By: Frank J. Barbiere (story), Chris Mooneyham (art), Lauren Affe (colors)

The Story: Even paradise isn’t free from ghosts.

The Review: My favorite thing about this series, and my favorite thing about the old-school, action-adventure comics in general, is the eagerness to travel.  I don’t know why, but too often superheroes have a tendency to stick to their home base.  Even when they venture off elsewhere, we seldom get an opportunity to sink ourselves into these new settings and experience all their possibilities.

Here, we’ve followed Fabian through a Nazi-infested castle in Austria, a temple of spider-gods in Africa, and now to the mystic city of Shangri-La.  The benefit of these place changes is it gives the story some clear momentum, using Fabian’s environment to accentuate the pace and development of what’s happening to him.  Whereas the Austrian castle and African temple provided different kinds of suspense (the former slow and subtle, the latter frantic and bold), Shangri-La offers our hero a measure of eerie peace, the better to engage in exposition with.

It really is a long bit of exposition we get in this issue, but most of it gives Five Ghosts some measure of originality beyond being simply a pulpy pastiche.  We’ve all wondered at this concept of “literary ghosts,” and now we get some answers as to where they come from: “a collective unconscious…a human Dreaming where all creativity and fiction lies.”  To make such dreams crystallize and take shape in the real world, one needs a (the?) “Dreamstone,” shards of which have apparently integrated into Fabian’s body.

All very interesting, of course, but you have to wonder if this concept will have any deeper meaning beyond its practical functions for the story. Five Ghosts isn’t The Unwritten; it doesn’t have to make some point about the nature of fiction.  It’s fine if Barbiere’s semi-spiritual musings on story and myth will, in the Joe Kubert fashion, remain couched in the most vague, general terms, but it would give this series even greater weight if he expressed a specific point of view on the matter instead.

We could extrapolate some kind of point from the fact that stories channeled into the physical world through a Dreamstone tend to possess those who happen upon them.  Both Zhang Guo and Fabian came by their stones not by any noble ambition, but in seeking adventure, glory, and wealth.  Zhang Guo paid the price by having his former identity “washed away,” and we’ve seen the costs on Fabian.  They’re both possessed by story to a certain degree, which begs the question of whether they’re really acting of their own accord anymore, or by the mandate of their narratives.  After all, Zhang Guo hasn’t expressed a practical reason for helping Fabian; he seems compelled to do it by the Dreaming itself.

If Mooneyham had been channeling the spirit of the Kubert-era comics before, he really immerses himself in that style with this issue.  Nowhere is that more clear than in the title pages, which, in contrast to your usual double-page splashes, is rendered in portrait, rather than landscape, orientation.  With its breathtaking depiction of an airship sailing towards the peak of Shangri-La, a city of pagodas impossibly amidst on wooded and snowy peaks, waterfalls streaming from its sides, it looks more like a newspaper page, a travel poster, a cover to an irresistible pulp novel.  Affe continues to embrace a mono/duo-chrome color scheme throughout the issue, although she adds so many wisps and splashes of varying hues that the imagery still has plenty of personality.

Conclusion: The story keeps up its pace of old-fashioned excitement, and adds some interesting plot developments on top of it.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Whatever happened to the second of Zhang Guo’s lady-servants?  I didn’t see her get possessed and slain.

– Given how fractured Sebastian’s glasses are, I’m surprised they’re still intact.  Must be some mighty powerful glue holding them together.