Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Ghost and the Shadow#1

Having recently concluded Bitter Fruit, my series of posts about Archie's deservedly-maligned 1960s Shadow comic books, I felt I needed something to balance the scales concerning the Shadow. Thus, I purchased a copy of Dark Horse's 1995 one-shot Ghost & the Shadow by Doug Moench & H.M Baker. William Goldman was nowhere to be found.

I consider myself a big fan of Moench's work and an amateur fan of the Shadow, but I knew nothing about Ghost. Great, I'm able to approach this book with only slight prejudices. After the cover by Matt Haley & Tom Simmons (strangely, depicting the Shadow armed with uzis), our story begins:

We open at a Tibetan lamasery where three monks guard an old jade statue. Suddenly, five men bearing machine guns burst in and kill the monks, then load the statue into an aircraft. The other monks of the lamasery fear a great evil is about to be unleashed, so they send a message: "Tulpa Arcadia." This message is received in New York by Harry Vincent, an old man. I'm aware Vincent was a major supporting character in the Shadow's pulp exploits. In contemporary times, he's been charged with watching over Lamont Cranston, whose body resides in a suspended animation chamber. Vincent awakens Lamont, who is stunned to see how old Harry has become. Harry confirms Lamont has been sleeping for decades; during this time, his allies Clyde Burke, Jericho Druke and Margo Lane have died; Lamont is startled to hear of Margo's death. Harry gives Lamont the "Tulpa Arcadia" message and explains Arcadia is "a strange city, with a large population of paranormals." I'm going to assume this is something from Dark Horse's 1990s super hero universe. Donning the garb of the Shadow, Lamont heads out to Arcadia, pleasing Harry, who waited decades to see his old friend in action again.

Two days later in Arcadia, the men who stole the statue are loading its crate aboard a ship. Suddenly, an autogyro bears down, trying to latch its hook on the crate. One of the thieves fires a rocket launcher at the autogyro, destroying it, but the pilot bails out just in time. In fact, the pilot is... the Shadow! He faces three of the thieves with his twin pistols. The man with the rocket launcher tries to fire it at the Shadow, but he empties his guns into the launcher's barrel, causing it to explode in the man's hands, killing him and (at the very least) stunning the other two. The Shadow confronts one of the surviving men and forces him to stare into his fire opal ring, mesmerizing him; the Shadow demands to know where the ship is bringing the jade statue.

We finally turn our attention to Ghost, who's in the midst of an argument with her sister Margo. It seems Ghost has the power to phase through objects, rendering her difficult to harm, but she fears her enemies will go after Margo instead. Margo resents being treated as a mere potential hostage, when suddenly the jade statue bears burst into the apartment to make Margo their hostage. Instant karma! Ghost kills one of the men by phasing through a wall and dropping him into the street below. One of the kidnappers wields a rope dart whose dart is made from jade. He's able to wound Ghost with this weapon, revealing to us (the audience) Ghost's one weakness. However, she quickly grabs her attacker and solidifies her hand inside his head. In the midst of this fight, the other kidnappers escape with Margo, leaving a note which reads: "Go to Hell at midnight!"

Margo and the jade statue have been brought together in a sewer, where the thieves' leader Mr. Skinner conspires with Songpa, a man with horrible scars covering his body from being burned in a fire. Songpa explains the jade statute conceals something called Tulpa, which Songpa created. If they break the statue open, the creature will simply be left in pieces; they need another means of setting the creature free and intend to exploit Ghost's phasing power now that Margo is their prisoner.

Elsewhere, Ghost heads to Club Hell to find a lead. We learn from her narration how she feels about men: "So whether they're the same ones who murdered me or some new creeps, they want to use me... just like all men." She demonstrates she has the power of invisibility as she scouts the building, but Skinner's men are waiting and drop a net made of jade on her. Ghost is trapped, but suddenly the Shadow appears, guns blazing. Ghost recognizes his weapons as the same caliber as hers; the Shadow is supposed to wield .45 automatics. I wonder if the similarity in firearms between Ghost and Shadow was an intentional creative decision when Ghost was created? The Shadow kills Skinner's men then releases Ghost from the net. Introducing himself as "a Shadow," he explains Skinner's men want her to release the Tulpa from jade. He helpfully explains the Tulpa is "A demonic spirit created fifty years ago -- an entity of evil so powerful that it can form a bridge to hell, letting demons ride its spine straight to our plane." Ghost is impressed at how the Shadow doesn't seem surprised at her powers, nor is he interested in ogling her (despite her provocative clothing).

In the sewers, Songpa explains how he was set on fire by the Shadow at the same time his Tulpa was sealed within the statue. He hopes to force Ghost into animating the statue; he could animate it himself by projecting his astral form into the statue, but explains to Skinner, "only by becoming the evil one... and trust me, it is more rewarding by far to control evil." At Club Hell, Ghost wonders how the Shadow could have fought Songpa 50 years ago and still be so young; he quickly explains how technology and "techniques of the mind" have kept him alive. Ghost explains how jade is her weakness and wonders how she would be able to help them with the statue. She explains how she can teleport inside any space and assumes Skinner & Songpa want her to teleport within the statue; however, the Shadow warns her that her soul would be bound to the statue and she'd become a creature of evil.

As Ghost & the Shadow head into the sewers, Ghost happens to mention her sister's name is Margo, startling the Shadow. "Synchronicity... is strange." This is the second coincidence about Ghost and the Shadow's back stories. Or is it all a coincidence? Was Ghost's creator a massive Shadow fan? Soon, Ghost confronts Skinner & Songpa, who demand she teleport inside the statue, but the Shadow surprises them and quickly rescues Margo.

Ghost suggests they simply exit, but the Shadow explains friends of his died protecting the statue in Tibet and he can't let their sacrifice be in vain: he must complete their mission. Ghost still insists on leaving, but the Shadow notes she owes him for saving her and Margo sides with the Shadow. The Shadow tells Ghost to teleport inside the statue, but Skinner forces Songpa to enter the statue first. The animated statue attacks Ghost, able to strike her because of its jade form, so Ghost starts to teleport inside, warring with the evil Tulpa which lies within. The Shadow takes some machine guns from Skinner's men and starts blasting away at the ceiling to cause a collapse. Ghost succeeds in overwhelming and destroying the statue with her superior willpower; the entire Club Hell is brought down by the Shadow's actions.

As Ghost & Margo leave the site, wondering where the Shadow is, Margo says of the Shadow, "maybe all men ain't so bad, huh?" Ghost refuses to rescind her man-hating ways: "Except he wasn't a man... he was nothing more and nothing less than what he said... a Shadow." And from the darkness, the Shadow's laugh can be heard.

I'm not certain how popular Ghost was at her heyday, but presumably she was the "draw" of this comic, being a native Dark Horse property. Circa 1995, the Shadow was best known as an under-performing movie starring Alec Baldwin (and may still be). However, based on this comic book, I wouldn't be interested in reading more stories about Ghost. She kills enemies violently and without remorse, seems to only care about her sister's welfare (as opposed to conquering evil) and doesn't like men. By both not hating men and for wanting to stop the villains of the story, I actually preferred Margo over her super-powered sister.

By 1995 standards, Baker's artwork is tremendous. Actually, it's rather good by 2012 standards too. It isn't flashy or even terribly creative, but every action, reaction, character and setting is recognizable and consistent, which is more than can be said for many comic book professionals. I don't know what he's done since the 1990s, but if he's still active, I imagine his skills are even sharper.

So far as I know, this is the only time Moench wrote Ghost or the Shadow. If his characterization of Ghost is representative of how she's normally written, then I don't think I would want to read more stories about her. However, he writes a decent Shadow - all the powers and resourcefulness are present; by underplaying moments such as when the Shadow blows up the rocket launcher and giving the hero a straightforward set of principles he adheres to, he made a tight, easy to enjoy story. More, please! I'd buy additional issues of Dynamite's Shadow if only Moench were writing them!

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