52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week.  Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.

Joshua Williamson is a creator who is perhaps more well-known for his creator owned comics than he is for doing “work for hire”.  Although he’s been in the industry since 2007, having worked for DC Comics here and there as well as a few smaller name publishers, it’s Williamson’s work over at Image Comics that he’s most well-known for.  Williamson is responsible for penning the horror hits Nailbiter, and Ghosted as well as the action/fantasy series Birthright.  It’s a rare but increasingly common trend in this industry today to see creators like Williamson who break in more because of their independent work than their work for one of the “Big Two” publishers but that makes it all the more worthwhile to highlight a fantastic talent like Williamson with one of these weekly challenge posts!

Ghosted Volume 1: Haunted Heist

Ghosted Vol 1Jackson Winters is a career criminal enjoying his retirement…in prison.  Known for pulling of many high-profile heists, Jackson is suddenly broken out of prison and hired by the wealthy Marcus Schrecken to execute one of the oddest heists of his career.  Marcus, a collector of rare and precious artifacts, tasks Jackson with stealing a ghost from a haunted house in return for his freedom and plenty of money.  Although initially reluctant, Jackson makes the sensible decision to steal the ghost for Mr.Schrecken.  Jackson quickly puts together an ace team for the heist, recruiting people from all walks of life, ranging for skeptics of the supernatural to petty magicians and even reality television “ghost chasers”.  Even with an oddball group assembled, Jackson still lacks the key element to the heist; a plan.  As the team begins to scope out the haunted house they quickly discover that this “simple” heist is much more than it’s cracked up to be, with Jackson learning that there are far more secrets to this house than he ever could have imagined.

If you’ve read along up until this point for my challenge, first of all I want to say thank you.  Secondly, I’m sure in some sense you have to understand just the sheer volume of comics I have to read within a week to keep this challenge functioning AND stay ahead.  It’s comics like Ghosted that make this challenge rather easy for me, showing me that enjoyable stories can come from some of the most unexpected places.  I’m a big fan of one of Joshua Williamson’s more well-known comic series, Nailbiter, and was excited to check out some of his other work starting with Ghosted.  What makes Ghosted so cool is how original the concept of this first volume feels with it being a horror heist story, easily comparing it to “Ocean 11 meets The Shining”, an apt comparison indeed once you finish reading.  It comes across in this story that Williamson understands what I believe is the most important aspect of comics, they need to be fun.  That doesn’t mean a story necessarily needs to be funny but it also doesn’t mean that a serious comic can’t be fun either.  A fun comic is just something you read and walking away having enjoyed and that’s exactly what Ghosted manages to do, being a series that deals with all kinds of strange, serious, and dark things but still ends up being an all around enjoyable read.

Ghosted Vol 1 interior 1Like I pointed out in the previous paragraph, presenting Ghosted as “Ocean 11 meets The Shining” is the perfect way to describe this series.  It has classic heist elements like a rundown of the handpicked team, the “game time” planning sequence and major plot points of the team hitting unexpected speed bumps that weren’t in the original blueprints.  Then Williamson injects the creepy feeling of a Stephen King story with the subject matter at hand, placing the heist inside of a haunted house with doorways to Hell and legions of irritated spirits.  You could remove the horror or heist element from the story and all around this comic would still hold up within whatever genre it would be left in after.  I’d even go as far as pointing out that if you removed any mention of ghosts from the first issue that it would be a near perfect opening for any other type of bank heist story.  On the other end of the spectrum, the creepiness of this series, coupled with this first arc being set in a haunted house, immediately reminded me of Joe Hill’s “Locke and Key”, which is nothing if not excellent.  The nature of the horror in this comic is definitely more about being chilling or disturbing than it is about being gruesome or gory, although there’s still a bit of gore in this one.  The true feat of this series is how well Williamson manages to blend the two concepts of creepy horror and thrilling heist together to largely satisfy the reader in five short issues.

Ghosted Vol 1 interior 2In being a heist/horror story, you get a fast, thrilling pace laced in with rising tension throughout.  This rings true during the entire plot of this collection as we go from the slow planning stages to the tense “stake out” phase before finally getting to see whether the team reaps the reward of completing a successful heist.  With the interjection of the horror element, the heist is so far from being a cut and dry job for the crew to achieve.  The biggest challenge the team faces is how to steal a ghost from the haunted house and with that comes a unique set of obstacles.  With an average heist story you’d have to account for things like guards who monitor the desired object, as well as tons of other pieces of security.  Then you need to worry about things like the getaway, the repercussions of getting caught, the division of the score and so on.  The horror element changes all of that, sprinkling in pieces that are unique to ghost stories and having them take places of these classic heist tropes.  Instead of guards you have evil spirits, the getaway is about surviving the experience, and beyond all this there are still unknown variables that contend with the goal at hand.  What this all equates to is a heist story that twists and turns at unexpected areas to give you a thoroughly compelling story.  In my mind the only true pitfall to the story is that it takes a few jumps to connect dots and doesn’t connect certain plot points together too cleanly.  Towards the ends of the story you get the sense that with another issue in the collection Williamson could have really delved more deeply into the history behind the haunted house and the spirits within it instead of rushing to wrap it all up.

One of the high points for this story is the cast that Jackson draws together for the heist.  Including Jackson, who is the mastermind of the heist, the team also consists of Oliver King, a “professional” skeptic, Robby Trick, a man who procures and sells rare objects, Jay and Joe Burns, “ghost hunters”, Edznia Rusnak, a medium, and Anderson Lake, a hired hand from Marcus Schrecken.  As Jackson highlights throughout, each character is there to bring something unique to the team.  Save for maybe one or two of the mentioned characters, Jackson’s assessment rings true, as nearly all of these characters have a somewhat important role to play in not only the heist but the overall story as well.  In terms of actual character progression, not much of it occurs to any of the characters besides Jackson Winters.  I can think of maybe one or two other characters that go through some form of growth or change but overall, it is the lead character in Jackson that goes through the most noteworthy of changes.  By volume’s end much more light is shined on the character’s mysterious past as a career criminal and you actually get to watch him start to move past some of the demon’s that plague him.  As a primary character, Jackson is already charming yet arrogant enough to be a likeable lead with Williamson putting some great bits of humour into his character.  You get a sense that Jackson is a womanizer, with some of the words that come out of his mouth being downright offensive, but it’s important to remember that the way the character speaks is an important wrinkle to his personality, highlighting that he’s still a scoundrel even if he’s the character you’re supposed to be cheering for.

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Collects: Ghosted #1-6.

Best Character: Jackson T. Winters.

Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption:  “What does Richie Rich want with little old me?” – Jackson Winters (*full disclosure, this is far from the best line.  All the really good ones are just far too inappropriate to post on this website*).

Best Scene/Moment:  Everything kicks off – Issue 5.

Best Issue:  Issue 4.  Issue four stands out because of all the interesting things that occur.  The team learns how to steal a ghost, discovers there’s a lot more to the haunted house, and a few members of the team go through some changes.  It’s just an all around intriguing penultimate issue for this first arc because of the number of fun plot pieces that come into play, all of which set up for a pretty fun finale.

Why You Should Read It:  You should read Ghosted because it’s a surprisingly enjoyable series.  It deals with some dark subject matter but still manages to be an incredibly fun comic.  Like I stated earlier on in the post, Joshua Williamson just gets it.  He understands that comics are supposed to be fun to read and don’t always need to be grim and serious although comics that do tackle that sort of stuff can still be enjoyable to read.  That’s exactly what Ghosted is at its core, a fun comic about stealing a ghost with all kinds of weird stuff going on in between.  It’s a great heist comic, a solid horror comic but a fantastic heist AND horror comic when the two are put together.  I’d readily recommend this to fans of Locke and Key or any sort of horror series that doesn’t need to be gruesome to be enjoyable.

Birthright Volume 1

Birthright Vol 1Can’t lie, writing an intro paragraph for Joshua Williamson is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.  I crammed all of the really accessible information on him into the intro paragraph above.  Since Williamson really started to emerge as a note worthy writer over the last year or two, information on him isn’t as bountiful as it is on someone like Frank Miller or Jim Starlin.  Nonetheless I’ll spin it in a personal manner and say that Williamson is perhaps one of the writers of whom I look most forward to when I hear he’s working on creator owned projects.  He’s a writer who almost seems born to make his own comics as all the ideas he brings to the table are truly unique and an absolute joy to read.

Aaron Rhodes takes his son Mikey out to the park as his wife and other son prepare a surprise birthday party for Mikey.  When Mikey chases a ball into the forest and doesn’t return, Aaron becomes worried and scrambles into the forest after his son.  Mikey can’t be found anywhere and becomes a missing child, much to the dismay of Aaron and the rest of his family.  A year passes that sees Aaron become an alcoholic, accused of murdering Mikey, and ultimately ends in the divorce between he and his wife, Wendy.  Everything changes for the destroyed Rhodes family when the police suddenly take a burly, muscular man into custody.  With one look, Aaron realizing that the man is, in fact, his son Mikey.  Mikey appears to have aged by decades after having only disappeared one short year ago, claiming to have been transported to the mystical land of Terronos to fulfill his destiny as the warrior to free that land from an evil king.  Shocked by the sudden return of their aged son, the Rhodes family is unsure of how to react while Mikey claims he’s returned home to hunt down five evil mages who threaten to allow Terronos to pour into our world and destroy it.

Birthright Vol 1 interior 1Birthright may be one of the first fantasy comics I’ve read and actually liked fallen madly in love with.  I’d readily recognize the series as something like Jumanji meets Lord of the Rings and Conan, which is just about the coolest combination of things you could ever have when it comes to a creative medium like comics.  Joshua Williamson gives an exciting take on a fantasy world that will just enthrall you immediately.  A tight cast, with two different timelines, a beautiful world, and exciting story, Birthright is a series you simply can’t put down once you start reading it.

Williamson tackles a dual narrative with Birthright, showing the present day struggles of Mikey and his family as he tries to track down mages from the region of Terronos who, if left unchecked, threaten to destroy our world.  While all this happens, Williamson also recollects about Mikey’s time in Terronos as a child shortly after disappearing, chronicling the start of his rise to becoming the great hero that he was destined to be so that he can free the land of Terronos from the grips of the evil God King Lore.  Together you get a fantastic story that shows you the rise of Mikey as well as what you presume is his “final quest” in our world.  The transitions between these two stories are rather seamless, with Williamson typically using Mikey from the present day as the catalyst, having him tell stories about his travels through Terronos to anyone who is willing to listen.  Williamson manages to heap in plenty of interesting twists to keep this story out of just being a standard “I am the Chosen One!” kind of story, where you have a one-note muscular hero who is nearly defeated before being triumphant.  The end of both the first and the last issue in this collection completely turn the series around in a different light right before your very eyes.  The plot for the most part is fairly consistent with Williamson placing enough humour and fun beats into the story but also finding plenty of dramatic flair to keep things heavy and emotional throughout.  At the core, the story is about this family who were torn apart from the disappearance of their son, examining if and how they can come back from what happened over the year they lost as a result.  Although there are some liberal leaps taken towards the back half to keep the plot moving, rest assured that the overall story is still superb.

Birthright Vol 1 interior 2One thing that I found profoundly entertaining within just the few pages is how gripping and dynamic the narrative is.  Following the disappearance of Mikey, Williamson and Andrei Bressan, the artist on the book, seamlessly illustrate the passing of one year’s time in two pages using only seven panels.  The raw emotion on these two pages brilliantly displays the dissolving unity of a family crippled by the sudden loss of their son.  Aaron, Mikey’s father, starts out in denial, before becoming defensive, withdrawn, and then becoming an alcoholic.  As a result of all of this Wendy, Mikey’s mother, ends up filing for divorce and leaving Aaron altogether.  Brennan, Mikey’s old brother, is the unfortunate middle party, trying to appease both adults who have become bitter towards each other.  All this across only two pages to kick-start an emotional roller coaster ride for the Rhodes family.  To an even further point, this all takes place within the first ten pages of the story.  I can guarantee you that more powerful moments pop up during the remaining issues in this volume, with this one in particular just being so poignant and heartbreaking that it needed to be highlighted by itself.

Your core characters for the story are the Rhodes family, with the story largely centering on Aaron and Mikey’s relationship during the first half before shifting more to the brotherly relationship shared between Brennan and Mikey during the second half.  What is interesting is the clear-cut main character of Mikey gets character development in reverse, wherein it’s his past self who goes through more changes than the present day one which we spend most of our time with.  The evolution of the other characters and their relationships happens quickly early on in the story but it’s still enjoyable to watch characters like Brennan and Aaron grow closer to Mikey while working with him.  Wendy is the character who appears to get short-changed, as Williamson actually brilliantly highlights in a scene where she confesses to always getting pushed into the role of being the “mean mom” while Aaron always got to be the “cool dad”.  That scene rings strong as you see clearly that Wendy is the parent who is trying to be in the adult in the situation whilst Aaron is enabling the man who may or may not be their son.  The core characters of the story work wonders in making you care about their family and what happens next, ensuring that you’ll come back for more by the time the second volume of Birthright is released.

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Collects:  Birthright #1-5.

Best Character:  Mikey Rhodes (Young).

Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption:  “Dude, we need to have a conversation about your speech.  If you keep talking like medieval times, we’re gonna get busted.”  – Brennan.

Best Scene/Moment:  The end of issue 1.  Trust me, it’s a good twist.

Best Issue:  Issue 2.  Issue two succeeds in drawing the lines in the sand for the rest of this first arc, establishing where each member of the Rhodes family falls on the matter of whether or not this man is actually Mikey.  It’s exciting, action packed and shows you what this adult version of Mikey is truly capable of.  Everything about this issue works, meshing the characters rather well with the action, especially following the great ending to the first issue.

Why You Should Read It:  If my line earlier in the post comparing this book to Jumanji meets Lord of the Rings and Conan didn’t convince you to immediately buy this then I don’t know what will.  The story is tight yet fluid, focusing in on the struggling relationship of the Rhodes family.  It’s heartbreaking and joyful all at the same time as you watch these family members fight for what’s most important to them.  On top of that you’ve got a beautiful world that you get to see the starting stages of as it sets up a truly exciting story.  There’s some dark twists, powerful human moments and, above all else, there’s a truly entertaining comic unfolding all around you as you read this story.