By Doug TenNapel
272 pages, color
Published by Graphix/Scholastic Books
Doug TenNapel is a cartoonist that I have a small (very small) love/hate relationship with, in terms of his work. More often than not, I’ll find myself enjoying his book up until the conclusion, at which point everything falls apart. His book Flink three years ago evoked a strong enough reaction that I decided it was time to stop buying his books for a while. And then, unbidden, Ghostopolis showed up in my mailbox. If this wasn’t a good sign that it had been long enough that I should take another look, well, there probably wouldn’t be a better one.
On the plus side, Ghostopolis is probably one of TenNapel’s strongest to date in terms of world-building and ideas; only his big debut of Creature Tech stands out more as being so chock full of ideas and situations that I found myself instantly warming to them. In the case of Ghostopolis, it’s actually a fairly simple setting—a transitional underworld of dead spirits and lots of strange creatures—but TenNapel populates it with large groups and sects of different types of spirits and monsters to make it more than just the traditional Limbo/Purgatory type setting. We enter Ghostopolis through a sequence set on Earth, where TenNapel introduces the Supernatural Immigration Task Force and Frank Gallows, a hapless investigator who sends wayward spirits back to Ghostopolis. His accidental sending of terminally ill kid Garth Hale into the afterlife allows TenNapel to impart exposition to the reader, explaining his setting as well as the dangers ahead for Garth.
From there, though, TenNapel mixes all sorts of elements into the book. There’s the rekindling of a romance between Frank and his ghost ex-girlfriend Claire Voyant (who isn’t actually clairvoyant, making the pun that much more painful), a meeting between Garth and his deceased grandfather who never had truly grown up, and a second civil war about to break out among the different tribes of Ghostopolis thanks to a manipulative leader. Ghostopolis is a book for teens, so there’s a lot of "finding yourself" messages packed into the book, but with a healthy dosage of adventure and excitement. And up until about the 80% mark of the book, I think it succeeds quite well.
Unfortunately, TenNapel’s endings are still a disappointment compared to what leads up to them. It’s not throw-the-book level bad, but it’s still a big letdown compared to the rest of the title. The major problems held by the characters of Ghostopolis are all dismissed with such ease that it feels like a massive cheat. This is after a huge climactic battle that also largely comes out of nowhere, so expectations at this point are already down. TenNapel still manages to make that look not so bad, though, as each of the obstacles are tossed aside with such indifference that it feels almost like TenNapel doesn’t have enough respect for his readers to give them a solid and substantial ending. For a book that almost hits 300 pages, having everything resolved in the last 15 pages and in such a blaisé manner is a bit much.
Happily, TenNapel’s art is still strong, with its sharp angular bodies and slightly goofy expression. Ironically it’s his drawings of a nightmare (a skeletal horse) that charmed me the most; for such an expressionless creature, TenNapel brings it to life better than just about anything else in Ghostopolis. That’s not to say the other characters don’t look good, though. Frank’s hangdog expression is amusing, and Claire manages to look cute and sexy in a full-length jumpsuit thanks to her expressions and curls of hair. In the end, it helps ease the overall feeling of disappointment with Ghostopolis.
I wanted to love Ghostopolis, and while I think he’s definitely improved since Flink, the ending is still problematic. I’m not sure if TenNapel simply runs out of space, or if he feels that such a fast (and slightly cheating) conclusion is a good idea, but either way it ends the book on a somewhat sour note. If he could work on that aspect of his comics, I could get behind him all the way. For now, it’s a cautious recommendation, with the understanding that sooner or later as you approach the ending, know that disappointment will arrive.