By Doug TenNapel
The line between comics for kids and adults is often a fine one, indeed. Perhaps to some degree it’s a side effect of that resilient conceit that comics are meant largely to be consumed by younger readers, but the phenomenon is far more widespread than just the confines of our humble medium. Not too long ago, I spoke to someone in publishing about the surprisingly open exchange of titles between the worlds of mainstream and YA publishing. As books are published beyond the borders in which they were initially conceived, adult titles are often labeled YA and vice versa for their new audience.
There don’t seem to be too many hard and fast rules, so far as the distinction between the two are concerned (though I’m more than happy to be proved wrong by any experts out there with an itchy comment finger), but two parameters do spring to mind. The first and more obvious is the inclusion of “adult” content and language. Graphic sex, drug use, and blue language seem to largely be off limits in text for younger readers. Violence, on the hand, can usually go either way.
The other parameter, while again neither hard nor fast, is the age of the protagonist. Kids, it seems, love to read about kids—at least so far as the creators and presenters of their entertainment are concerned. Save for the occasional exception, like, say, certain horror movies and the work of Harmony Korine, stories with young leads seem to be largely targeted toward young audiences.
The ever-prolific Doug TenNapel seems to have gotten much of the former out of his system with 2007’s foul-mouthed sci-fi mafia comic, Black Cherry. As for the latter, TenNapel provides us with a young protagonist named Garth Hale. From the onset, however, it’s clear that, even with a younger audience in mind, the author isn’t pulling too many punches. Thirteen pages in, a doctor confirms what his tearful mother already knew—Hale is dying.
Of course, TenNapel isn’t going to let a little thing like a terminal child get in the way of a good adventure—in fact, it’s Hale’s mortality that serves as the springboard for Ghostopolis, after a botched ghost hunt propels the child prematurely into the world of the dead.
TenNapel paints the afterlife with big, sweeping strokes. It’s a little Ghost Busters, a little Wizard of Oz, with living dinosaur skeletons, giant bugs, and shape-shifting evil wizards thrown in for good measure. It’s almost as if the artist, certainly no stranger to Hollywood pitches, wrote the book with cinematic adaptation in mind. After a few pages, it should come as no surprise that the story was optioned to a major studio before the book even managed to hit store shelves.
In a sense, Ghostopolis feels like a book that dreams of being a movie, but thankfully TenNapel is a skilled enough storyteller that the comic, a proof of concept of sorts, is plenty entertaining in and of itself. It’s hard to imagine a young Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings-enamored reader who can’t find something to like in Ghostopolis’s supernatural adventures.
And while it’s easy to draw comparisons to a number of existing franchises, a number of unique touches keep the story fresh. There’s Hale’s rapidly-aging grandfather, who serves as a tourguide of sorts through the netherworld and a mysterious dead Tuskegee airman who may or may not be God. A skeleton horse named Skinny is a constant silent companion and sometimes savoir, and a bumbling ghost hunter and the ever-maligned Benedict Arnold provide comic relief of sorts on opposing ends of the battle.
But even with such a wide cast of characters, Hale remains the focus of the book. After all, the mere presence of a young lead isn’t always enough for a kids book. Ultimately, there must be a sense of empowerment, which is why a fight against astronomical odds is such a popular trope. It’s an empowerment that’s certainly present in the page of Ghostopolis—something that not even an evil wizard or a pack of hungry velociraptor can stop.