“Riley was his name. Simon Riley.”
So after the recent announcement of the Modern Warfare reboot, I decided to go back and play the series again. These games have been copied, replicated, and generally remembered as the domain of Monster energy drink swilling young men. But there’s actually three great campaigns in there, with some near-perfect levels and gameplay – and some fantastic characters. One of these fan-favourite characters is the skull mask wearing Ghost. Despite having very little to actually do in the game, he got this really weird tie-in comic.
Written by David Lapham and illustrated by Kevin West, this six-issue comic was released the same year as Modern Warfare 2. In that game, a mysterious badass appears. But who is Ghost? What’s his story? What’s with the mask? OK, so no one was asking these questions. And the mystery was kind of the charm. But don’t let things like that get in the way of a quick buck. But maybe that’s unfair. The comic attempts to tell a surprisingly complex and psychological story. It’s not wholly successful, but it gives it a good shot.
It begins in a school in Ukraine. A man has been caught breaking in. That man is every edgy 14 year old’s favourite character; Ghost. He’s been captured by some ultra-nationalists and is going to be killed. To pass the time until then, he decides to tell the hostages and his captors about a guy he used to know. This guy is Simon Riley, an SAS operative and the very best of the best. He’s also Ghost himself, obviously. We’re introduced to him and his background, and the mission where things all went wrong. The first two issues (the first act of his story) sees him trying to take down a drug kingpin in Mexico. Things go awry and he gets captured, being brainwashed and tortured in increasingly nasty ways. From there, we learn more and more about his early life in Manchester. As someone actually from Manchester, I can safely say it’s not the drugs-ridden hell-hole they make it out to be here (but almost). Once he gets out, he heads home. But things don’t let up, and get more and more violent until the man called Simon Riley is gone and a ghost is all that remains (geddit?).
Ok first things first, it’s edgy. I love a comic that takes risks, and I love the more violent, adult comics from Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison. This feels like it’s trying to emulate that style (Ennis in particular) and I wasn’t surprised to see David Lapham wrote a lot of Crossed once Garth Ennis bowed out. Ghost/Simon Riley gets up to so many questionable adventures. My favourite sees him buried alive with the decomposing corpse of his commander. He has to rip the jaw bone from the corpse and use it bust his way out of the grave. It’s gross, it’s ridiculous, and you just kind of have to laugh along with it. And it takes itself so very, very seriously. Another scene, a flashback, sees young Simon with his dad at a punk concert. Little Simon wanders into the bathroom to find his dad with a dead prostitute. She’s OD’d and his dad forces him to laugh at her. It’s pretty abhorrent to watch, but I’ll give the writer props that they approach it as a serious moment of character development.
It takes a while to all come together. There are lots of flashbacks and jumping around. And the art, though decent overall, sometimes makes it difficult to know who is speaking (there’s only so many ways to draw a generic white guy). I did actually find the first half kind of confusing, the brainwashing scenes jumped around a lot and I couldn’t tell what they were going for. And because so much of it is psychological, you’re never quite sure what’s real – sometimes to the story’s detriment. But by the end it had come together. I was shocked to find the build-up was actually worthwhile. Things slotted into place and everything was wrapped up. The story had closure.
And that’s the thing about this comic. No matter how disgusting it gets, no matter how insane it is, it’s sincerely trying to tell a good story. The violence is excessive, but it’s not done for the sake of it. There’s a serious, gritty story here. Ghost isn’t an inherently interesting character, he’s a walking t-shirt logo or vinyl decal. But in here there’s a story about abuse and psychological trauma that is actually so much more interesting than I expected. No one would have cared if Lapham and West had just rushed out a generic action story. It was Modern Warfare 2 – people wouldn’t have cared. But they tried something really interesting. And though not entirely successful, it’s closer to Rambo: First Blood than it is to Rambo III.
Reviewed by Jack