Friday, February 28, 2014

Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good: A Survey of the Ghostbusters in Comics in Honor of Harold Ramis

This past Monday, Hollywood lost one of its great comedic minds. Harold Ramis was an actor and director who appeared in, or was responsible for, many great comedies, including Groundhog Day, Meatballs, and Stripes. But for many like me, his greatest role would be in Ghostbusters, the 1984 classic about a group of scientists and their friends and allies fighting all manner of spook, spectre, and thing that goes bump in the night, where he plays Dr. Egon Spengler, my favorite of the Ghostbusters. It is one of my favorite movies of all time, one of those movies that every time you see it on you have to stop and watch,  and has spawned toys, video games, multiple animated series, and more than a few comics over the years. Today, instead of my standard recommended reading, we're going to look back on the history of The Ghostbusters in comics (apparently, there was a long running Marvel UK series, but the majority hasn't been reprinted here in the States, so I'll not be addressing that here).

Just on the outside chance you have never seen Ghostbusters and are unfamiliar with the characters and concept, the Ghostbusters started out as three professors and paranormal investigators who, after being thrown out of academia, start a business to trap and contain various ghosts. Peter Venkman is the mouth of the Ghostbusters, the public face, always with a smart comment, played by Bill Murray. Egon Spengler, played by Ramis, is a scientist and paranormal researcher, a big brain with not a lot of social graces. Ray Stantz, played by Dan Aykroyd, is also a scientist, responsible with Egon for making the Ghostbusters proton packs, PKE Meters, and various other ghost fighting tech, and is the heart of the team. Winston Zeddemore, played by Ernie Hudson, is the fourth man on the team; he is not a scientist, hired when the business picks up, but smart and full of common sense, something that Egon and Ray are often lacking, and Peter just doesn't care about. Along with Janine Melnitz, their trusty receptionist, and Slimer, a ghost they keep around for testing and who is a sort of mascot, they make up the Ghostbusters.

The Real Ghostbusters (NOW Comics)

The Real Ghostbusters was the animated series based on the film. Many a great voice actor appeared on the show, notably Lorenzo Music,best known as the voice of Garfield, as Peter Venkman, Frank Welker, best known as Megatron from Transformers and Fred from Scooby Doo, Arsenion Hall as Winston, and Maurice LaMarche, best known as The Brain from Pinky and the Brain and numerous characters on Futurama, as Egon. The show was very smart for its time, with some episodes written by the likes of J. Michael Straczynski, J.M. Dematteis, and Michael Reaves, and despite the animation not being as strong as modern cartoons, the stories hold up extremely well, incorporating all manner of world mythologies, as well as the Cthulu Mythos. With a successful cartoon, it was only a matter of time before the license was sold to comics. NOW Comics was a publisher in the late 80s and early 90s that focused mostly on licensed properties. The comic series did a good job of staying in the flavor of the animated series, with the same sort of tongue and cheek sense of humor and intelligent stories. Many of the comic stories were tied together by common antagonists; a personal favorite of mine was Nurtog, a freakin' ghost T-Rex. Let's be fair, aside from The Dresden Files, where else are you gonna find an undead T-Rex? NOW also published a three part mini-series adaptation of the film sequel, Ghostbusters II, done in the style of The Real Ghostbusters, which is a fun little oddity. With the exception of that adaptation and a couple annuals, this series was recently reprinted by IDW Publishing in two omnibus volumes.

Ghostbusters: Legion (88MPH Studios)

After a drought of many years with no real new Ghostbusters content, fledgling comics company 88MPH Studios picked up the license and presented a four issue mini-series called Legion. Set firmly in the continuity of the movies (although resetting the movies in early 2004 instead of the '84), Legion, set six months after the events of the movie, has the Ghostbusters dealing with a new outbreak of paranormal activity that they track back to Michael Draverhaven, a friend of Ray's who studied with Egon, Peter, and he in college, and who was caught in an accident that linked him to the spirit world and to a sort of hive ghost called Legion. It's a pretty intense story, very creepy, and has an emotional core of Ray dealing with what happened to his friend. 88 MPH was supposed to follow this mini-series up with an ongoing, but the company folded before it could. The series was collected in trade paperback, although that is long since out of print.

Ghost Busted (Tokyopop)

Ok, this is the one book discussed here that I haven't read, and simply discovered through research for this piece. It's a manga size/style book published by Tokyopop in 2008. It's an anthology of connected short stories, and it's something I'm going to have to track down for the completist in me, something none of my fellow comic book fans know nothing about, I'm sure...

The Other Side (IDW Publishing)

The same year Tokyopop released their one Ghostbusters related comic, IDW Publishing started releasing comics in what is by far the most successful run of Ghostbusters comics to date. The first mini-series published was The Other Side. The Ghostbusters run afoul of the ghosts of some of America's most famous gangsters, including Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, who are running a pipeline to get spirits out of the afterlife, and wind up being displaced from their bodies and sent to the afterlife themselves. The Ghostbusters are on the run from beings on the other side who are after them because of them being, well, ghostbusters, but find a little help from some of America's greatest gangbusters; if you're a fan of gangster movies and true crime, you'll get a kick out of seeing so many legendary G-Men and Mafiosi tossed into one ghostly caper.

Displaced Aggression (IDW Publsihing)

Displaced Aggression is a story that, while using the classic Ghostbusters designs, hearkens back to some of the fun and over the top storytelling of The Real Ghostbusters. Written by Scott Lobdell, whose run on Uncanny X-Men you you might have read about here recently, the series splits the Ghostbusters up and sends them on an journey through time, with each one in a different era: Peter is in the Old West, Ray is in medieval times, Egon in the distant future, while Winston is in the present, fighting the good fight against Koza'Rai, the father of Gozer, the Sumerian god the Ghostbusters defeated in the first movie. This story is very much a comic book story, with big action scenes and crazy designs that you couldn't pull off on the budget of most movies.

The Miscellaneous IDW Ghostbusters

Before getting into the discussion of the main IDW ongoing Ghostbusters series, I just wanted to touch on some of the one shots and crossovers IDW has done for Ghostbusters. Aside from Halloween, Valentine's Day, Christmas, and Comic Con specials, the Ghostbusters have taken part in three of IDW's intercompany crossovers, throwing different franchises together. In Infestation, the Ghostbusters must fight an interdimensional zombie outbreak in a story that ties in to IDW's own Covert Vampiric Operations, or CVO, comics franchise. The Real Ghostbusters had to deal with Martian Ghosts in Mars Attacks The Real Ghostbusters. And just last month, the Ghostbusters met The Lone Gunmen of X-Files fame, finding there was something even the Lone Gunmen have a hard time believing, in X-Files: Conspiracy- Ghostbusters. None of these are essential reading (although Infestation does have some threads that play out in the ongoing I'm about to talk about), but part of the great fun  of comics are crossovers between characters you never thought would meet, and these definitely fall under that category, because lets be frank, whoever thought they'd see Frohike of the Lone Gunmen hit on Janine?

Ghostbusters Ongoing (IDW Publishing)

After two successful mini-series and some one shots, IDW decided to give the Ghostbusters their own ongoing. Two volumes in, the series is going incredibly strong. The series has been written by Erik Burnham and drawn, with only a couple of guest pencils, by Dan Schoening, along with other writers and artists doing back-up stories.

The series is set in continuity with the movies, set after the events of Ghostbusters II, with the Ghostbusters comfortably doing their ghostbusting with the unfortunate government oversite of their old nemesis, Walter Peck, now head of the Paranormal Contracts Oversight Commission, or PCOC for short. The use of Peck shows one of the huge strengths of Burnham's writing; he is clearly a huge fan of all versions of the Ghostbusters, and draws in characters and aspects from all of them. Along with the main cast and movie characters like Peck, Kylie Griffin of the spinoff Extreme Ghostbusters series shows up working in Ray's paranormal bookstore, The Rookie and Ilyssa Selwyn from the recent Ghostbusters video game both pop up, and Burnham takes characters from earlier comics, keeping Tiyah Clarke, a love interest introduced for Winston in the "Tainted Love" Valentine's Day one-shot, and deepens their characters. He has also created some new characters, including Ron Alexander, a sleazy scientist who is  Peter Venkman if he didn't have Ray and Egon to keep him on the straight and narrow and who has been forced to work with the Ghostbusters, and Melanie Ortiz, an FBI Agent who serves as the Bureau liaison with the Ghostbusters. Expanding the cast has allowed different aspects of the Ghostbusters to show that you wouldn't see when they're just interacting with each other, like Winston's romantic side with Tiyah or Ray's paternal streak when it comes to Kylie.

With Burnham having been working on the series now for nearly thirty issues, he has been able to really get a great feeling for the characters. Reading the stories, you can hear the dialogue in the voices of the actors who portrayed them on the big screen. The series is funny, having the same sense of humor as the films. It also maintains the stakes; while the comic can be fun and the characters get off plenty of zingers, the ghosts they encounter have an air of menace that could be lost if the writer decided to play the setting more for laughs.

Over the course of the two volumes of the Ghostbusters ongoing (the first one ran sixteen issues, the second is currently on issue thirteen), Burnham has set plenty of challenges before the Ghostbusters. The stories have included adventures that took them on a cross country good will trip to bust ghost in various cities, or dealing with the Ghost-Smashers, a team of second rate Ghostbuster knock offs with tech even more unpredictable than the Ghostbusters own. The first arc of the second series had the Ghostbusters trapped in another dimension; Janine had to fill in along with some of the supporting cast that had been built over the first series, allowing those characters time to shine. Egon had to travel into Janine's mind to save her from ghostly possession by one of her ancestors while the others were on a ghostly pirate ship. And the most recent arc took the team through the holiday season, as bogeyman activity in New York grew. The most recent issue, which was released just this past Wednesday, begins, "Mass Hysteria," an eight part story written to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Ghostbusters franchise, which will not only bring everything that Burnham has been plotting to a head, but reintroduce Dana Barrett and Louis Tully, two important characters from the films, into the comics.

Dan Schoening's style is perfectly suited to this comic. His characters are expressive, a bit quirky, and every page just exudes energy. His designs for the ghosts are genuinely creepy, with many truly terrifying scenes. Schoening is clearly also a fan of all eras of Ghostbusters, evinced by his design for Janine's new boyfriend, who resembles the animated Egon, down to his massive blond pompadour haircut. His art has just the right balance between comedy and horror to work on a property that treads that line so well.

IDW has been collecting the Ghostbusters comics in trade, so they should be easy to track down, with each mini-series in its own trade, as well as all of the holiday themed one shots, along with a new story, collected in a volume called Haunted Holidays; theer is also an omnibus edition collecting all those stories. The ongoings has been collected  in six trades, with a seventh on the way. However, all sixteen issues of the first volume are about to be released in a deluxe hardcover called "The Total Containment Edition."

And that's the comics history of Ghostbusters, one of the greatest pop culture franchises of all time. Harold Ramis was a great director, actor, and writer, whose work has touched legions. This final piece of art is from Ghostbusters artist Dan Schoening's DeviantArt page, and is one of the best tributes I've seen to Ramis. May he live the same day over and over again in the next life, and may it be the best day ever.

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