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 (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.

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