Who among us doesn’t enjoy a little of the ol’ ultraviolence? Well, lots of people, but it’s safe to say that none of them are going to be buying Ghost Box. It’s far too early in a review to resort to a clever reiteration of the weathered ‘for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like’ maxim, but that’s where this book takes you from pretty much the first page to the last. It’s one of those comics that stubbornly resists critical assessment by the mere dint of description: while melvins like us scrabble about with highfalutin theory and subtle discourse about how things aren’t always about the thing that they’re about, Ghost Box is unabashedly and uncontrollably what it is.
So, what is it? Well, like I said, describing it is really all you need to do to figure out whether this is something you’d be interested in or not. Do you like floridly, comically violent stories about conniving super-geniuses and Scooby Gang mysteries, goofball takes on the afterlife, and dead women having fistfights with each other until unknown forces steal their limbs? Would you describe yourself as the kind of person who is highly amused at sound effects, over-the-top splatter, and things you would describe as “random”? Is the idea of a comic book shouting at you appealing? If so, then buy this thing posthaste.
Perhaps, on the other hand, you are like me, and your excitement about Ghost Box began with you thinking it might be somehow related to the British music label that is home to the Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly, and it ended with you discovering that it wasn’t. Perhaps you expected something more allusive from the title other than it being about ghosts who box. Perhaps you found it meandering, poorly plotted, invulnerable to even its own internal logic, full of flat characterizations, and crammed with ideas that are never fully realized or even interestingly developed. If that is the case, then there’s a new Pye Corner Audio album out that I think you’d really enjoy. I did!
Ghost Box first saw the light of day last year with a successful Kickstarter, and it’s now making its way to direct sales via Frank Comics, the imprint run by its creators, artist John Pading and his co-writer Shigeharu Kobayashi. It’s a quasi-sequel to their 2012 book Princess Calabretta, with which it shares not only characters and DNA but a hyperactive mélange of pop culture influences. Pading’s art style is vivid and cartoony, and while it’s not the most accomplished, it’s very well suited to the material, which benefits from the kinetic, colorful nature of his work. The script, on the other hand, is rather a mess: ideas come and go, events explode and spill over with no real rhyme or reason, and most of the appeal of the narrative comes from the fact that it throws its story developments, such as they are, at you with such wildfire rapidity that you give in to its admittedly good-natured energy more or less out of exhaustion.
If I sound like a killjoy with this thing, I don’t mean to; I would throw in my normal caveat that I don’t think I’m Ghost Box’s intended audience, but I’m not exactly sure who is. It’s far to grotesque and gory to be for kids, and while there’s a persistent and slightly bewildering mood of niceness to it, it doesn’t really feel like a young adult book either, lacking as it does any real emotional heft or hugging-and-learning moments. It’s a book for grown-ups in name if not in nature, and it toys around with ideas like immortality, the afterworld, and planetary apocalypse as if they were, uh, toys. It’s got genuine moments of excitement, and while its pace suffers from the overall incoherence of trying to load a whole bunch of stuff into a story that doesn’t really know what to do with it all (at 200 pages and a $24 price tag, it’s a lot of bang for a lot of bucks), it never relents and always keeps readers on their toes.
Part of the problem is that the main characters don’t really give you much to latch on to. The boxing rivals, Shu Tong and Calabretta, aren’t especially interesting; none of the minor characters are particularly consistent, either, which hurts the comedy, since no one has a personality memorable enough to generate laughs. The story keeps throwing one idea after another in an attempt to conjure wackiness, but nothing is explored deeply enough to make for a sensible premise, and the way that Pading and Kobayashi keep lampshading the silliness with offhanded metacommentary doesn’t work either, because it’s not clever enough to be funny and just comes across as an attempt to put a patch on how nothing in the book ever really comes together. Even the ghost boxing, which gives the book its firecracker momentum, eventually starts to seem padded, and while it’s true that you’ll never see the end coming, it’s not a surprise with a lot of payoff, because there’s basically no stakes and you aren’t given any information that – well, I could probably just end the sentence there. Ghost Box is a book brimming with ideas, but it’s also a testament to how just coming up with a fun or funny idea and putting it on the page isn’t really enough.
Ghost Box is riding a wave of high-energy, amped-up indie comics that rely on rapid-fire gags and ridiculously parodic violence for their appeal, but even with all that’s going on here, it’s forgettable once you close the book. Without a solid framework to build around, with forgettable design and familiar art and a Mendoza-like ratio of gags to payoffs, it’s like watching one of those old bouts with Mike Tyson where he’d destroy his opponent in 45 seconds: it’s not that there wasn’t anything impressive going on, but you're still left with the feeling that you didn’t quite get your money’s worth.