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Exhuming Elisa Cameron

Her name was Elisa Cameron. She was, by all accounts, a soft woman in a hard town.

She had been marginalized and objectified, outright exploited. Then one day, she died.

After that, all she had to her name was a costume, the hint of a memory, and a pair of silver .45s.

She woke up as Ghost.

On a whim, I resolved to track down the complete run of Dark Horse’s Ghost series. The first volume is mostly collected in a convenient pair of color omnibus trades. I’m not entirely sure why I did this. Of course I was aware of the character during her heyday, but never actually read the book. I loved her look though–aside from her obvious charms, Ghost reminded me of a female version of the shadow. Something about a veiled, gunslinging femme fatale just spoke to pulp enthusiast in me. Sometimes, I just get these impulses towards doing things.

For those of you who don’t remember Ghost, she was created as part of Dark Horse’s Comics Greatest World initiative in the ’90s. Back when upstart superhero universes were all the rage, Dark Horse started building their own shared world, centering around a group of fictional cities with a megaseries introducing the setting before spinning characters off into their own books. Ghost was introduced in that series, quickly running afoul of X, a masked vigilante who was obviously positioned to be a main protagonist of Comics Greatest World.

But this was also during the bad girl era, and as such, Ghost and fellow heroine Barb Wire broke out among fans. Barb Wire caught on with Pamela Anderson, who played her in a film version, one of the decade’s most famous flops. Ghost, on the other hand, remained on the page. It would have been pretty intriguing, however, to see a Ghost television show or movie.

That’s because she wasn’t your average comic book heroine. She really wasn’t a heroine at all–motivated solely by revenge at first, Ghost was possessed of a violent rage and a single-minded desire to learn the circumstances of her death. These characteristics almost immediately put her at odds with Arcadia’s reigning vigilante psychopath, X, who casually murdered the men she sought for information. (The two would share an uneasy working relationship that deepened greatly in a surreal issue that saw them literally in love and at war to terrifying extremes.)

Ghost’s adventures took place in Arcadia, a decadent, decaying Art Deco metropolis rotting from institutionalized corruption. Politicians and industrialists joined together to rule the city, using “paranormals” (superhumans) as pawns.

Much of Elisa’s history was detailed in the first Ghost Special and an ongoing series that followed, all written by screenwriter Eric Luke. Luke was best known at the time for writing the fantasy film Explorers, but also gained acclaim for his work as a writer on Gargoyles and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot series. (He also wrote and directed two of Disney’s Not Quite Human TV movies, old favorites of mine.) Ghost, on the other hand was decidedly more adult work.

Ghost Special #1 launched her journey in earnest. Elisa located the man who ordered her death, a businessman named MacCready. She faced off against his paranormal bodyguards; including Joe Yimbo, with hands for blades; and Snake, a powerful, depraved telepath. Ultimately, she confronted MacCready and left him paralyzed. This brought her no closer to answers.

Luke introduced a supporting cast for Ghost in her regular series, the Cameron family. Her father struggled with alcoholism, and her mother tried in vain to keep the family from falling apart. Elisa’s sister Margo was a hellcat from the start, reveling in her innate skill at manipulating men. Margo truly hated men, which was something Elisa would deal with as well in her afterlife.

The first arc of the ongoing was penciled by the great Adam Hughes, but he left afterwards, and a rotating team of artists took over. Luke was the only constant for the first volume of the ongoing, writing every issue. The art was mostly solid, if somewhat uneven, until Ivan Reis took over with issue #17, drawing through the pivotal “Exhuming Elisa” storyline that saw Ghost finally confront the man who orchestrated her death, Crux. Reis is best known now for his Superman work, but the then-20-year-old drew with fluidity and finesse, coupled with an eye for action. Such a potent blend of skills made him one to watch.

The ’90s were famously bleak when it came to superhero comics, with darker, grittier settings, more vicious villains, and heroes to match. Ghost was no different in that respect, but it was decidedly more mature than its relatively puerile contemporaries in Chaos’ Lady Death and Purgatori, and more on a level with David Mack’s Kabuki and Billy Tucci’s Shi. Under Luke’s pen, Ghost’s greatest conflict was within herself, to soften and forgive, to let others in; or to let her rage consume her, to rage blindly in the darkness.

It makes sense, then, that most of her foes, from the demonic Cameron Nemo and Hunger to Archibald Scythe and Crux, were men who possessed the power to control others and used that power freely against women. Against them, Ghost confronted her own hatred and prejudices, and Luke explored the power dynamics and underlying tensions between the sexes. Admittedly, his male characters were all either overly aggressive (and mainly villains) or ineffectual and meek (most notably Peter, a lonely man fascinated with her, but really every non-villain with the exception of recurring guest star King Tiger).

But it was Ghost whose inner narrative drove the book, detailing her path from wrathful avenger to Arcadia’s sworn sentinel. Thanks to Eric Luke, Adam Hughes, Ivan Reis, and an army of assorted artists and editors, Elisa Cameron shone as one of the more fascinating characters of the ’90s. And you know, she’s been away long enough…

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