Haunted ships aren’t exactly a new thing in the horror genre. They are, in essence, floating haunted houses made even more isolated, and perhaps crueler, by virtue of being placed miles away from land, thus making it pretty hard for anyone inside them to escape. It’s mostly the same idea behind stories that take place inside haunted spaceships or monster-infested cargo ships. There’s no escape, no one to really hear you scream, and no one to call for a quick save (all things that make movies like Alien and Event Horizon so utterly terrifying).
A floating prison ship that recruits inmates to work on the highly dangerous task of extracting ectoplasm from the ghosts that are being held in it, though, adds a few wrinkles to that old formula. There just aren’t a lot of these kind of ships in horror. This fact alone opens new doors into terror, and it is precisely what writer Cavan Scott and artist Nick Brokenshire decided bet on for their new IDW Originals series Dead Seas.
Dead Seas follows Gus, an inmate who is being flown into the prison ship Perdition to work on ectoplasmic collection, an entirely new field of work that’s still in its experimental phase. The world, one character explains early on, has been wrestling with a ghost problem for going on ten years, forcing a new status quo and new opportunities to exploit. Water, it’s been found, can hurt ghosts, a discovery that’s led to the capture and holding of spirits at sea to study the ooze they secrete and their potential medical benefits. Of course, it doesn’t take long for technical difficulties and human error to cut the experiment short and put every living soul on the ship on the path towards paranormal activity.
There are a few influences at play in the story, more as flavoring rather than dominating ingredients. Fans of the 2001 Thirteen Ghosts remake, for instance, might appreciate some of the ways in which Scott and Brokenshire present their ghosts and the vessels they’re trapped in. Spirits are found in short supply in Dead Seas #1, but what’s shown hints at an interest in exploring their more monstrous aspects (like those in the film I mentioned). These aren’t transparent outlines of deceased relatives or hazy visions of regular people. They’re nightmarish, things that look and feel dangerous, insidious, and tortured.
Ghosts are only as good as the people they haunt, though, and Dead Seas starts strong in this department. Scott and Brokenshire surround Gus with a cast of inmates and scientists with complex personalities, each carrying their personal histories on their bodies for all to see. Brokenshire’s character design does an excellent job of making each one feel like a unique person, with qualities both seen and unseen making it across in a very nuanced visual style.
Scott’s dialogue and carefully orchestrated exposition segments prioritize character work first. It’s the reason why issue #1 is lighter on ghosts, which isn’t a knock against it. Scott lets conversations play out as needed so that readers can get a good sense of their personas, especially as it pertains to their anxieties and fears. Every prisoner is there for a reason, mostly to get some benefit in exchange for their service as it pertains to their prison sentences. The stakes run high as the promise of freedom is dangled in from of them so they can overlook the risks and do the job.
One thing the first issue could’ve done a bit better with was pacing. Scott and Brokenshire do an admirable job of worldbuilding and character development, but it all happens fast. There’s barely any breathing room to process what we learn about Gus and Perdition’s ghost operation. The story is rich enough that I would appreciate a slower pace to savor the smaller details in it.
This complaint, however, does little to detract from this impressive and refreshing horror series debut. The promise of things to come is more than enough to warrant attention and further reading. It’s hard not to love stories that tinker with traditions and expectations within genre to arrive at something new. Dead Seas falls squarely on that category and I can’t wait to see what horrors await us in Perdition.
Writer: Cavan Scott Art: Nick Brokenshire Letter: Shawn Lee
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0
Recommendation: Read, then research how much damage water can actually inflict on ghosts.
IDW Publishing provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review