Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray
‘Since when do Image release vintage reprints?’ I asked myself, a little confused about just what it was I had started reading. I had picked up Five Ghosts under the impression that it was the first issue of a new series and not something snuck out of an archive. I was expecting the angst, ambiguity and alternate reality apps of contemporary comics but all that Fabian Gray actually delivered were the charismatic heroics, high-adventure and casual arcanery common in the comics of old. I was just about to call shenanigans when I saw a current photo of the book’s author Frank J. Barbiere, who has either aged extremely gracefully or wasn’t actually around to have written this series in the fifties, and took another look at Chris Mooneyham’s art about which the same can be said. Five Ghosts then is a spirit of sorts itself, a series set to haunt us with the spectre of those old-school comic stories we have so callously left behind.
Ok, dropping the shtick for a bit I was expecting this series to harken back somewhat to existing stories but not in the pure and simple way that it does. The core synopsis is this: Fabian Gray – an amalgamation of Connery’s Bond, Ford’s Indiana Jones and Bogart’s Bogart…*swoon* – is a renegade, a roustabout and really good at going on adventures, thanks in part to the five specifically skilled spirits that he possesses (or perhaps that possess him?). One of those spirits is ‘The Detective’, a clear nod to Mr.Holmes, and so I expected some sort of meta-literary commentary to be at play, that archetypes would be perverted and tropes deconstructed. Instead though the issue introduces that spirit simply as a way for Gray to break into the treasure vault of a secret
Though on the surface the similarities to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen may seem apt in terms of spirit they are exact opposites; Five Ghosts closer in tone to the film adaptation of that franchise, just…you know, good. While both books attempt to recreate those pulp, boy’s own style of adventures this is the only one that actually succeeds, sticking straight at its goal and not letting subversions get in the way like Moore so magically did. There is nary a wink or nudge to be seen throughout. The literary references here also differ in that they are vague, loose influences that help shape the story rather than specific ones that drive it; the name of the villain for example is meaningful to me but you know all you need to about him without it.
I don’t know that the series is set-up to reward such over thinking of things because of its admirable simplicity but I did find it fascinating how the fictional elements are staggered over era. The story itself is set in a present of the forties or fifties and unfolds as such, influenced by the pulp tales told then, but the spirits all stem from an earlier time and the villain one step back from that. It is as if Gray is powered by the stories that he grew up on, that he is haunted by his past heroes in the same way that writer Frank Barbiere is, his own spirits summoned up during the scripting of this story. Again though, this is not the kind of thought that the book requires, it is just a topic on which I like to ramble; Five Ghosts itself simply acts, employing the spirits in cool ways without worrying too much on their meaning.
Another area in which the book evokes League before leaving it behind is in terms of the art. What Mooneyham has done here owes about as much as O’Neil’s work does to the images in those original pulp texts, but while Kevin took the style towards the crisp, cartoony and complicated Mooneyham does the opposite. His images are more impressionistic and despite the complex line work his edges are less defined, the detail implied as much as actually illustrated. There are touches here and there that evoke Sean Phillips, quite fittingly given that man’s predilection for Noir flourishes, though i’m not sure if it is Mooneyham who employs these.
S.M.Vidaurri, whose work is described in the book as ‘colouring assists’ deserves crediting to because his work does just that: his shadows assist the look of the book, his alternating colour schemes assist in the action and storytelling and his general palette walks a fine line between the limited print of the original pulps and the expectations of a modern one. Together they’ve crafted a visually compelling book; one that reads flawlessly.
Some may wonder whether or not there is a need for such an anachronistic title to be on the shelves, they may question the political correctness of its Nazi’s, near-nude damsels and spear-wielding tribesman of the Spider-God, they may miss the satire and subversion that the series steers so clear of with its straight faced reenactments but personally I think that there is a place for it there and I know that there will be a place for the rest of the series on my own. Just because something is easier to read does not mean that it was easier to write; good fun, good adventure and good simple storytelling is as hard to do as the moping melancholia so ever present in most other titles and that is exactly what Five Ghosts provides. So don’t wait fifty years to pick it up.