It's Hallowe'en and I'm sitting in Edinburgh, one of the world's spookiest cities, with the lights down low. How could Ghosts, the one-shot revival of DC's Bronze Age mystery title, fail to frighten me? While the original was rarely outright terrifying, the stories were always readable, the art lush and atmospheric, and the twists often surprised. And all within the confines of the Comics Code Authority. What horrors could be unleashed with a 21st-century version, published by DC's 'sophisticated suspense' division, Vertigo.
Some pretty dull scripts, that's what. They're not all bad, but this is a profoundly disappointing comic book. Even Dave Johnson's cover, at first glance a winning update of the original series' tropes, loses its magic when it's repeated twice over the course of two contents pages.
- The issue opens with 'The night after I took the data entry job I was visited by my own ghost'. Said ghost isn't your traditional spook, it's an aborted future version of the narrator, who goes on to steal his life. It's slacker wackiness from writer Al Ewing and artist Rufus Dayglo (in Jamie Hewlett mode), cheerily diverting on its own terms, but it wouldn't spook a toddler. I'd have expected a more traditional suspenser to open the book, with this thrown in midway as a change of pace, but by the end of the issue it's apparent that there simply aren't any stories harking back to the old ways.
- The Dead Boy Detectives from Neil Gaiman's Sandman show up in 'Run Ragged', a story by writer Toby Litt and artists Mark Buckingham and Victor Santos. Well, 'story' is overstating it; what we actually have is a few pages with Charles and Edwin hunting a missing cat ghost named Twinkle and being chased by a Pink Floyd-esque schoolteacher. The artwork is wonderfully whimsical and eerie, including a thoroughly engaging page drawn from the perspective of said dead pussy. But while the narrative is intriguing, it stops abruptly and we get '... to be continued in the next Vertigo anthology'. Continue away ... just don't expect me to be there.
- 'Wallflower' follows a young couple through the decades as they move from vibrant love to ghostly loneliness. I'm not sure I caught all the nuances - the ending certainly went over my head - but it's at the very least an interesting mood piece, delicately written by Cecil Castellucci and exquisitely illustrated by Amy Reeder. Just look at that first page, as the couple's love colours their life ...
- 'The Boy and the Old Man' is the last work from legendary comics creator Joe Kubert. It's a fragment, a piece left unfinished when he died in August - pencils only, with lettering overlaid on Kubert's notes. It's fascinating to get such an intimate peek at Kubert's workmanship, and I'd love to see a version inked by one of his sons, Adam or Andy. As it is, we have the story of a dying native American and his grandson fighting Death itself. Once more, there's no traditional ghost, but there is a satisfying conclusion.
- 'A bowl of red' is a quirky piece about what the world's most hellish chilli will do to you. We learn just what that is on page one, but the story goes on for seven more sides, dragging out the one idea way beyond boredom and ending without so much as a tiny twist. Neil Kleid's script is readable, if a little too pleased with itself, while John McCrea channels the EC vibe to admirable effect. So far as ghosts go, there's a ghost pepper and an undead pepper, which is something!
- There are no spooks in 'Bride', just a weirdo loser carrying around his dead wife's ashes while reminiscing about their rather icky sex life, as a Greek chorus of creeps commentates. It's written by one Mary HK Choi, apparently a very funny New York columnist. So perhaps this is satire, and I missed the jokes, and the point, and it only reads as self-indulgent, adolescent pish because I'm not smart enough to appreciate it. The illustrations by regular partners Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning are typically impressive, but they don't manage to make sense of the disjointed narrative. I doubt anyone could.
- 'Treasure Lost' concerns royal siblings kidnapped by 'pirates of the ghost ship'. And that phrase is as close as this story gets to fitting into a comic called Ghosts, because it's science fiction, perhaps commissioned for Vertigo's Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space books but left on the shelf (as 'A bowl of red' might have been intended for Unexpected). With talent like writer Paul Pope and artist David Lapham at the helm, it's unsurprisingly a readable, nice-looking piece. But Ghosts it ain't.
- There are ghosts in 'The Dark Lady', written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez, which provides the one haunting image in this fat $7.99 book. It also delivers a wee twist, and an alarmingly easy payday for colourist Lee Loughridge, whose contribution seems to have been turning the borders of the black and white pages aqua, and maybe even adding red to the credits. Could it be that Loughridge was assigned to colour the pages and did so, but Hernandez then requested they go mono, yet the credit remained? It's the biggest mystery in the comic.
- Finally, there's Ghost-For-Hire, in which a man and his departed brother make a living scaring people. It's a charming piece by writer Geoff Johns and artist Jeff LeMire, and it styles itself as the first of a possible series. I'd be happy to see more, because this is the most humane piece in the book, and it even has a proper ghost doing some proper haunting. Credit, too, to Jose Villarrubia for a terrific, autumnal colouring job.
Because as with previous Vertigo anthologies, this is full of writers trying far too hard to give us their unique, hip spin on the theme, rather than just having a blast with tried and tested genre traditions - whether they be science fiction or supernatural. I'd love the next horror revival to appear under the DC imprint, edited by some Seventies stalwart who knows how short stories work, and has a passing familiarity with Shirley Jackson or MR James. Someone out not to impress, but to scare ...