explaining what I was seeing – having Ghost’s internal dialogue explaining that she can strike when she wants and become intangible when she wants felt a little on the nose. But generally the explanations feel organic and unforced… it’s just that there’s enough left unsaid about these characters and their backgrounds that I never felt fully secure that I truly understood everything that was going on and why.
Frankly, the biggest confusion I felt was when we met the antagonist, and it was based purely on Noto’s art. In general, Noto’s art here is solid, with a mix of fine detail lines and broader lines, which gives everything a vaguely sketched look. His faces are expressive and his bodies generally realistic – everything I’ve seen of Ghost prior to this, including the Alex Ross cover, show us a leggy heroine with bodacious ta-tas, but within the issue, she is a real-looking woman. His panel layouts are clear, and his action – all three panels of it – are pretty well choreographed… but the problem is his white guys in suits. To wit: Mayor Bobby and the antagonist, before he shows his new face, are dead ringers for each other. Their hair parts are the same, their tie colors are the same, and thanks to that sketched look, their faces are similar. It was confusing; I found myself spending a couple of minutes flipping back and forth to see if they were the same guy. Based on events, I’m pretty convinced they’re not… but I’m still not sure. It’s a serious ding on an issue that was generally reasonably compelling.
“Reasonably compelling” being, I guess, probably my final verdict. The fact of the matter is that, even though DeConnick does a reasonable job bringing me up to speed, and does it with a kinda cool comparison between Ghost and the myth of Athena, I’m still not entirely sure who everyone is and why they’re doing what they’re doing. And unfortunately, I’m not sure that there is any possible way she could have hoisted the weight to get a reader like me, who is completely unfamiliar with Ghost, to fully invest in this comic book without doing a complete reboot. If she’d packed the book with historical exposition, it would have been boring, and if she’d fully committed to readers’ familiarity with prior continuity, it would have been inscrutable. So I think she did about as well as could be done with what she chose to work with here… but while it was enough to keep me from being utterly baffled, it wasn’t enough to fully suck me in.
If you’re a reader who’s familiar with Ghost, your mileage might vary from mine. However, considering the character hasn’t had much of a history in about 10 years, I’m guessing there are more readers like me than not… so consider carefully before you buy.