Saturday 19 February 2022

Race, gender, and 1990s comic books 3: Ghost

Malcolm Svensson asked for more of these, so blame him for this. Previous posts on Shi and Warrior Nun Areala here and here.

Ghost was part of the same wave of comic book action heroines that gave rise to Warrior Nun and Shi. She slightly predates them both, first appearing in 1993, but her story proper began with the 1994 Ghost Special: her comic was then published almost-monthly by Dark Horse until 2000. Like Shi she appeared in 65-odd issues overall, but her stories were much less fragmented, tending towards long-arc storytelling reminiscent of the better sort of 1990s genre TV rather than a staccato rattle of throw-away miniseries. This post is mostly about the first 36 issues, which were written by Eric Luke.

Like Shi and Warrior Nun, Luke's run on Ghost is a story about wielding female power in a male-dominated world. Like them, it was written by a man; but unlike them, it initially took an openly and confrontationally feminist stance. Especially in its early issues, its heroine, Elisa Cameron, is very blunt about why the world is such a mess: it's because men are cruel, violent, and selfish, addicted to the power they wield over women, and her solution is to take them down one headshot at a time. Her targets are embodiments of exploitative patriarchal power structures: pornographers who pressure reluctant women into sex work, cult leaders who use religion to amass harems of female followers, sexually predatory businessmen who exploit their female employees, and cruel misogynists who get off on hurting and humiliating women. The cure is always the same: .45 calibre death. 

These days, people often get anxious about who has the right to tell which stories. There are certainly parts of Ghost that I suspect would have been done differently if it had been written by a woman: it can be a very male-gaze-y comic, with quite a lot of gratuitous female nudity, and it does feature an awfully large number of rape monsters. (In a particularly blunt bit of symbolism, at one point Elisa destroys a whole nest of rape-demons with the aid of a bottle of oestrogen.) At other times, though, Luke's perspective can be a positive asset: he clearly sympathises with the rage and pain of women, but he also understands something important about the ghastly force of male desire, depicted here not as some kind of accidental and easily fixable social quirk but as something horrible, primordial, and endlessly destructive. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's powerful stuff.

Ghost has a superb hook: a woman wakes up amnesiac, invisible and intangible in a bathroom, concludes she must be a ghost, and decides to solve the mystery of her own death. As following the trail leads her to one scene of injustice after another, she becomes not just a ghost but a vengeful revenant, cutting a bloody swathe through the evildoers who plague the city of Arcadia. She's terrifyingly powerful: she can control the tangibility of both her own body and whatever she's currently touching, allowing her to, for example, render her bullets solid while her body remains untouchable, or to grab someone, ghost them, push them inside a wall while they're intangible and weightless, and then let go, causing them to die messily as they rematerialise inside a solid object. But even though she can kill almost anyone, she's a complete outsider when it comes to the hidden power structures of the city. It takes her twenty-five blood-soaked issues to gradually murder her way to the truth about what is actually going on in Arcadia, and even longer to solve the mystery of her own origins.

Given the level of carnage that gets meted out in every issue, with Elisa regularly mowing down whole rooms full of men at a time, the comics very wisely make no attempt to present Arcadia as a credible American city, the kind of place where ordinary people might live and work and raise families. Exaggerated urban decay was standard in comics of this era, but Luke's run on Ghost goes much, much further, depicting Arcadia as a Gothic Art Deco hellscape of perpetual night: a kind of stylised Film Noir nightmare world in which violence is omnipresent, life is cheap, and everyone is either a criminal or a victim. (The artwork of Adam Hughes in the early issues does a great deal to define Arcadia's visual identity in this respect.) Several of Elisa's battles involve the destruction of entire city blocks, but no-one seems to care, or even really notice. Apparently Arcadia is the kind of place where a demon can crash a blimp into a skyscraper and everyone will just shrug and get on with their day. 

The airships and the Art Deco architecture, like the 1940s fashions that so many of the male characters seem to wear, serve to anchor Ghost more in the world of pulp fiction than that of conventional superheroics. Elisa's costume owes as much to 1940s 'good girl' art as to modern superhero design, and when it's revealed that the city of Arcadia was originally built by a GLOBAL CRIME CONSPIRACY as cover for an UNDERGROUND CRIME CITY built around a SECRET CRIME MACHINE - a plotline that wouldn't have been out of place in Doc Savage - it feels like a logical extension of what's come before, rather than a random asspull. (In fact, my reaction on reading the relevant issue was: 'OK, that explains so much about this place...') Elisa's twin .45 pistols are an obvious homage to The Shadow, but whereas the pulps 'explained' crime in terms of individual psychopathy or racial degeneracy, Ghost depicts it as an expression of masculinity gone berserk. A city of phallic towers ruled over by violent, abusive criminals is, for Ghost, the logical result of a society in which men think less with their brains than with their dicks.

By far my favourite part of Ghost is the way that it plays on the symbolism of this 'nightmare city' material. Elisa frequently waxes lyrical about her sense of connection to the city, the way that she experiences it as her shadow or reflection, and this connection works on at least two levels. On a personal level the city is a reflection of Elisa herself, mirroring her pain and trauma back at her: it's full of crime and violence because her mind is full of crime and violence, meaning that these are the only parts of the city she is capable of seeing. But on a collective level she mirrors it: she's the city's ghost, the composite ghost of Arcadia's innumerable anonymous victims, risen from their graves and back for blood. (Her amnesia means that she identifies less with the person she once was than with the city in general.) There's an awful lot of as-above-so-below symbolism: Elisa literally has a version of the city inside her head that she uses for teleportation purposes, while the 'real' city outside is terrorised by a demon who escaped from Elisa's subconscious, a demon who embodies everything that she hates and fears about men. When it turns out that, for example, Arcadia is the way it is because it is inhabited by a giant psychic envy monster whose tendrils grow inside the walls of every building, or because it is secretly ruled by a man with the psychic power to induce suicidal despair, these figures are simultaneously wholly symbolic and entirely literal. This wasn't new ground: back in 1989, Morrison's brilliant Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth had already made explicit that Gotham is Batman, Arkham Asylum is Batman's head, and all Batman's fights with his villains double as metaphors for his struggles with his own worst urges and deepest fears. But it's still pretty well done, and the moment where Elisa is given the key to the city by a hundred-year-old PSYCHIC CRIME SOLDIER and rises up into the sunlight, finally transcending her own inner darkness, had me grinning from ear to ear. 

As the comic goes on, and Elisa faces down her literalised inner demons one after the other, she gradually mellows out. She goes from avenger of the dead to champion of the dispossessed, toning down her anti-male rhetoric as she does so. In some ways I found this a bit of a disappointment, as the earlier issues gain a lot of their strength from the clarity of Elisa's feminist anger, but it obviously came as a relief to many of the comic's male readers, who were writing in from very early on expressing their hopes that Elisa would calm down and realise that #notallmen are rotters. It also allows her to gradually escape the 'strong female character' box she's initially trapped in, within which - like many other 1990s antiheroines - the only way to be strong and female is by actually embracing a kind of parodic ultra-masculinity, communicating entirely through violence and feeling no emotions other than rage. (See the earlier issues of Witchblade and Fallen Angel for more examples of the type.) All Elisa's complaints about the stupidity of male violence, and the absurdity of men clinging to their guns to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy, look a bit hypocritical when her own go-to problem solving technique is 'shoot everyone to death forever'. It's thus probably for the best that she's ultimately able to develop beyond it, tapping into empathy as well as rage, even if the comics do lose some of their edge as she does so.

The elephant in the room is the way that Elisa's militant feminism collides with the very male-gazey fanservice of the art direction. Elisa may talk like a particularly angry Riot Grrl, but she dresses like a showgirl - much to the perplexity and irritation of the comic's female readers, who quite reasonably wanted to know why its man-hating heroine insisted on fighting in high heels. Nor was she alone: this was a comic that featured a lot of fanservicey character designs and nearly-naked women, including supposedly 'empowered' characters like Mindgame, a female psychic whose teammates apparently couldn't come up with a better way to keep her from injuring herself during her trances than tying her up in leather bondage gear, complete with a ball-gag. At times this lends the comic a queasy sense that it's trying to have its cake and eat it: Elisa gets to take down creepy misogynist villains like Hunger and Reverend Scythe, but only after the reader's had a good chance to ogle at the debasement of their female victims, who very frequently include Elisa herself. Some of this may have been editorial mandate, based on the desire to drive sales - the editor admitted to having been the one behind Elisa's footwear choices, for example - and one reader mournfully wrote in to describe Ghost as 'a well-written comic [...] that can only survive by the grace of the lead character's cleavage'. But it remains an uncomfortable fit for a series whose heroine holds a special contempt for pornographers, and who repeatedly critiques the way that media objectifies women. In issue 30 a villain demands that Elisa engages in a 'sexy nurse' striptease for him, a process that she finds so degrading and destructive to her sense of self that she freaks out and shoots him, instead. But as he himself points out, he's not asking her to do anything all that different to what her costume does for her every issue.

Interestingly, Dark Horse assigned a female staff member, Debbie Byrd, to answer the letters columns for most of Luke's run on Ghost, making very clear that they did so because they wanted the comic to have a female 'voice'. Debbie steadfastly defended the comic's feminist politics, and sometimes poked fun at it's sillier aspects (like Elisa's costume), but her role sometimes put her in the awkward position of also having to defend things that didn't make much sense, like the issue in which Elisa is magically able to defuse an apparently hopeless situation by kissing another woman. (The amount of lesbian queerbaiting in 1990s comics was incredible.) Her position, as a woman defending a woman written by a man, feels somehow symbolic of the whole situation. Ghost was a comic that supported women in every way other than letting them actually draw or write it. 

Race-wise, Elisa inhabits a world that is, for the most part, as snowy-white as her costume - probably partly because it takes so many of its cues from 1940s film noir, where non-white people scarcely exist. On the plus side, this meant that the reflexive Orientalism that ran rampant through so many contemporary series is absent here, and Arcadia may well have the lowest ninja-to-civilian ratio in all of 1990s comics. Interestingly, though, one of Elisa's closest allies - and the man who first starts her on the road to wondering whether not all men are bastards - is King Tiger, an Asian martial arts mystic who assists her many times over the course of her story. Despite his decency and ethnicity he's not desexualised, prompting one Asian female reader to write in in issue 29:

And thank God, finally, an Asian-American superhero (Okay, so he still does the stereotypic Asian mystic stuff). And he gets the girl, too!

It all makes a welcome change from the endless sexy Japanese ninja girls with whom most other 'bad girl' comics at the time were overrun. Sadly, King Tiger - like most of the comic's character's - got thoroughly wrecked when Ghost changed hands.

Eric Luke's run on Ghost lasted for one special plus 36 issues, of which issues 1-25 were the best. After that it passed into the hands of other writers, who ditched everything that made the comic distinctive, including its feminist themes and its Deco-Gothic aesthetics. Soon it was just another 'action girl' comic book, full of boobs and gunfire, signifying nothing. But for a few years at the start it was genuinely something pretty special.

Next in line: Witchblade!


  1. I'll never read those comics. But I'll read this!

  2. I don't have much to comment on this one, other than I'm still enjoying this series, and that the whiplash of going from your description of what sounds like a fascinating comic to the first image of her costume was honestly hilarious. Still, despite the... questionable artistic choices, Ghost strikes me as something worth reading, if I get the chance. Up until it goes bad, at least, but that's just par for the course for most indefinitely-written comics.

    1. Thanks! I think it's worth reading up to issue 25, at any rate. Then issues 26-36 if you're really enjoying it. Everything past that just undermines what's come before.

      The costume is a shocker, isn't it? In one issue the editor actually complained that female readers tended to reject the series based on the way it looked, even though they often enjoyed it if/when they started reading it. To which I could only think: 'Gosh, I wonder what could POSSIBLY have put them off?'

      The series was rebooted in 2012, with a female writer and a *much* more sensible costume. What I've read of it was pretty good, but lacks the slightly crazed intensity of the 1993 original!