This July will mark the 20th anniversary of Dark Horse Comics’ Ghost Special, written by Eric Luke and drawn by Matt Haley. I’m not sure where the Ghost Special ranks in the annals of comic book history, whether Dark Horse or anyone else is remembering the first issue dedicated to this character (after the special the title ran from 1995-98 written by Luke, and was resurrected in 2012, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick). But the Ghost Special marked an unique milestone in my reading life. It came along at the right moment to leave a lasting imprint on my brain. One I think worthy of remembering on its 20th birthday.
In the first pages of the Special, Eric Luke establishes a direct conversation between Elisa Cameron, formerly a journalist, now an avenging ghost looking for her killer, and the reader. “I know all about you,” she says. “I know all about men. That should make you very nervous.” Breaking the fourth wall is not rare in comic books, and the convention itself is not particularly remarkable. But to the right audience–in this case a 13 year-old boy–hearing Elisa Cameron address you personally the way she does, that is striking.
“Let me tell you about how men treat women,” Cameron says as she leaves a room full of men she has just killed. “Men treat women like meat. Meat that gets slammed around.” At that point in my life, nobody had ever said anything quite like this to me. I had heard the message countless times before; but I had never heard it so directly, with so little emotion, and spoken with so much incrimination. And aimed directly at me. “Does that get you a little excited, to think about a woman like that? Sure it does.”
There’s not a great deal of depth in this conversation, to be sure. The juxtaposition of Elisa Cameron’s sexy-superhero image and Cameron’s words leaves little room for interpretation or misunderstanding. Luke’s objective was clear, and at 13 at least, powerful. Which is probably why I have such a detailed memory of reading this specific comic book. I remember sitting on the carpet, leaning against my bed, in my room on a summer afternoon. I spent those days skateboarding and playing Super Metroid, which was released that same summer and I played obsessively. I had picked up Ghost at Shinders a week or so earlier, and read it one day on a Metroid break.
Oh, to be 13.
I didn’t know it when I was 13, but the Ghost Special broke from the insular nature of comics that was so dominant in the 1990s. Those were days when the male fantasies of superhero comics were indulged at will, and mostly without consequence. That’s a generalized statement of course, but I think it stands. Superhero comics in the 1990s were dark and violent, and indulgent. At 13, that’s what I loved most about them. There are still a huge number of comic books in this vein today, of course, but there are also a great deal more breaking that mold, and countering the effects of indulgent fantasies in superhero comics. If such titles were there in the early ’90s I wasn’t reading them.
Which is probably why I can recall this issue of this book with more clarity than most. I hadn’t seen it before. Ghost indulged in the male fantasy of violence and sex and voyeurism, then shamed readers for enjoying the experience. Other stories operate on the same principal, indulging audience desires while incriminating the audience for their participation. But often that attempt fails, and the fantasy indulgence is all that comes through. This failure of embracing incrimination is true particularly of teenage boys, who have an amazing capacity for justification and avoiding culpability.
But even as a teenage kid, Eric Luke allows no room for this failure in the Ghost Special. We admit our guilt right on the page, over and over. Reading the Ghost Special again this week, I realize now how brilliant the conversation is between Elisa and the reader. Elisa, asking questions of her (male) audience that are meant to incriminate our fantasies, always answers her questions for us. And, regardless of our preference, we always answer yes.
“Do you like to watch?” Cameron asks, knowing that, as comic book readers, we indeed like to watch the very thing this book provides: a sexy woman doling out brutal violence. “Oh, come on. You know you do. That’s what the costume is all about.” How can one justify this away when the central object of our desire speaks directly to our lie?
I can’t say I learned life-long lessons that day reading Ghost, and improved my behavior towards the girls around me from that day forward. That would be a bit of a stretch. But I still remember the feeling of being shamed in comic books for indulging in comic books. And 20 years later, the Ghost Special is still incriminating and powerful, and moves me (perhaps nostalgically) to a similar response. I’ve outgrown my teenage indulgence (hopefully), but I still welcome being called-out on that impulse towards teenage male fantasy from time to time.