7/4/11

"Ghostopolis" by Doug TenNapel

In “Ghostopolis” the relationship to the afterlife is slightly different than our own. Ghosts have a tendency to sneak back into the world of the living, and the living have the technology to visit the land of the dead. Agent Frank Gallows works for the Supernatural Immigration Task Force sending illegal ghosts back to the afterlife.  While working on a case of a skeletal stallion, he accidentally sends terminally ill teen Garth Hale to Ghostopolis, which his boss Lieutenant Brock deems “a real screwup.”  Fired from the force, Frank enlists the help of his ghostly ex-fiancée Claire Voyant and her barrier-breaking Plasmapod, a sort of hot-rod that can travel to the land of the dead, to find Garth and bring him back.  Meanwhile, Garth wanders the realm, encountering his grandfather, and learning about Joe, the mysterious Tuskegee Airman who created the world of Ghostopolis, and Vaugner, the Machiavellian ruler of the land.

The story has a lot of characterization, and the dialogue includes many kid-friendly jokes that are actually funny.  In one running joke, Benedict Arnold betrays himself as a traitor to both sides on multiple occasions. TenNapel shows his skill at comedic timing during the climactic fight scene when Vaugner asks “You know what I’ve got that you don’t?” In the next frame Garth replies “Diarrhea?”  The exchange is made even funnier because the two combatants are in the shape of giant battling buildings.

The book is about death, but death taken in a comforting way. Given that, I guess it’s no surprise that some Christian themes come through.  The airman Joe is a barely disguised version of God, and the crack into the next realm, beyond Ghostopolis could be seen as Heaven.  TenNapel has publicly written about using Christian themes in his works, and a story about the afterlife seems a pretty obvious place to discuss Christianity.  But for comparison, I found Ghostopolis less about Christianity than, for example, Aslan in the Narnia books by CS Lewis.  For the most part the points are integral to the story and don’t seem moralistic or preachy.

TenNapel seems to have had a lot of fun with the seven territories of the afterlife: the Specters, the Will-O’-The-Wisps, the Mummies, the Goblins, the Zombies, the Boogeymen, and especially the Bone Kingdom.  Dressed in Medieval armor garb, the Bone Kingdom reminded me of a perverse take on Prince Valiant.

The art is clean and comic, while moving toward realism when rendering the skeletons. I really enjoyed the scene where Garth and his nightmare are chased through the woods by the remains of velociraptors.  Some reviews I’ve read complained about the coloring, but the addition of color seems to bring out the drawings where black and white might have been overly dark.

A truly great story, however, must have a truly great antagonist. In Ghostopolis, Vaugner turns out to be a tragic figure, but only in the final act.  The extent of his powers, motivations and history is shrouded by the author until this time, and that weakens the character, leading to a slightly weaker story. In my opinion Vaugner would have been more tragic, more daunting if I’d known more about his motivation earlier. Also, his powers seem inconsistent: from atop his office building he’s able to detect and pinpoint Garth’s position in Ghostopolis. Later, however, he’s unable to find the boy in a slightly crowded street.  Also, his bug henchmen start out threatening, but end up comic.  Vaugner as a villain seems a bit arbitrary, weakening the story.

Bottom line, “Ghostopolis” is a fun read, with interesting characters, a rich landscape of the afterlife, and a satisfying conclusion. I’d recommend it to any student from 3rd to 8th grade – and adults will probably enjoy it too.  Ghostopolis was nominated "Best Publication for Teens" for the 2011 Eisner Awards.  Doug TenNapel's website is http://tennapel.com/comics.html. A movie version of Ghostopolis is listed on IMDB as “In development” for 2013.
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