What a disappointment. Image comics has been a stalwart of quality in recent years, and with releases that include Saga, Wytches, We Stand on Guard, and East of West, there was reason to be, if not excited, at least hopeful. When Tokyo Ghost was announced, it seemed a clear winner from the start. The track record of Rick Remender, the man behind the script, has been exceptional. He has penned Venom, Uncanny Avengers, and, my personal favorite, Winter Soldier: Bitter March. In his past work, he has been able to offset heavier themes with a balanced amount of camp, a lightness of touch that sets him apart from lesser writers. Then, there is the art of Tokyo Ghost. Sean Murphy (Batman/Scarecrow, Sean of the Dead) is credited with inking the comic, and the result is a post-apocalyptic madness with all the fury and chaos of a Minor Threat vinyl pressing. This all sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately, none of it works.
Tokyo Ghost wants to be edgy. It REALLY wants to be a violent, in your face, “hide this shit from your mom” kind of edgy. The problem is, you can tell. It tries SO hard that it comes off as forced, even contrived.
Ghost’s story begins in Los Angeles, a handful of decades into the future. We are all strung out on the opiate of technological linkage–wi-fi, coaxial, HUD displays, tapped, dope-sick, zombified masses. It is a world where public life is the only life, a life lived online. The web is existence, and power resides in navigating and controlling its access. We follow our protagonists, Led Dent and Debbie Decay (names stolen from a late 1970s punk band, I’m sure) as they try to finish “one last job” as constables of the state, a state in competition with innumerable other “states” for resources. It is a world where criminals “play” people like video game avatars and consciousness needs no physical body but only the will to power. The premise is messy, but it is certainly there. If only Remender’s writing could manage it, Ghost might have turned out a brilliant commentary on our increasingly artificial cyber-existence.
At its best, Tokyo Ghost is incoherent. At its worst, it’s manipulative. Now, I’m not opposed to shocking or violent content. As any thoughtful critic knows, horror and the grotesque can be beautiful, contributing to the overall tone and unity of a work–what Edgar Allen Poe called the “single-effect.” And, Ghost’s images are violent. That said, the problem with Ghost is not its art. Murphy’s style–the dirtiness, the griminess–is a perfect match to the comic’s characters and setting. The problem is its random inclusion, its ecessiveness. It shows up at plot points where its least needed and rarely feels necessary to the movement of the story. It simply yells, “Look over here! Isn’t this disgusting? Cool, huh?” No, it’s really not. In an attempt to capture a sense of frenetic energy, the violence is amplified, randomized to a point that it becomes merely noise and wholly ineffective. Ghost’s level of violence should be shocking, but it’s not. It’s boring.
The sad part is this: Tokyo Ghost is not without flashes of brilliance. A short section of panels in issue #2 details the young lives of the central characters. Here, deeper themes–technological induced alienation, the brutality of youth, sexism and identity–are explored; however, the exploration lasts for no more than a page or two. Then, it’s gone. The relationship between Debbie and Led, also, has moments of honest sentiment. Debbie waxes affectionately to Led. She is searching for the boy he once was, a boy named Teddy, underneath the deranged cyber-junkie he’s become. That search is the emotional center of Remender’s tale, but it’s too little too late. In the end, Tokyo Ghost feels like someone at Image Comics said, “Saga is really popular. Write us another Saga.” Debbie Decay should stop looking for her love, Teddy, and start searching for her own comic to star in.
A couple of issues in, it is too early to call Tokyo Ghost a failure. Murphy’s art and hints of Remender’s past wit could bring it back from its rocky start. I rarely abandon a comic series until I’ve given it at least three tries. If #3 is as noisy, incoherent, and shallow as the first two installments, I’ll be moving on to something else. Maybe Saga has a new trade on the racks?