Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Five Ghosts #16. Written by Frank Barbiere (Avengers World, The White Suits) with art by Chris Mooneyham (Predator: Fire And Stone, Anathema) and colorist Lauren Affe (The Ghost Fleet, Buzzkill), this issue showcases how the creative team pulls from pulp tradition to create an exciting action adventure narrative. (Warning: This review reveals major plot points.)
In the opening pages of Five Ghosts #16, the supernaturally gifted treasure hunter Fabian Gray dreams of fighting off a band of pirates on a burning pirate ship. He wakes up on the operating table of Nazi mad scientist Dr. Moreau, and breaks free with the help of Dracula’s spirit, which resides inside him along with those of four other classic literary characters: Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Merlin, and Miyamoto Musashi. Combining the pulp-inspired thrills of the Indiana Jones films with The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s reverence for classic literature, Five Ghosts is a dream title for readers who want spectacular action adventure presented with confidence and intelligence. This week’s issue highlights the strength of this creative team as it brings the current arc to its climax.
The central concept of a man possessed by literary ghosts may sound silly, but writer Frank Barbiere uses it as a way to explore the power of stories while putting Fabian in intense action sequences that take full advantage of these extraordinary abilities. While Barbiere is gradually establishing an elaborate mythology for the Dreamstone that bonded these five spirits to Fabian, his primary focus is on creating an exciting, action-packed narrative that embraces the wide scope of pulp fiction. This issue has pirates, evil Nazi scientists, vampires, and ghosts, but that’s just par for the course with this book.
That opening pirate battle is a reminder of Fabian’s core motivation as he fends off attackers with his sister, who turns into a vampire and takes a giant bite out of his neck because this is all a drug-induced hallucination. His dedication to reuniting with his lost sibling drives his actions, and the glimpses into Fabian and Sylvia’s relationship provide much of the book’s emotional depth. This dedication is ultimately what saves Fabian from Dr. Moreau, giving him the strength to tap into the Dreamstone’s full power when Dracula’s ghost wipes out the effect of the doctor’s drug.
In the end, it’s a story about the power of love and the resilience of the human spirit conquering evil, but it’s far from sentimental. The heart doesn’t take precedence over the action, but it does make it easier to invest in the fate of these characters when they find themselves in the heat of battle.
And the fights are hot. Lauren Affe colors Fabian and Sylvia’s pirate-ship swordfight with fiery shades of orange and yellow that add a lot of energy to Chris Mooneyham’s already dynamic artwork. About a quarter of this issue’s page count is dedicated to action sequences, but the impact of these scenes lingers and keeps the momentum pushing ahead because Mooneyham is so skilled at choreographing movement and highlighting big moments in a fight. The full-page splash of Sylvia gorging on Fabian’s neck while the ship around them burns is as beautiful as it is chilling. The pain of that image is amplified in the title page that immediately follows it, which zooms in on present-day Fabian, bound to Dr. Moreau’s table, screaming with vampiric fury as the spirit of Dracula takes over. Mooneyham has a particular talent for splash pages that leave a strong impression, and when Fabian unleashes the power of the Dreamstone, he delivers a full-page shot of the hero and his five ghosts that encapsulates all the high-concept, hairy-chested cool of Fabian Gray.
Mooneyham’s rich inking brings a lot of texture to the artwork, and readers are given the opportunity to compare his inked work to his non-inked work thanks to recurring flashbacks presented in tight pencils. It gives the past scenes a very different flavor than the present-day action, and draining the color draws attention to the clarity of Mooneyham’s storytelling. Affe excels at setting the mood in her colors, choosing specific shades to dictate the atmosphere of each scene. Her use of blue border highlights in the opening sequence effectively hints at the hallucination by adding a slight blur to the artwork, and the burning hues of the action-packed opening sequence give way to colder colors for the horror-driven scenes in Dr. Moreau’s laboratory. In the issue’s hectic final moments, Affe cycles through different background shades to heighten the chaos, jumping from green to purple to pink as Fabian makes his escape with his best friend Sebastian and famed vampire hunter Van Helsing.
Like many Image titles, Five Ghosts features a smart publication design that fits the distinct tone of the story. Designer Dylan Todd makes the single issues look like weathered old pulp magazines, with creases in the cover paper, and summaries, teases, and reviews on the back covers to reinforce that classic pulp-serial feel. Five Ghosts is also one of the Image ongoings that dedicates a certain number of pages to short comics by other creators in the community. This week’s issue contains the second part of Fabian Rangel Jr. and Huseyin Ozkan’s “Sleepwalking,” starring a gruff cop in a world of monsters. These extra stories shine a light on up-and-coming talents, but are another way this book channels the spirit of old pulp magazines, which typically contained multiple works. Five Ghosts’ creative team is committed to keeping that pulp spirit alive, consistently delivering exhilarating stories by tapping into the tradition of what came before, but staying fresh thanks to an unconventional central concept.