Ghost Money #1
Written by Thierry Smolderen
Art by Dominique Bertail
Translation and Localization by Jeremy Melloul and Mike Kennedy
Published by Lion Forge, Dargaud Benelux
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Can a premise be too big for a book? Short monthly installments are part of what makes comic books unique as a medium, but as Ghost Money #1 proves, the format is also one of the medium’s greatest challenges. A first issue often has less than 30 pages to build enough world to compel readers to subscribe for months to come, and creator-owned titles often lack the shortcuts established properties can rely on to give readers a sense of the world, starring characters, and even the tenor of a title’s central conflict. This is where Ghost Money #1 stumbles: Wednesday’s debut issue isn’t enough to showcase the intrigue and drama of its compelling premise.
Originally published in French by Darguad Benelux, Ghost Money #1 introduces a team of military veterans as they hunt for a fortune amassed through insider trading leading up to and immediately in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Writer Thierry Smolderen and illustrator Dominique Bertail excel in creating a shadowy near-future that does truly seem like a path global politics and technology could be headed for, from the rise of neoconservative politicians around the world to the strange but attainable technology in the rise of police drones and private suborbital flight capable cars for the wealthy.
Smolderen’s strength in this issue is in the relationship he crafts between Chamza, and elegant but secretive Tajikistan socialite, and Lindsey, the young London student Chamza rescues from a protest march turned stampede. Their meeting, and the time they spend together through the debut issue, feels easy and melancholic in equal measure. Lindsay narrates their relationship throughout with a wistfulness that grounds the unlikely couple’s whirlwind adventures across the globe. As they traipse through the shops of Dubai, or high-profile galleries in Rio, Lindsay ponders the dreamy nature of their relationship, and translator Jeremy Melloul does an excellent job capturing the growing mystery and fleeting dread Smolderen seems to evoke in Lindsay’s enraptured, romantic descriptions of Chamza’s unexplained jet-setting lifestyle.
It’s the relationship that makes Ghost Money #1 so engaging, but similarly frustrating as a political thriller. It’s implied immediately through the story structure that Chamza is the holder of the titular ghost money the mercenary team introduced in the early pages was chasing at the height of the war in Iraq - so immediately even though I hate spoiling issues in reviews, I don’t think including this tidbit is a spoiler. Ghost Money lacks the space to get political enough to indicate where the story goes from here: are the mercenaries, whose interrogation tactics Dominique Bertail illustrates with unflinching realism, the true villains? Will Lindsay be revealed as a victim of a criminal’s charisma, or is Chamza an anti-imperialist revolutionary in her own right?
There is absolutely a need for more shades of grey in fiction; no hero should be perfect all the time, and even our most beloved neighbors or lovers we trusted with our hearts can harbor a darkness in theirs. In the context of Ghost Money #1, set against the backdrop of a terrorist attack seared into the American consciousness that set off a wave of controversial and deadly military conflicts, there is also something to be said for leaning into the tangled, messy morality of war.
But the premise - military vets track down money made off a terrorist attack to protect the global economy - offers up a fairly succinct, cut-and-dried impression of who the heroes and villains might be that Ghost Money #1 lacks the space to confirm or deny in strong way. The veterans are not particularly likeable or relatable. Chamza, implicitly the villain, or at least the beneficiary of a villain long-dead, spends the issue whisking a young woman off for adventures Lindsay could never have access to, never once judging Lindsay’s own blue collar background or making Lindsay uncomfortable among Chamza’s wealthy friends.
As a first issue, Ghost Money #1’s story is as murky as Dominique Bertail’s bleak, shadowy colors, and what makes its story frustrating is that this is a well-executed comic book. Smolderen does an excellent job building Chamza and Lindsay’s relationship, and though Bertail’s color work sometimes makes characters difficult to distinguish, his layouts are excellent as frenetic pages, some with as many as fourteen panels, manage to capture the relentless, grinding pace of direct military conflict while remaining easy to read. A collected version of Ghost Money - in the original French, if you’d prefer, or after the full English translation is released - might turn out to be a spectacular political thriller well-worth your time, but its first English issue isn’t promising enough to warrant a month-to-month subscription from the get go.