The veils between the worlds are about to part once more, dear friends, giving us a glimpse of what is normally denied to mortal view and bringing our beloved and not-so-beloved dead among us once more. Perhaps in these darkling hours, these twilight times, you long to hear tales of spirits and ghosts as you hide beneath your blankets or pull the hood of your hoodie over your head in response to a sudden chill. A draft from under the door, you think, probably nothing more. Or perhaps you scoff at the idea that something might exist beyond the material and mortal realm that there is some part of a person that remains after death—something more than an echo in our minds or a haunting in our hearts.
Read then, my fellow speculators in matters spooky and supernatural, an anthology seemingly determined to pile up report after report of spectral phenomena to prove to us, the stubborn readers, that ghosts exist: Showcase Presents: Ghosts, vol. 1 (2012). Part of DC Comics’ Showcase line of thick, pulpy, black and white comics reprints, this volume collects the first eighteen issues of the series. Running for 112 issues from 1971 to 1982, Ghosts had several stories per issue with new protagonists and antagonists in each story. The issues mix stories written for the anthology, primarily by Leo Dorfman, with stories from Sensation Comics* (1942-1952), Sensation Mystery (1952-1953), and the 1950s run of House of Mystery. Launched the same year as The Secret House of Sinister Love and The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, Ghosts was part of DC horror, mystery and suspense titles in the 1970s giving ghost stories and Gothic horror a then contemporary look and feel—1970s Gothic.
And like The Secret House of Sinister Love, Ghosts was clear in its commitments. Ghosts was committed to stories about, well, ghosts and very committed to educating the public about them asking its central question in its very first story, “Now do you believe in ghosts?”
And, you know, if it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, maybe it’s good enough for me. But if it isn’t enough for you, Ghosts is prepared. The comic challenges us all to read on as it builds its case, periodically asking variations on its original question, sometimes switching it up with “Do you believe in ghosts?” or “Do you believe in the supernatural?” when it expands to include weird phenomena that are not exactly ghosts.
Ghosts came out when there was a resurgence of interest in paranormal and supernatural stories both in art and as an object of conjecture and study. Presenting the comic as an accumulation of evidence, without even a host to introduce or contextualize the stories as in other DC comics of the time—Cain and Able in House of Mystery or Eve in Sinister House of Secrets—is such an interesting choice. I began this article using the language of a horror host, but Ghosts has none of that in these 18 issues. It can be overheated, but it is all business between them. Do you or do you not believe in ghosts? it asks. It reminds me of exploitation art that pretends it’s about educating the public but was really about showing us dangerous women driving fast cars, motorcycle gangs taking over towns or delinquent high school girls wearing trousers. It has that same matter of factness, even as it barely has a narrator.
Sometimes it reminds me of police procedurals or even of Carl Kolchak, intrepid reporter, exploring the unexplained in cities throughout America and alternately frustrating and ruining his editor Tony Vincenzo, though Kolchak only appears on television after Ghosts began its run and in comics** well after Ghosts. Ghosts doesn’t need to challenge us to read on or to try to convince us of anything. A person looking for ghost stories is already here, though maybe there was a thrill of being in the paranormal know among younger readers. And a person interested in debunking but who also enjoys reading ghosts stories is more likely to be irritated than convinced. Someone who does believe in ghosts and the supernatural is hardly likely to find these stories useful in either bolstering their own belief or getting respect from their irritated skeptical friends. Dorfman could just present the stories, or use a host, but he invites us to pretend along with the stories—as an extra layer of potential fun. Ghosts invites you to suspend your disbelief about your belief and to play along as a believer or a skeptic, but you don’t have to accept that invitation. Ghosts is really here, as we are, for ghost stories.
I think about Leo Dorfman, sometimes using a pseudonym or two, rapidly typing out these stories ending with these questions, pulling them out of the typewriter, adding another sheet and moving on. There’s no real sense that the stories rudimentary narrator cares whether we believe. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we will eventually concede the evidence, but it feels like even if we did, Dorfman would keep typing, adding another report like he works in some news organization or bureaucratic agency dedicated to documenting the supernatural. Here’s a report of a ghost magician. Here’s one about the daughter of the sea god, Lir. Here’s one about a lonely ghost awaiting her fiancė. And here’s one about Genghis Khan’s planned invasion of the world of the living. The envious and angry dead watch us from beyond and wait for their chance to either destroy our ancestors’ line or to take over our bodies. There are so many ghosts and ghost vehicles—ghost ships, ghost planes, ghost stage coaches, ghost submarines, ghost galleons, envious ghosts, vengeful ghosts, touchy ghosts, loving ghosts and ghost battalions. And all must be documented.
But while I am sure Dorfman cared about these stories, after all he created Ghosts, this fictional Dorfman narrator feels like he wants to get his reports in so he can go home to his family. Maybe write some more Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen stories or something for Gold Key Comics. Dorfman wrote most of Ghosts stories, some Secrets of Sinister House and a lot of Superman family stories, but the also wrote horror and suspense for Gold Key, including The Twilight Zone, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Boris Karloff’s Mystery and Grimm’s Ghost Stories. Dorfman was undeniably a machine and his writing most of the material gives this collection a remarkable unity of voice. The story-telling that could seem rushed doesn’t so much because there is no time to dawdle. One story finishes and we are on to the next spectral tale. All the facts must be presented. We stop briefly for the occasional question and then we continue with the urgent accumulation of evidence. Ghosts will pile up all the stories you need to believe in ghosts. And if you don’t, well fine, have another!
You should be aware, however, that some of the stories involve Indigenous people, the goddess Kali (in a unique hairstyle and 8-armed arrangement***), and a “witch-doctor.” There are clawed hands and squinty eyed Mayans. These are not the most egregious examples of bad representation I’ve seen in comics, in part because Ghosts‘ commitment to presenting evidence of the supernatural means it doesn’t call Indigenous people, traditional people in the “Tanganyika Territory,” or Hindus “superstitious.” They are usually right in their warnings about not messing with things like the curses around lost cities or angering powerful goddesses. Mostly these characters and elements are included in an attempt to show how universal the experience of the supernatural is. Ghosts means well and how far its good intentions go with you on any given day, I can’t say. But it’s a thing to know about going in.
Many, many artists were involved in Ghosts. Some of you might be excited to see artists like Jim Aparo and Wallace Wood. I am happy to see 1970s Filipino Wave artists who appeared in a lot of DC horror and adventure titles, including: Nestor Redondo, artist on many a Conan comic and creator of the Philippines’ favorite superhero Darna; Nestor Redondo’s brother Frank; Gerry Talaoc; E. R. Cruz; Alfredo Alcala; Rico Rival; Abe Ocampo; Ernesto Patricio; Buddy Gernale; Ernie Chan; and one of my favorites, Tony DeZuñiga.
And swank art and entertaining ghost stories aside, I am delighted by Ghosts’ utter disconnect from DC comics overarching continuity. These stories sometimes involve historical figures—did you know John Wilkes Booth had a clawed ghost hand?—but there are no recurring characters or crossover stories, not even a host to demand “Now do you believe in ghosts?!” Well, at least not in these 18 issues. Ghosts gained a host, Squire Shade, in issue 104, not long before the title ended. Recurring character Terence Thirteen, aka, Dr. 13 the Ghost-Breaker, a paranormal investigator and debunker of charlatans, first appears in issue 95. And Ghosts had its first crossover as the Spectre demands that Dr. 13 proves he doesn’t exist on the cover of issue 97. But the earlier issues appeal to me most with their stories about mundane people encountering ghost cars, planes, castles, stage coaches, galleons, submarines and envious ghosts, scheming ghosts, vengeful ghosts and just plain old sad and lonely ghosts. I just like crazy comics untethered by what’s become “continuity.” And Ghosts is certainly that.
*I know! But Wonder Woman doesn’t make an appearance in Ghosts, though I am entirely okay with that.
**Incidentally, Sherlock Holmes and Kolchak the Night Stalker: Cry For Thunder (Moonstone, 2010) is pretty fun.
***It’s possible that what reads as a hairstyle to me might be an attempt to draw her corona and it’s not coming through. And while 8-arms is pretty common in Tibetan art, their mudras and particular arrangement is unusual.
****Squire Shade and Dr. 13, the Ghost-Breaker, both seem like characters sure to attract Grant Morrison or Gerard Way’s attention.
And so, Carol Borden, having shared these chilling stories, returns to the sea, melting away to nothingness…
This essay was originally published by the Cultural Gutter on Oct. 29, 2020.