Comics Watch: Could 'Black Ghost' Fill the Void Left by Netflix's 'Jessica Jones'?
Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big (and small) screen.
There are few narratives as compelling as a good mystery, and comic books were founded on such storytelling devices. From the heroes of the past like The Shadow to contemporary detectives like Jessica Jones, the noir-influenced mystery has existed as a throughline across the history of pulp magazines and comic books. The series at the center of this week’s Comics Watch manages to blend the pulpy sensibilities of the '30s with the inclusivity of modern superhero comics. The Black Ghost, a comiXology Original, by writers Alex Segura and Monica Gallagher, and artist George Kambadais, sees the release of its third issue today on the digital comics platform. The five-issue series, which got on the radar when The New York Times named it a comic to watch back in August, follows alcoholic crime reporter Lara Dominguez as she obsessively tracks a masked vigilante known as The Black Ghost. But when a tragedy occurs, Lara’s life spirals out of control and she finds herself at the center of a larger conspiracy that could either give her new purpose or leave her for dead.
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What’s most engaging about The Black Ghost is its central character, Lara. While there are obvious, and what seem to be intentional parallels, between Lara and popular characters like Lois Lane and Jessica Jones, Lara offers her own unique brand of gravitas and personal baggage that make her search for meaning all the more interesting. Lara’s journey so far is, in many ways, an issue-by-issue commentary on the evolution of the comic book hero from hard-hitting detective to a flawed but well-intentioned vigilante, and perhaps, if she survives, an evolution to an inspirational figure — a full-on superhero. But this transition isn’t one that’s entirely driven by Lara’s own impulses. She stumbles from role to role in search of an identity, and an attempt to hold onto something, an impossibility for her following the death of her brother and tragic earlier life in Miami. There’s an interesting tug of war between agency and fate in The Black Ghost. Despite Lara’s own interests in The Black Ghost, who has become a source of inspiration for her, she is also pulled further into his realm by her cyber-informant, Lone, and her night school student, Ernesto. Simultaneously, her boss, her old friend Kelly, and her alcoholism, seek to pull her in other directions. The result is a particularly destructive cocktail befitting a classic gumshoe.
Segura, a crime novelist and the co-president of Archie Comics, brings a grounded realism to The Black Ghost, and to its setting of Creighton, a city undermined by political corruption and drug trafficking. Closer to The Question’s Hub City than Batman’s Gotham, Creighton feels only one step removed from reality. Gallagher, who also co-writes the scripted podcast series Lethal Lit with Segura, brings the kind of complex inability to deal with trauma to Lara that has become something of a pastiche for male noir and neo-noir characters, but still feels fresh and novel through a female lead. And Kambadais’ artwork, which is highly akin to animation in style, lends the story a unique visual sensibility that feels modern and helps balance some of the darkness of the story. While only three issues in, The Black Ghost has a strong sense of structure, and the character-driven serialized format seems tailor-made for television.
The success of Jessica Jones, and Veronica Mars before it, has proved there is a desire for complicated female investigators with a large cast of supporting characters. With both of those shows concluded, there’s room for a new hard-boiled heroine with a strong personality, and an appreciation for witty comebacks, naturally. The Black Ghost not only has those elements, but also a gay Latina lead who can offer a different perspective from what we’ve seen before, both in terms of detectives and superheroes. That superhero element, which Jessica Jones existed on the fringes of, but outside of a costume, feels stripped down to its core: a question of functionality in a world devoid of other costume heroes, superpowers or villains in masks. There’s no word yet if The Black Ghost will continue beyond its five-issue series, but it certainly feels like part of a larger narrative and an ongoing conversation about legacy, not only in terms of the transition from pulp hero to superhero, but the legacy of political affiliations, criminal backgrounds and how the wealthy can devour a city without ever knowing it.
The Black Ghost feels like the kind of story that could fit neatly within The CW lineup, blending both pulp sensibilities alongside contemporary social concerns of millennials who found themselves in a world without heroes and thus had to struggle to become their own. Segura’s work at Archie Comics has certainly made a major impact on The CW with Riverdale and the upcoming spinoff Katy Keene, and the network has become home to a myriad of comic book properties that show the versatility of the format. Discussions about rebooting pulp heroes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Zorro for television crop up every year. Yet, The Black Ghost feels like a way to honor those appealing elements of the past while relying on the forward motion and originality that show why these stories still matter today and how they work in conversation with the current popularity of superheroes. The Black Ghost bridges the gap between comics past and present, and that’s something that feels unique and timely.
by Lesley Goldberg