Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray by Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham
Imagine your favorite pulp art from the covers and illustrations of adventure and fantasy stories. Now imagine this same style updated so that the artwork is consistent with a hint of contemporary polish plus wonderful, eye-grabbing color. Finally, imagine a comic book that tells an entire story with this artwork so that instead of the illustrations accompanying the text, the text accompanies the art. At that point, you will have imagined the first volume of Frank Barbiere’s Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, which is illustrated by Chris Mooneyham, with colors provided by S. M. Vidaurri and Lauren Affe.
Five Ghosts tells the story of Fabian Gray who, along with his friend Sebastian, is trying to save Gray’s sister, Jezebel. At some point before the story started, the adventurer and thief Fabian Gray encountered a Dreamstone. This encounter had two results: Something mysterious and bad has happened to Jezebel, and something even more mysterious, as well as life-threatening, has happened to Fabian. He now can channel the powers of five ghosts from the world of fiction, which we are told is part of the dream world. However, each time he relies on any of these powers from the dream-literary world, he undergoes a painful physical and psychological episode of some kind.
These five ghosts include an archer, a mage, a vampire, a samurai, and a detective. The detective is clearly Sherlock Holmes, the man from Baker Street, but the others are less clearly stated, though the mage might be Merlin, the vampire is probably Dracula, and the archer is most likely Robin Hood. I’ll leave you to make a guess about the samurai. But I think the book hints that the Archer could be any fictional archer. Take your pick. Hawkeye? Green Arrow? The same would be true of them all, really. And I like that the book — released by the publisher Image — gets away with leading us to think of one popular character from each of the big two publishers: Marvel and DC.
Fabian Gray’s adventures with his friend Sebastian are exciting, as are the flashbacks to Gray’s adventures with his sister, but honestly there’s nothing overly complex to the stories. And I really do not mind that lack of complexity at all. I have read this book twice, in one sitting each time, and I was transported both times. It’s an Indiana Jones-type adventure, and it should not have too much complexity. It would require too much writing if that were the case, and if there were any more text in this comic book, then the pace of the story would be slowed down. Instead, we are given great locations and situations that allow the artist to tell us the story, to show us what is happening, and this visual storytelling is what makes Five Ghosts so wonderful. The writer, I believe, knew exactly what he was doing in getting out of the way as much as possible and letting this story be a visual one. At times, there are pages without any dialogue at all, and those sequences are my favorites.
However, though the dream-time stories of Five Ghosts are not as complex as the dream-time stories of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the writing is solid, especially the dialogue, which is extremely funny. My favorite dialogue is Sebastian’s. His is a mordant wit, and Fabian plays the straight-man for Sebastian’s humor, much like the overly-serious Bruce Wayne takes on that role with Alfred, whose dry wit has added humor to many dark Batman stories. For example, at one point in Five Ghosts, Fabian and Sebastian, far from civilization, have been captured and tied to large pillars deep within a cave that Fabian has previously told Sebastian is an abandoned location. Giant Spiders are descending, and they seem of the man-eating variety one would expect in a pulp adventure story. Fabian has been unconscious since their capture, and as he starts to wake up, Sebastian calls over to him from his pillar: “Oh, good. . . You’re awake. I was afraid you were going to miss our horrific demise.” Fabian, still disoriented, simply asks where they are, and Sebastian explains: “These tribesmen dragged us to their -:ahem:- ABANDONED temple while you slept like a babe. Now, if I’m not mistaken, they’re preparing us as some sort of sacrifice.” After a few other minor exchanges, we get more action sequences without text, a few more witty remarks, followed by more mostly wordless action, and so on.
I think Five Ghosts makes the most of this approach, and I don’t think it could do it much better. If one is looking for rich characterization, complex themes, and nuanced storytelling, then Five Ghosts will disappoint. However, I can’t fault Five Ghosts for failing to have qualities it never tries to have in the first place. It would be like complaining that there weren’t enough romance scenes in an action movie. The creators of this comic book work extremely well together to produce a pulp adventure story that is fun, exciting, fast, and visually brilliant. I’m not willing to give it five stars compared to some other comics I’ve read, but I’m also not willing to mark it down for doing what it sets out to do as well as it does. It’s a five-star action comic, but those comparing it to the greatest comics ever created might give it only three stars. However, I think Five Ghosts is a solid four-star comic that, depending on your mood, could be the perfect comic to pass a lazy afternoon. There are two more volumes in the series. I’ll be reading those soon, and I know I’ll return to Five Ghosts (Volume One): The Haunting of Fabian Gray multiple times in the future, whenever I’m in the mood for some Indiana Jones-style adventuring.