Five Ghosts

22 Apr

Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham, along with colourist Lauren Affe, launched Five Ghosts in 2013, first as a Kickstarter and later as a series from Image Comics. 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. Although Five Ghosts reads smoothly and predictably, it doesn’t always have a truly distinctive voice, beyond its central conceit. 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, it doesn’t always 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. Despite this criticism, Barbiere and Mooneyham’s Five Ghosts is a comic 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.

As far back as October 2014, American television channel SyFy announced that a series based on the comic book was under development. It was revealed first that Universal Cable Productions had optioned the rights to the comic series and were developing it for television. Syfy then announced that they had picked up the pulp adventure series to be produced by Universal Cable Productions, Black Mask Studios and BenderSpink. The pilot was being written by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman, Divergent) based closely on the graphic novels by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham, with a 1930s era treasure hunter possessed by five literary ghosts (Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Musashi, and Dracula) whose unique abilities he can draw on during his adventures. However, there have have been no further announcements about the television series since then. It’s also been almost two years since we last saw an issue of the Five Ghosts comic, but it looks like that at least is about to change. In 2017 Barbiere teased on Twitter that a fourth volume of the Fabian Gray saga would be released shortly, picking up right where the last issue left off. While the substance isn’t always as meaty as the style, overall, the mythology of Fabian Gray’s power/affliction is interesting enough that I’m curious to see where Five Ghosts goes next.

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