From the effusive blurbs on the back cover and inside page of Eric Wight's My Dead Girlfriend (Tokyopop), it’s plain to see that the guy has a host of friends and/or admirers in the TV community (Joss Whedon, Josh Schwartz, Jane Espenson, Jeph Loeb): none too surprising when you realize Wight's best-known comic work prior to this "Global Manga" comes from working as Seth Cohen's ghost artist on The O.C. (Yes, they mention that credit on the front cover.) But the skill it takes to produce a few snazzy lookin' super-hero(ine) pastiche pages doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to craft a full graphic novel, any more than a facility with set design equates to the ability to build your own house. So how does Wight's first big graphic novel stack up for a readership outside the artificial world of TV's Orange County?
Turns out, on the basis of the first volume, that Wight handles his self-assignment just fine. A cheerfully bleak comic fantasy, My Dead Girlfriend centers around the bumpy romantic life of Finney Bleak, an average guy who lives in a world of monsters and witches: sort of a 'tween-boy version of Courtney Crumrin, only with a smaller head. The sole surviving member of a family known for outlandish demises (the book opens with our hero describing several of the more memorable ones), Finney is one of a small group of normal students at Mephisto Prep, a school primarily attended by a variety of teenaged horrorfilm types: the Deadbeats (a clique of old school monsters), the Aberzombies, a coven of witches called the Glindas, mad science nerds the Lab Monkeys, Invertebrates and Foreign Exchange Kids from Another Planet. As a "normal" kid, he's subject to bullying by the likes of the Frankensteinian teenager Karl, though – being the story’s hero – of course, Finney proves a master of the schoolyard putdown. Confronted in class by Karl, he snipes that when Karl's dad built him, "he had to give you the gonads of a snail." When one of the Glindas points out that snails are hermaphrodites, Finney replies, "Exactly!" Just the kinda Seth Cohen-esque wisecrack that you know will lead to an after-school contretemps in the dark-and-spooky woods right next to the old cemetery.
Finney's status as broody outsider is temporarily upended when he meets Jennifer, a blond and big-eyed girl, at the annual Purgatory Falls Fair. He falls hard for the girl, so much so that he barely skips a beat to learn both his parents have been electrocuted while riding the Tunnel of Love. Surrounded by family ghosts all his life, he sees the afterlife as an inconvenience more than anything. ("Ghosts suck," he tells Jenny at one point. "It's like their only purpose is to annoy the living to death.") From the title of our story, we know our hero is gonna regret those words to Jenny soon enough . . . and he does.
Wight handles this dark comic material is an energetic thickly outlined cartoon style which betrays his animation background (among other projects, he was involved in the attempt at turning Buffy, the Vampire Slayer into an animated series). Though packaged as one of Tokyopop original English language manga, the art really looks more westernized in a style that reminds me of Dean Haspiel in places. (Haspiel is one of several artists who show up in a back-of-the-book guest gallery.) A few times I could see Wight the Artist taking cartoony short-cuts with his compositions (what's the deal with that ring in Finney's hair?) but not disastrously so. First read through, the art sped me through the story with fresh-faced aplomb.
As an intro to this series, Volume One is perhaps a bit lighter on plot than it needs to be – a mid-book dream sequence comes across as pure padding – but the basic story of a boy and his first big thwarted crush remains strong. (The chapters where our hero and Jenny first get acquainted at the carnival contain several charming character moments.) While the first volume's cliff-hanger – our hero being threatened by the Deadbeats yet again – isn't much to stress about (we've already seen Finney's Dead GF save his ass once), the promise of romantic complications to come is dangled in front of the reader with enough teasiness to get curious about Volume Two. If My Dead Girlfriend is not the kinda comic you can see a younger Seth Cohen willingly reading, I can definitely imagine Seth's living GF Summer Roberts getting happily hooked on it . . .