The Dark Horse Comics/Team CGW character Ghost, also known as Elisa Cameron, made her debut in Comics’ Greatest World in 1993. She reappeared in a special in 1994 that developed into a series in 1995. It ran for thirty-six issues before being re-launched in 1998 for another twenty-two issues. In 2012, Kelly-Sue DeConnick and Phil Noto resurrected Ghost for Dark Horse, in the mini-series “The Smoke in the Din” complete with new back-story for Elisa. Each new beginning for Ghost reveals remarkable differences in how the series and title character find new meanings for themselves and for the readers.
The first differences are apparent in the change in the costume between iterations. In both the outfit is all white, with a billowing hooded cape that builds Elisa’s other-worldly presence. Under the cape she wears a bare shouldered, backless, fitted bodice. Then the similarities stop. The original design is a play on fetish-wear. Though tight, the bodice doesn’t close, emphasizing deep cleavage. She wears long pants with gun holsters strapped to each hip. Around her neck is a white kerchief that is sometimes pulled up over her face, an old-fashioned bandit’s mask. The whole outfit says “dressed to kill.” As Elisa explains to the reader, she designed it so that her enemies would be so transfixed by lust that they would not notice her reaching for her guns. The 2012 redesign also appeals to the male gaze, but it says more about who Elisa was before. It was the ball gown she wore when she died. Elisa Cameron was a reporter investigating a series of missing persons. Realizing that it was related to the mayor, she crashed his annual formal black and white birthday ball and was sacrificed to his nefarious plot.
Both versions of Ghost have a combination of mystery and revenge driving their plots. In each Elisa arrives with no memory of her life, but in each she has a very different sense of self. The 1994 special opens with Elisa mocking the masculinity of some gangsters and then murdering them in a gunfight. The initial justification for this mayhem is that men are awful to women. Later she reveals that these targets were chosen due to evidence linking one of them to her murder. This emphasis on hating men may seem like an appeal to female readers, but when Elisa addresses her reader, she clearly is speaking to a man. Not a specific man; the reader is assumed to be male.
The opening issue of “The Smoke in the Din” is narrated by a man named Vaughn Barnes. Vaughn is half of a team making a Ghost Hunters-like show called Phantom Finders. He hand his partner, Tommy Byers, are searching for a legendary ghost known as “Resurrection Mary.” Using a mysterious device they accidently summon Elisa. Elisa is mute for most of the issue. As in the first version, one of the first things she does is kill a gangster. Only this time the killing is clearly an act of self-defense. As he threatens her and the Phantom Finders with a gun she ghosts into his chest and rips his heart out. Elisa takes over the narrative in the second issue of the series. Again, it starts with a discussion of the differences between men and women. Only here the subject is whose point of view gets told. Elisa can’t remember her personal history, but remembers enough about Greek mythology to note that in the story of the birth of Athena, writers only focus on the pain that Zeus felt and not Athena’s.
As “The Smoke in the Din” moves to Elisa’s pint of view, soon after her emergence from the Other Side, we learn about her powers and limitations. In the original, we get to know Elisa a few weeks after she has emerged as Ghost. She has already learned that she has to sleep, and can’t phase through jade. She has set up a room for herself in a crypt, and has a goal and an outlook. Avenging her murder is more important than discovering her identity. When she does discover she was Elisa Cameron — from her killer while entrapping him — she does ask why she was reborn as Ghost, but it’s not central to her mission. In contrast, the re-launched Ghost searches for her identity first, letting that quest lead her to her killer. She and her allies begin by investigating the box that facilitated her emergence as Ghost. The process of investigation helps restore her identity (as an investigative reporter) and solve her murder at the same time.
The need for revenge in the original Ghost makes Elisa her own worst enemy. “Arcadia Nocturne,” the first story arc in the 1994 series starts with a demon possessing a man. He then proceeds to kill people with tangential connections to Elisa Cameron’s murder. (In the 1993 special she figured out who killed her; she was unable to determine why.) Elisa’s investigation in 1994 leads her to a strip club where she is eventually able to confront the demon. Leaving his host’s body, the demon is revealed to wear a suit and a devil mask as a face. He calls himself Cameron Nemo and drags Elisa into a hell where she has to live out various scenarios in a degrading relationship as subservient to him. She is able to extricate herself from each of these situations and defeat him. But she also learns that Nemo and the hell he dragged her through are both her creations, manifestations of her fears that seem to undermine and reinforce her misanthropic world-view.
The devil faced villain who appears in the 2012 version doesn’t call himself Cameron Nemo, nor is he a manifestation of Elisa’s fears. In human form he is Mayor Bobby. Early on we see him at a press conference with his human face. A little later that conference is televised, only here the devil face appears. The politician is an emissary from Hell, and the reason Elisa was sent there in the first place. We learn he was released from Hell by a scientist decades earlier, only “nature demands a balance” — someone had to be sent to Hell in his place. Since then he has been kidnapping people and sending them to Hell in order to retrieve more of his demon companions. In life Elisa investigated the disappearances that were caused by these annual exchanges, and became a victim of them when she got too close. By the end of “The Smoke in the Din”, these discoveries set up the new mission of restoring the demons to Hell.
The human villain, Dr October, also appears in both versions. In the original she wears a Jack-O-Lantern mask, and the 2012 version employs some interesting ways to reference that. By the later version we see more of her face and story. The first story Dr October appears in is told from the point of Hunger, a misogynist with psionic powers. He misidentifies her as a “him” and insists that he would never have anything to do with her if she were a woman. Dr October is recruiting villains to destroy Ghost. Dr October is revealed to be a woman comes by exposing her breasts. We learn that she is envious Ghost’s eternal youth while she continues to age. From then on she is depicted in negligee and garters. Her eventual defeat in the 1994 story is accomplished by Elisa who misrepresents Dr October to her colleagues so that they attack her.
The 2012 version of Dr October is the abandoned and disfigured former colleague and lover of Mayor Bobby. She perfected the means of transporting people and demons between realms. Mayor Bobby has left her for another woman, and she blames aging for her misfortune. Dr October works to force him to make his new girlfriend the next victim of their inter-dimensional trafficking operation.
Ghost/Elisa Cameron was undoubtedly created to be a strong female character. Both incarnations display enormous will and capability. The 1990s version puts emphasis on strength demonstrated through violence and hatred. The sexy outfit was for baiting and killing. If the goal in this exercise of strength was to appeal to female readers, it was often undermined through the extremely exploitative plotting that seem to demean women as much Elisa it claimed to hate men. By 2012, depictions of strength no longer depended on such shows of force. The ability to appeal is based on empathy. We are with her as she discovers who she was, and directs her powers towards a new purpose.