Campus Ghost Story

When I was in college, there sure as heck weren’t zombies, ghosts, and incredibly beautiful people having a bunch of sex with each other. Okay, at least there weren’t a lot of zombies and ghosts.

Filmmaker Quentin Lee has teamed up with artist John Hahn to write and illustrate an online graphic novel entitled Campus Ghost Story. Both Asian American, Lee and Hahn have set out to create a “fun and sexy horror story” that “[at] the heart of it is about how young adults construct their identity and fear against issues of race, gender and sexuality”.

Since I’m y’know me, I pretty much jumped at the idea of a couple of Asian American creators making a comic book about race and gender. And who doesn’t love a good comic with sexuality, right?

So, since I’m sitting here at my desk waiting for tissue to digest (I won’t bore you with the science-y details), I decided to check out the 13-page preview of Campus Ghost Story (which, it seems, represents the first of eight chapters in the book).

The first 13 pages of CGS set the environment for the tale. The opening panel shows the college quad at night, dominated by a large clocktower which, as I assume, is really the focus of the piece. And I was immediately drawn into the world of CGS; I could swear to you that artist John Hahn was given pictures of my alma mater (Cornell University) at night from which to draw his inspiration. Although, to be fair, Cornell’s clocktower isn’t (at least to my knowledge) haunted by the ghost of a dead student wearing a hoodie.

The rest of the chapter introduces us to one of the three primary protagonists: red-haired Julian who is feeling overwhelmed by college. His best friend / roommate, pudgy and Asian American Mark, wants to ditch his nerdy past and hopes to pledge a frat so he can be cool, but Julian is totally not interested. Further complicating matters is the implication that Julian is gay, although it’s not clear if he’s out to himself (let alone to anyone else).

After (literally) running away from a hot topless guy in the men’s locker room (which, I gotta say, was a little – uhm – on the nose) Julian meets a handsome guy in a hoodie named Darren. Flirty, tense, Dawson’s Creek moment later, and cue the climactic scene we kind of all knew was coming from the get-go. I’ll leave it to you to read that part for yourself.

CGS is definitely noteworthy for the art, alone. I’ve never really seen Hahn’s work before, but the stark line art that he uses in CGS nicely complements the story’s stated sociopolitical themes; the style reminds me, in part, of mid-twentieth century political and propaganda posters. This effect is augmented by the colour palette, which is particularly well-implemented during the story’s “spooky” scenes. Despite a few awkward panels (particularly in the third page of the preview chapter), Hahn’s art is generally subdued, while simultaneously gorgeous.

And, I certainly do like that the story focuses on a gay male protagonist, where his “gayness” (so to speak) isn’t entirely central to the story. Yes, Julian is attracted to Darren, and appears to be ramping up for some serious “coming out” angst, but the story doesn’t spotlight Julian’s homosexuality in a hokey and over-done way. It’s also noteworthy that Lee chose to write a story that, at least from the preview pages, includes Asian Americans in its cast of characters but that doesn’t beat us about the head and shoulders — sledgehammer-style — with classic APIA tropes and archetypes (as too many minority comic book and filmmakers feel the need to do).

That being said, it’s also clear that CGS is Lee’s first foray into comic book writing. While the overall story appears to be interesting, there are issues of pacing and dialogue that appear clunky for the comic book page. Either the art (or the page design) are simply inadequate to communicate some of the subtle interactions between characters (a problem that betrays Lee’s background in film) while some of the initial pages of this preview chapter drag on in slow (and seemingly meaningless) interactions between Julian and supporting characters. Some panels are crowded with dialogue (particularly the early scene at the frat party); furthermore, very little of the speech is written in a comfortable, colloquial fashion that would be believable emerging out of the mouths of blonde, beer-guzzling frat Neanderthals. In fact, few of the characters (Julian’s friend Mark being a notable exception) speak with a unique voice at all.

Also, the feminist in me winces at the fact that of the four women in the first chapter of the book, two are (apparently) APIA, and yet both of them are depicted in sexualized contexts. I’m hoping that’s not an indication of how APIA women fare, in general, on Lee’s campus. 

Nonetheless, I will admit that some of my criticisms aren’t entirely fair: in all likelihood, the issues of pacing and characterization might be resolved if I were to read further into the book, and many of my other issues are nit-picky quibbles that would diminish as Lee’s experience in the comic medium increases.

Over all, I’m delighted to see the growing democratization of the comic book medium as more and more independent artists choose to use the comic book format to tell their stories, and (in the grassroots spirits of the Interwebs) publish their work online. And, I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of CGS to see how Lee tackles the issues of race, gender and sexuality; conceptually, the book has me hooked.

Certainly, to me, the most exciting preview of CGS came from the trailer video (which I’ve embedded above), which shows some truly stunning panels from Hahn, and which suggests that CGS has a lot more blood, gore, and sex to offer than the rather minimalist first chapter suggests.

Campus Ghost Story‘s website contains links for reading the free preview chapter, and you can download digital copies of the full book for an (extremely) reasonable fee over at NetComics.com (the whole thing would cost you less than $2.00). You can also buy the book in print at Amazon for your comic book collection.

Meme: the Comic Book version

Loren tagged me back to re-do the Influential Books meme in geek-form. He challenged me to unleash my inner geek. Well, I did and it isn’t pretty to let her spill out all over this coffee table like that. 🙂

(Incidentally, unlike Loren, I wasn’t able to find covers for all of these comics on the web. Probably because it’s 2 a.m. and what started out as a brief blogging bout to combat insomnia is quickly functioning to put me to sleep.)

1. One book that changed your life Generation X #1 – I didn’t own this comic, nor did I get a chance to read it more than once. And while it wasn’t the first comic I ever read or owned, it was one of my first exposures to contemporary comics and the wonderful world of superheroes as people I could relate to.

I read this comic when it was purchased by my high-school friend, and in it, I was introduced to a plethora of strong heroines who I could identify with, in some ways on a personal level and in others on a racial level. Here was a superhero team made up of characters not only my age, but my gender and even my physical appearance, with unique superpowers that might render them more monsters than mythos.

I gravitated to Jubilee and Husk, the latter because there was something awe-inspiring about a woman who transcended outward appearance to let the inner person matter (by literally removing her Aryan-looking skin). I never much cared for M or Penance, but Skin, Synch and Chamber were fascinating characters whose powers spoke volumes about their personal conflicts. Although I only got to see this comic briefly, it was enough to spark an interest in not only American comic books as a form of entertainment but as a medium for sociopolitical commentary.

Honourable Mention: The Death and Life of Superman by Roger Stern.

I know it’s not a comic book which is why it’s not the main entry, but I read this novelization multiple times as a child when I first became fascinated with superhero characters (specifically Superman and Batman). My parents would never have let me get away with buying comic books (they would have called it a waste of money) and most of my childhood comics consist of issues cajoled out of the nickel boxes at local garage sales, their covers falling off and out of context since, in most cases, I had a middle issue of an ongoing story arc. But through the Death and Life novelization, I became extremely familiar with superheroes and was able to explore the worlds of these characters, disguising my interest because I was able to borrow the novelization from the library and it looked thick so my parents assumed it had to be worth reading.

2. One book you have read more than once The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

It takes multiple reads to even begin to grasp this magnum opus by Frank Miller. Sure, he’s a sexist, borderline racist/Asiaphilic boob, but he sure could write a good Batman back in the day. (Note: we are ret-conning all stories in which Bats is forced to introduce himself as “the goddammed Batman” out of existence. Thank you for your patience.) Miller re-defined Batman, giving him a level of nuance that insisted we reconsider this character as more than just a nutjob in a cape. Batman has become, because of DKR, an exploration into the human psyche, and you only need to read the book a couple of times to realize that the strength of DKR is how we begin to see Batman as the kind of person we all could become, under the right circumstances.

3. One book you would want on a desert island: Watchmen by Alan Moore.

Talk about a complicated book, Watchmen is the kind of book you finish and immediately open to the first page again and begin reading. It makes DKR look like child’s play. Plus, if you ever feel like you finally get a good grasp of what Moore was trying to communicate in Watchmen (which you never will), you could always use the pages of the graphic novel to start your own signal fire.

4. One book that made you laugh Young Justice: Sins of Youth, because there’s nothing funnier than all the adult superheroes in the world being turned into kids and all the kids being forced to babysit as adults. Impulse is hilarious, young Aquaman is hilarious, Batman as “Batboy” is hilarious — god, it just doesn’t end! Okay, the death of Tana Moon isn’t very funny, but that aside…

5. One book that made you cry The Outsiders #25 in which Indigo died in the arms of Shift. Yes, I know that Indigo was a minor character and she had just gone all villainy and stuff, but that comic just played the heartstrings like a Fender Stratocaster. For some reason, I was practically sobbing by the end.

6. One book you wish had been written Grace Choi: the ongoing serial by anyone other than Judd Winnick. How awesome would that be?

7. One book you wish had never been written There’s so many in this category, it’s hard to pick one. But if I have to pick one, and only one, it would have to be Batgirl #??? (I only have this in graphic novel form) in which Cassandra Cain’s brain is rewired by a telepath so that she can speak.

I was really excited by Cass’ first introduction in comics as a martial artist whose language centres had been rewired to “speak” the language of martial arts. She would have presented a unique challenge to writers as the lead character of a comic book title, and I felt completely cheated that writers destroyed her character by ushering her comic title in by granting her the circumstances under which she would be able to communicate normally. It felt like such a cop out and I would’ve much preferred a title in which we could have explored Cass without her ever being able to communicate her emotions and feelings through conventional means of speech.

8. One book you are currently reading 52 by a bunch of people, Bite Club,Teen Titans, and Outsiders are all on my list of comics to buy on Wednesdays, if I can scrounge up enough money to get them all (usually I just get 52 and hope that I can find the rest as back-issues later, although lately I’ve had to put even 52 on hold). Things that have had to be put on hold until finances are more stable are CheckmateAll-New Atom and JLA.

9. One book you have been meaning to read Seven Soldiers of Victory in part because of Ragnell’s recommendation several months back. Also, From Hell by Alan Moore, which I hear is incredible.

10. Now tag five people! I tag anyone who reads this blog and has seen even a single episode of Justice League: Unlimited. Ha! That’d better be five people.