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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Comics Rainbow - Ghosts

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In case it isn’t clear yet, pretty much all my pre-written work for this week is going to be based around the upcoming release of Ghostbusters.  That’s just the nature of things when you prepare work this far in advance, you end up needing to base it on big, telegraphed events rather than reacting to the news of the day.  In any event: Ghosts.  

Ghosts are all over comics, going all the way back to before superheroes became a dominant genre of the medium in the 1940s.  So, given that and the fact the Ghostbusters aren’t really comic book characters and I didn’t want to cheat and do an article about them, this is a look at the various ghostly characters in comics throughout the ages.

Just for the record there are going to be a lot of giggles on this entry when it comes to why the Grim Ghost is so memory holed and disliked now.  Real name Keith Everet, he was an Irish lord killed by brigands only to return from the grave to fight injustice, more specifically he fights a group of Nazi saboteurs in the 1940s who are trying to set-up shop in his ancestral castle. 

For context, this story came out in 1942 in the pages of Sensation Comics, back before DC Comics was even a thing that existed.  With a lot of characters of this era, Grim Ghost was a bizarre amalgam of adventure fiction and genre elements fused together and forced under the superhero umbrella more by the happenstance of creation than actually fitting the style of the character.

The big reason this guy never came back in any other DC era, even though a fencing Irish ghost seems like exactly the kind of thing superhero comics would want, was because he was initially named the Gay Ghost, which at the time just meant happy not homosexual as he was decidedly straight.  Even though he was later renamed I don’t think that particular ignominy is something you can really live down, especially when you’re already a Q-list character like Lord Everet was.

He did very briefly return in the pages of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Final Crisis: Superman Beyond.   In these books Morrison introduced the idea of Limbo as a place for old comic characters that had been excised from comic continuity and collective memory by disinterest.  Folks like the Inferior Five, Ace the Bat-Hound, Hardhat, and the Grim Ghost himself populate the shores of oblivion in a dimension made of all the stuff the world of comics decided to throw away, and for context comics have kept folks like Crazy Quilt and Kite-Man around even today. 

Another forgotten character who eventually ended up lumped in with a bunch of other heroes excised from continuity, the only difference is that this guy ended up awesome.  So, in the 1970s DC was cranking out all kinds of weird genre experiments in an attempt to maintain their relevance after a decade of Marvel chipping away at their market share. 

This led to a bunch of horror books, western books, and fantasy books.  One such instance of this came from a series of back-up published in Action Comics in 1973 starring a native of the Island Caribs adopting a pirate identity as Captain Fear to fight the invading Spanish.  Given that origin I’m actually surprised Captain Fear hasn’t gotten more attention now but at the time he was met with apathy and quietly faded away, then things got weird.

In 2006, DC put out a mini-series called Tales of the Unexpected.  That comic had its own back-up feature surrounding Dr. Terry Thirteen, a skeptic and ghost breaker of the DC universe, making his way through a journey of self and encountering all manner of fellow characters excised from continuity and among them was Captain Fear.

The difference was that this Captain Fear was a swashbuckling ghost with a floating spectral pirate ship.  It’s a dynamite concept I really wish we could’ve seen more of and was a real highlight of the comic, and this is a comic with a lot of great elements.  Given that several other characters from this series eventually made it back to the main stream like I…Vampire, Anthro, and Traci Thirteen I’m still shocked Captain Fear and his ghost pirate ship never got another chance. 

Ugh, this guy.  Back in the ‘40s it wasn’t just the superhero that existed as a bizarre and nebulous concept but also the super villain so a lot of early villains ended up informed more by horror tropes than anything else.  Solomon Grundy is an undead monster like Frankenstein, Ragdoll and the Dummy were living toy monsters, the Joker was an evil clown, and Gentleman Ghost was a Victorian specter.  That’s a decent basic hook for a bad guy but for some reason future writers could never just let this character be and have forced so many different re-imaginings and new versions through it’s just incredibly taxing at this point. 

Originally, Gentleman Ghost was the ghost of a Victorian highwayman named Gentleman Jim Craddock come back to continue his bad doings upon the living.  He had a pretty good run in this form tormenting Hawkman and the Justice Society but somewhere along the line authors started to wonder why a ghost needs possessions.  It’s a fair point and they ended up working through a ton of different explanations, from ancient Irish reincarnation curse to making him into some kind of weird sex demo.  It’s all painfully circuitous and none of the various answers ever proved terribly interesting.

What’s more, Gentleman Ghost himself really lacks a lot in the way of cool ghost powers.  He can turn intangible but, like a lot of Hawkman villains, his powers are more about avoiding conflict than actually doing anything cool.  Maybe someone will come along eventually and make Gentleman Ghost a worthwhile figure but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. 

Hey, look at that, a non-DC/Marvel character, that’s a rarity in this column.  Johann Kraus hails from Dark Horse Comics, specifically coming from the vast supernatural mythos surrounding Mike Mignola’s breakout character Hellboy.  In the wake of Hellboy’s success Mignola started filling up his universe with a ton of other supernatural beings like the fish-man Abe Sapien, pyro-kinetic Liz Sherman, Roger the Homunculus, and Johann. 

Johann’s deal is that he was a spiritual medium, and because this is comics that means he could actually project his spirit out of his body in ectoplasmic form to commune with the dead.  Unfortunately for him, his body was destroyed during one of his séances and he was left trapped as a being of ectoplasm without corporeal form.  Unable to pass on as he hadn’t actually died, he sought out the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and they made him a containment suit that he possessed with his ectoplasmic spirit. 

It’s a delightfully horror-punk concept for a character and a really unique design for a supernatural government agent.  Johann’s suit allows him to slowly vent his ectoplasm so as to posses various objects and dead bodies, all of which makes him one of the most powerful people in the entire Hellboy/BPRD continuity.  What’s more, the writing always did a good job playing up how the inhumanity of his situation served to dehumanize his identity.  As the books went on, Johann became more and more detached from the world of the living as his immortal nature left him the sole survivor of battle after battle where all his comrades were killed.  It’s a great combination of high concept and human drama that serves to create a character arc of tragedy and fading humanity that is undoubtedly a ghost story.

Remember how I mentioned early super villains were heavily informed by horror tropes?  Well, that didn’t end in the ‘40s as even today a lot of villains end up revamped version of horror concepts and nowhere is that more true than in the rogues gallery of Batman.  This leads me to one of my all-time favorite Batman foes: Samsara.  

Samsara is such a creepy and hardcore character concept I’m legitimately shocked he’s been so thoroughly forgotten by comics at large, especially in the wake of Batman books getting harsher and more brutal.  His set-up is that he was a little kid who died in a car crash waiting for Batman to come save him.  Enraged by hero’s failure he returned as a vengeful ghost made of hatred with the power to possess the bodies of the recently deceased. 

That’s an incredibly cruel and uncompromising approach for a Batman villain but it also dives into a ton of great Bat mythos elements that are often overlooked.  The basic idea of Batman having fans among the youth is a pretty cool notion I’ve rarely seen explored and coupling it with a focus on all the people Batman can’t or doesn’t save is a really clever combination.  What’s more, diving head first into the creepy, horror/supernatural stuff is something I desperately wish more Batman authors would do as those are some of his most rewarding genre elements. 

I think part of the reason so few authors are willing to come back to Samsara as a villain concept is that dead kids are a pretty tasteless story point but it’s really not that removed from a lot of Batman’s other foes.  I mean, most folks love The Killing Joke and that book turned Joker into a rapist, I think we can look the other way on the ghost of a child who died in a car accident.  Honestly, the tragic senselessness of Samsara’s death and his violent defiance of the afterlife fit perfectly with a lot of other Bat foes origin like Mr. Freeze or Clayface.       

In 2004, the age of DC hegemony had come to a pretty spectacular conclusion.  After 6 years with DC ruling the roost Marvel had returned from bankruptcy with a whole slate of new, mature comics and a triple threat of blockbuster films in Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man.  Desperate to try and counter Marvel’s return, DC started work on their own mature stories, the starting point of which was called Identity Crisis.  

It was a murder mystery comic where long time supporting character and wife of Elongated Man Sue Dibny was murdered.  In one of the subsequent series that comic inspired, 52, Elongated Man Ralph Dibny ended up dead himself only for both he and his wife to return to life as a pair of ghost detectives. 

From the outside this seems like a good idea.  The Dibny’s were beloved characters but the presence of Plastic Man as a more popular stretchy hero kept them from really being unique successes of the modern era.  Ditching Elongated Man’s stretch powers but keeping their husband and wife relationship was a good idea and “ghost detectives” is a pretty solid set-up for a comic.  

The problem was that comic never materialized.  For whatever reason, the Dibnys never got a series out of the deal and only appeared in a handful of future comics, usually in brief cameo roles.  I honestly don’t know why this happened given that ‘husband and wife solve mysteries as ghosts’ is a great premise but for whatever reason I guess DC just really didn’t want these characters around anymore. 

In 1967, DC was already gearing up for the slew of new genre book they’d go on to put out in the ‘70s.  This was still a time of free experimentation from the people at DC as they tried to continue expanding their brand to tap new markets.  While there were some war and comedy comics put out by DC at the time their main source of experimentation in the ‘60s was new, weird superheroes like Metamorpho or the Metal Men.  So, in the late ‘60s when they were moving towards horror and fantasy books DC ended up working to fuse the various genres together, which is how we get characters like Deadman. 

Deadman is the quintessential ghost superhero, fitting pretty much all of the elements you’d expect from him.  Real name Boston Brand, he was an acrobat who was shot dead by an assassin and came back to life with the power to possess the living.  His initial task was to hunt down his own killer and bring him to justice but after accomplishing that he stuck around the world of the living as a restless ghost and crimefighter when it suited him. 

Of all these ghost characters Deadman is the perennial favorite of comic nerds everywhere, to the point that he’s even been grandfathered into the Batman mythos, the gold standard of comic nerd love.  If you’re wondering how a colorful ghost fits into Batman’s mythology it’s through Brand’s position as a circus acrobat and the idea that he had been on friendly terms with the Flying Graysons prior to his death.  Later, this connection led to the idea that Brand’s killer was tied to a group called “the seven men of death,” an order of deadly assassin’s employed by Ras Al Ghul through the Sensi, Ras’ dad (it’s complicated and unrewarding.) 

As for why Deadman is so beloved a lot of that has to do with his character.  Rather than being mopey about being dead he actually just seems genuinely psyched to be a ghost, meeting the situation with a think Boston accent and a comical shrug at his situation.  It’s a real “oh well, might as well crimefight” type attitude that’s thoroughly emblematic of a lot of similar superheroes of the time backed up by an abrasive but amiable nature in the vein of Marvel’s The Thing. 

Bet you didn’t know Space Ghost was a comic book character huh?  This is because WB eventually purchased Hanna-Barbera and went on to produce a number of comics adapted out of their material while also licensing some of the material to other publishers like Dynamite Comics and Archie Comics.  Space Ghost has enjoyed numerous comic adaptations across the two and, most recently, appeared as a major character in DC’s new line of Hanna-Barbera comics.  His role is in the science fantasy space opera adventure comic Future Quest, which seeks to mash-up a whole ton of HB characters like Johnny Quest, Birdman, the Herculoids, and Space Ghost himself.

If you’re not familiar with him, Space Ghost was one of several superhero characters Hanna-Barbera put together in the mid ‘60s.  This was right around the same time HB was handling Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man animated shows and, in the process, pretty much invented all the tropes and tricks of adapting superheroes to animation.  Seriously, everything that came to dominate this genre in the decades to come started with what Hanna-Barbera was doing in the mid ‘60s and Space Ghost was their way of taking everything they learned on the Marvel shows and implementing it with their own hero. 

As for Space Ghost, he’s basically just a traveling space hero with the ability to fly in space, turn invisible/intangible, and project energy blasts.  He’s from the ghost planet where everyone can do this and would tool around the universe protecting people and fighting monsters and villains.  That’s the classic form of the character but in more recent years he was revamped into Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, an amazing series I’ll have to review in full one day.  Coast to Coast was a weird blend of surrealist comedy and spoof comedy that featured Space Ghost hosting a bizarre and insane talk show with real celebrities.  You wouldn’t think it but that version of Space Ghost also got a comic adaptation that I am now desperate to obtain. 

And one more indie comics character to finish off the list.  This is Ghost and she’s actually one of the first comic characters I ever reviewed when I started doing text review for Front Towards Gamer back in 2013.  She’s another Dark Horse character who emerged in the ‘90s on the heals of the urban fantasy craze kicked off by hits like The Crow, Spawn, and Ghost Rider.  

She’s a Chicago native who was kidnapped by a group of demons masquerading as people and using a weird science box to pull demons from hell up into the world of the living.  When the demons tried to pull that process on her, exchanging her soul with the spirit of a demon, something went wrong and she became physically trapped between the material plane and the afterlife.  Now possessed of ghostly powers of flight and density control she defends Chicago demonic forces. 

Ghost is easily one of the most bad ass women superheroes and honestly deserves way more notoriety than she gets.  Her mythos is steeped in horror iconography and great, creepy visuals with hints of super heroic tropes that make for a thoroughly unique and dynamic palette.  If you loved Ghost Rider or Spawn you should definitely check her out.  Her biggest break into the mainstream was during Dark Horse’s now defunct attempt at a shared universe under Project Black Sky where she was teamed up with fellow heroes X and Captain Midnight. 

What was always so cool about this and about Ghost as a character is that she embodied the Batman role on her team.  She’s a tough as nails superhero who will always push herself for justice but rather than defend the innocent her mandate is to punish the guilty.  That’s actually a shockingly rare thing for a woman superhero to be and combined with her powers rivaling those of Supergirl her whole mythos fills a void in superhero comics that no one was really addressing before.  I highly recommend picking up her 3rd and fourth volume collections if you ever get the chance. 

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