Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ghosted Volume 1: Haunted Heist

Written by Joshua Williamson
Line Art by Goran Sudzuka
Color Art by Miroslav Mrva
Published by Image Comics

A former master thief has resigned himself to living out what's left of his life in prison until an eccentric millionaire breaks him out to coordinate the heist of a lifetime--steal a ghost from a condemned building! Working with a hand-picked team including a brilliant skeptic, a con-man magician with an eye for larceny, a seer available for the right price, and the millionaire's right-hand assassin, Jackson Winters must find a way to satisfy his new employer's wishes--or die trying--in a new series that has the feel of an updated William Castle film.

Ghosted gets off to one of the worst starts in horror comic history, beginning with an opening sequence filled with just about every prison cliche Williamson can find. It was almost bad enough for me to give up entirely, but paging through the art was enough to convince me to stick with this one. I'm glad I did, because once we get to Jackson's deal to steal a ghost, the series quickly picks up steam and becomes a solid story with plenty of twists and turns. Williamson does a great job of blending two classic movie styles together: The Haunted House and The Heist. It shows a level of innovation and careful plotting that sometimes escapes lesser writers, who tend to think of horror books are being vast gore-fests.

Ghosted has blood, of course, but it also has perfect timing and an understanding of how the tropes of the haunted house need to play out--and when to exploit that expectation to try something a bit different. Sure, we know someone has to die, that the skeptic has to change their mind, and that the ghosts are even worse than previously imagined, but Williamson's handling of these expectations are going to surprise you. This won't be the first time you've read a story about how to trap a ghost, but I am pretty sure the way in which Jackson goes about fulfilling his contract will surprise you.

I don't want to give away too much here, but it's worth noting that Jackson's team is selected for very specific reasons, all of which play out over the course of the story, right up to the very end, because of Williamson's strong plotting. At no point is there an "Oh, come on!" moment or a feeling of being betrayed by some hidden secret the writer wasn't clever enough to hint at early on. Everything that happens depends on the fact that Jackson is smart enough to realize when he's being played and acts accordingly. The fact that the reader doesn't know how he plans to get out from under his new employer's thumb is okay, because we know that's what has to happen. The question is--will Jackson's plan work and can he survive it?


Watching that drama unfold is as compelling as watching Vincent Price's scheme slowly unravel in Haunting of Hill House, which, along with similar movies, definitely carries the same vibe as Haunted's first five issues. Fortunately, Goran Sudzuka is a far better artist than Castle was as a writer/director. His artwork is perfect for this story, utilizing a style that may be out of favor at the "Big Two" but simply does what no amount of intricate costume details covering poor anatomy and layout can--tells the damned story with strong overall visuals.

As with the script, once we get past the inane prison opening, Sudzuka's art is stellar, beginning with the splash page showing just how messed in the head Jackson's rich boss really is. As his assistant looms over Jackson with a knife, a room lit by fire only displays walls of books, skulls, arcane artifacts and sigils. It sets the tone for the rest of the story to come, all by creating a mood. Everything is angled in such a way that it opens up from the restrained and seated Jackson, yet still feels somewhat claustrophobic. Future splash pages are similarly dynamic, and the change to stick figures to summarize the skeptic's plan because he's the one drawing it was a stroke of genius. When the ghosts start getting added to the mix, they are suitably creepy and ephemeral, too, forming yet more overwhelming presences to go along with the general look of the house.

All of the layouts are just stellar in this one from start to finish. Sudzuka finds just the right moment to portray the action of Williamson's script, whether it's knowing to have the action face the reader or flee away from them. In other cases, Sudzuka takes in the scene from above, allowing the reader to play "God" and see that which is unavailable to the main characters. Even the standard panels where two or more characters are talking/arguing/scheming have just a slight hint of action to them, but it's not overdone. We don't need an extreme tilt on every single view, and Sudzuka understands that.

Sudzuka gets how to apply the concepts used so well by Marvel's 1970s artists, and that shows. Even his linework is reminiscent of Dick Giordano's horror comics. Combined with the subtle coloring of Miroslav Mrva, readers are able to indulge in looking at the way he applies shadows, heavier inks, and other tricks without it getting buried by over-processing.

Ghosted got off on the wrong foot, but it quickly recovered and is an amazing horror book and probably a bit underrated in the Image stable. I know I'll be reading from this point on. Horror fans who appreciate carefully crafted visual storytelling really need to jump on this one. I wish I'd done so sooner.

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