Ghostwerks in the Machine

Just returned from the San Diego Comic Convention, the annual gathering of dork knights and wonder women (as in, "I wonder why women go to comic conventions"), the five men who founded and front Ghostwerks Comics are psyched. First of all, they paid top dollar to get their booth--"not just a table," points out artist and writer Michael Lagocki--situated near the Big Boys, the Marvel monolith and DC Comics colossus that cast terrifying shadows over the San Diego Convention Center floor. Their setup sat near the DC booth, meaning whenever the con-goers got bored with talking Superman spandex they could meander over to the Ghostwerks table and peruse the pages of a Dallas-to-Denton start-up mightier than most indies 'round these parts or any other. The Ghostwerks guys--Mario Cauley, Corance Davis, Samax Randolph, Khalid Robertson and Lagocki, all University of North Texas grads who grew up between the pages of Marvel Team-Up and Dark Knight Returns issues--figure they moved some 300 copies of their forthcoming title Ghostwerks Comics No. 1. Not bad for a book that has no national distribution and, well, isn't even in stores till this week.

And Ghostwerks--like its predecessor, Champion of Children, out earlier in the year--isn't bad either; actually, it's pretty damned good, primarily because it looks, acts and feels like no other comic in the racks. The Ghostwerks books--done up as "ghetto-manga," in the words of its fistful of founders, meaning the artwork looks vaguely Japanimation even while the sensibility remains very hip-hop--dance on that fine line that separates the would-bes from the will-bes; they're the works of amateurs who deserve to be pros, of fans making the quick transition to practitioners.

It's easy to love the Ghostwerks titles almost for what they aren't as much as for what they are. Where most indie titles offer little but big-breasted women and dull variations on red-(very) white-and-blue boys, the Ghostwerks titles present, among other things, black kids saving the schoolyard from thugs, attic-dwelling poltergeists who haunt boxes of comics and a peacenik bear who refuses to fight parodic baddies with names like Darkshadow-Deathclaw-Man. In other words, here's a comic for kids about kids that doesn't pander or preach, but allows for a little heart while laying down some soul, particularly in the stories dealing with an African-American family of superheroes who vanquish everyday evil (say, a coach who picks on little kids) and end their adventures with a group hug. It's warm and fuzzy, but angry enough to cut the sugar with a righteous dose of vinegar.

And because the Ghostwerks fellas aren't peddling the same-ol'-same-ol', their work isn't likely to stay in the underground, ahem, ghetto for long: Diamond, by far the largest comics distributor in the world, will start offering the company's titles in the fall, and Lagocki and Cauley say there was interest in San Diego from companies looking to turn the comics into cartoons.

"Above all, we wanted to tell stories we hadn't seen told before," says Cauley, who acts as Ghostwerks' business manager, though he, like all five partners, writes. "Comic books don't tell stories about children or women or minorities, and we wanted to hit those. In Japan, the whole country likes comics; they read them like we read newspapers. Here, the medium isn't as big, because it speaks to only one section of society. I read comics, and it changed my life in 1994. It was great material, a great thing to even learn from--about morals, ethics, who you should be, why you should fight when you need to. Comics give you a way out, and you don't have to read an entire novel to get it, because you can finish a comic in 15 minutes and still get a lot out of it. But certain audiences won't read them, because they open them up and see nothing but these big-breasted women or white males and everything blowing up all the time."