No matter how skilled the author, the quality of his output will usually falls in a predictable range. The law of averages demands that most work be, well, average. A few pieces might land lower and some creep higher, but over time one can generally accurately estimate an oeuvre. Makes reading and writing sound pretty dull, doesn't it? Fortunately, outliers exist, rare birds that pop up every once in a while to startle with their awfulness -- or their excellency. And Ghostopolis stands out as just one such black swan in the canon of quirky graphic novelist Doug TenNapel.
A kid is all that Garth Hale may ever be. Afflicted with a fatal disease, he spends his days carted from doctor to doctor by his longsuffering mother, searching for a cure that may never come. As bad as that sounds, it's only the start of Garth's problems. Like most of us, he has little awareness of the world beneath ours, an uneasy afterlife populated with skeletons and mummies, zombies and goblins, and -- most noteably -- spirits of the departed. This is Ghostopolis, a strange and macabre city that the Supernatural Immigration Task Force tries very hard to keep separate from the everyday goings-on of Earth. Not that it helps with bumblers like Frank Gallows on the payroll. Slovenly and unambitious, Frank loves to cut corners while chasing ghosts who are trying to escape the abode of the departed. But his latest bit of sloppiness goes beyond the pale. While dispelling a feisty nightmare, Frank accidentally banishes Garth to the afterlife, a place unfit for any living boy, no matter how ill. Now both of them will need to brave not only ghouls and gremlins, but also the ruler of Ghostopolis, a tyrant named Vaughner with a very personal grudge against Frank.
Regular readers of TenNapel will find familiar material, such as intentionally outrageous puns and gleefully silly scatological references. Yet Ghostopolis displays a subtlety absent some of his other work. Between fart jokes and the introduction of Miss Claire Voyant (rimshot), achingly beautiful fantastic landscapes appear and TenNapel plants plot seeds that later sprout unexpectedly. It's particularly fun to watch him play with time in the afterlife, shifting characters about in age and therefore avoiding pitfalls that could've tripped up lesser writers. Ghostopolis has an imaginative reach to it that reminds me of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, full of unbounded imagination that attends to tiny details. Skeletal pterodactyls scud across a night sky. A mummy child purchases skull-faced balloons from a vendor. A werewolf lovingly brews a pot of eyeball tea. Most interesting to me was an enigmatic Tuskegee airman named Joe who supposedly built the entirety of Ghostopolis and its surroundings with his very own nail-scarred hands. Later, Garth discovers a parade of crippled, maimed and poor stumbling through a rent Joe tore in the afterlife itself. "Not so fast, Garth," a skeletal monarch says when the boy tries to dash through. "The children, the widows, and the infirm go first. You'll have to wait in line for a few millennia." TenNapel has never been shy about his Christianity, but it's nice to see him incorporating it in ways that should please the orthodox and unbeliever alike. All around, Ghostopolis is hauntingly good.
(Picture: CC 2008 by AMERICANVIRUS)