Space Ghost
by Joe Kelly, Ariel Olivetti
(DC Comics, 2005)

The Hanna-Barbera character has come a long way since his days as a campy '60s Alex Toth-inspired cartoon hero. Most know Space Ghost from his mid-'90s revision as the star of Cartoon Network's fabulously funny Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a send-up of late-night talk shows. But those who come looking for the Cartoon Network's lovable nutcase of a late-night talk show host won't find him in the pages of Joe Kelly's Space Ghost, which gives us a version of the Ghost that's a very radical -- and very successful -- departure from the Cartoon Network's satirical representation. Be warned: there is nothing light or carefree about this Space Ghost at all. This re-imagining is as dark as it gets, and yet it succeeds beautifully.

Thaddeus Bach is a promising member of the Commandment, a theocratically inclined police force. Recruited into a black-ops style undercover unit known as The Wraith, Bach quickly discovers that the unit is corrupt to the very lees, not to mention filled with soulless, cruel monsters who seem to live for the thrill of random killing, torture and intimidation. When he reveals the true nature of the group to his pregnant wife Eula, The Wraith decides to silence him. Eula is murdered and Bach himself is shot and left for dead on an abandoned planet (e.g., a "ghost planet").

While the plot is a fairly standard "noble man loses everything but gets revenge" sort of deal, and the plot twists and turns are announced in rather obvious strokes, it deserves credit for being an engaging human drama that does justice to the pulp genre in which it so shamelessly indulges. It also manages to provide a believable, three-dimensional hero right out of the hero handbook, an uncorrupted man who tries to hide his broken heart while rebuilding his wounded body, finds his true willpower while delivering justice, then returns to his more noble state of being when his mission is accomplished. There's even a well-placed tribute to space Ghost's infamous sidekicks, Jan and Jason. Kelly takes all the cornball out of the sidekicks by making them living, breathing people who have survived realistic and understandable tragedies.

The brutal violence is shocking, particularly where the murder of Eula is concerned, but don't say Kelly didn't warn his readers that this is no kids' book. But, difficult as it is to read, it fits, and the end, which the reader can see from a country mile away, is nonetheless satisfying. Kelly set out to alter the dynamic of the original while maintaining a strong sense of respect for the core of the character, a difficult thing to do when so many revisiting of characters' origins are as shoddy and schlocky as they are commercially sleazy. By keeping the story simple and sticking to a recognizable formula, while at the same time being unafraid to take chances with characterization, Kelly gives us a hero that cannot possibly measure up to any previous version because his vision is so singular that it stands completely on its own.

One of the chief pleasures of the book is Olivetti's artwork, which is delicious, leaping right off the page at you in bold, bright colors and clear detail reminiscent of Alex Ross. Crisp attention to detail gives the smallest facial expression enough depth to register all of the fear, rage, heartbreak and love just under the surface.

Kelly risked a lot in giving us a hero who is capable of decency, cowardice and courage, and he succeeded wonderfully. This is one of the best graphic thrillers published this year and a great reminder that DC is still capable of putting out masterfully written stories, making it a "must-have" on your pull list.

by Mary Harvey
17 September 2005

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