Ghost Book | Review
Writer/artist: Remy Lai
Henry Holt and Company; $14.99
In Ghost Book, accomplished cartoonist Remy Lai (Pawcasso, Pie in the Sky) takes inspiration from the myths and legends of the Chinese underworld, weaving a complex, layered life-and-death drama grounded in the various rules and superstitions of traditional beliefs.
Twelve years ago, psychopomps Horseface and Oxhead entered the local hospital, intent on escorting two lives to the Underworld. Thanks to a glitch in Death Register, the book that commands them who to take, and their own selfish deal-making with a desperate dumpling salesman, they only took one life, that of the pregnant, mom-to-be Sarah Liu. Her unborn daughter lived, as did a baby boy who hovered between life and death.
Now, it’s Hungry Ghost Month, when the gates of the underworld are thrown open and ghosts wander the living world, looking for something to eat. Sara Liu’s daughter, July Chen, has grown up to be highly unusual in two ways. First, she can see ghosts, thanks to her special “yin-yang” eyes, though she mostly ignores them, as ghosts aren’t supposed to exist. Second, for some reason, no one seems able to remember July for very long; not just her classmates and teachers, but even her dad seems to struggle with noticing her.
As for the boy, he currently appears to be a ghost, although he insists to July that he’s not dead; his body is just in a coma in the hospital, leaving his spirit to wander, ghost-like. He’s apparently been at death’s door more than once since he was a baby, having gained notoriety as the accident-prone “luckiest unluckiest boy William Xiao.”
When the pair meet and July makes an exception to her ignoring-ghosts rule to help him, they begin to learn how the rules of life and death were bent to keep them both alive, a course of events that the fearful, powerful underworld bureaucrat (and stickler for the rules) Heibai Wuchang seeks to correct. Together the kids must journey to the underworld itself in order to try to save both of their lives…despite the fact that the easiest way for one of them to live is for the other to die.
As high as the stakes are, Lai’s tale has an occasionally light tone, communicated in its opening scenes, in which her versions of Oxhead and Horseface appear as animal human hybrids that resemble nothing so much as classic cartoon characters, and their solemn marching-off of Sarah is undercut by a panel in which they reappear back in the hospital hall after having left, claiming, “Our bad, the Underworld is that way.”
Lai’s design-work for the ghosts throughout the adventure similarly uses two styles, scary (particularly for the Hungry Ghosts) and silly, for the more random ghosts that appear throughout; these generally don’t take the form of human-beings like William does so much as anthropomorphic animals and animated doodle-beings borne of a sketchbook.
Ghost Book, named after the notebook that William has kept on what he’s learned of the spirit world during a lifetime of almost-but-not-quite dying, is a charming adventure, making great use of an entire body of lore to inform its careful plot and intricate world-building.
Filed under: Reviews
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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