The Webcomic Overlook #199: Paranatural
Some time ago, I was helping some folks clean up an old building downtown. I was there with my wife and a fellow helper. It was getting late… and our companion did the one thing you should not be doing when it starts getting dark: she started telling stories. Namely, that she had seen ghosts here.
She told us of two occurrences. She said she once saw a young girl playing near the pulpit. She seemed like a little girl who was just playing around, laughing and giggling and the like. The girl ran off to the back room. The lady went to check on the girl, but, as you might guess, the girl disappeared. The other ghost she saw was a soldier. The lady had done some research, and she found out the building next door was once an infirmary at the turn of the 20th century. She said that these ghosts weren’t dangerous. They were, in fat, rather friendly. She wouldn’t have thought them to be ghosts except that when she’d run after them, they’d disappeared.
Now, maybe I’m not the type of person who believes in ghosts. Maybe I had nothing to be afraid of, since it was made clear that the ghosts were harmless. Friendly or not, though, you best believe we shut off the lights, locked the doors, and got out of that building as fast as we could. The very otherness of a non-corporeal being is enough to get your hairs standing on end.
Zack Morrison knows this. There are many ghosts in his webcomic Paranatural. Some are dangerous. Some are not. But even the friendly ones possess the sort of innate creepiness that makes you want to lock the doors and get out as fast as possible.
Max is a young, sarcastic 13-year-old kid who’s just moved into Mayview. He has an overactive sister and a very childlike father. Their new home is a convenience store. If you’ve ever seen the anime FLCL, the situation should awfully familiar.
Paranatural has the feel of a goofy Gainax anime. The movements are more exaggerated, and the characters explode with emotion. Max’s Dad, for example, can’t just be happy, he has to treat every new development as if it were the most fantastic thing to ever happen to him. It’s implied that Max rolls his eyes at these antics. You’d imagine that would make him more subdued than the rest of his family. Nope! Max may be surly, be he takes that to the extreme himself. When he changes for school, he does so with a seriousness that can only be described as over-the-top.
This puts him a little at odds with the rest of the town. Max’s dad may be eccentric, but’s he normal compared to the rest of Mayview. Everyone acts like they’re totally overdosing on Red Bull. “I’m starting to think crazy is the norm in Mayview,” Max quips. Now, I’ve mentioned that there are ghosts involved in this story. You’re probably wondering if maybe they have something to do with everyone in the town acting as mad as a hatter. Perhaps … but so far, all clues point to the more likely theory that everyone’s crazy.
The first student Max meets at the school, for example, is a high-strung girl named Suzy who’s rather militant in having Max join the Journalism Club… even though no one reads the school newspaper. She’s so obsessed with talking notes that, when Max forgets where his first period class is supposed to be, she retrieves his schedule right from her notebook. His friends are the sort of kids who will hinder a bully by scooting their desks together so he can’t pass. If he fails to sit next to them at lunch, though, they cry bitter, bitter tears.
Teachers are hardly any better. One rather odd fellow rewards his students with gold stars. He does so by skipping through class, opening a treasure chest full of stickers, and flinging a nice gold star right at your forehead.
After dealing with the weirdness of real life, the ghosts, then should be pretty much cake. Max gets his first clue when he hears strange hissing at his new home. He’s then greeted with a cavalcade of weirdness. Johnny, our story’s resident bully, suddenly has a cute slime creature perched on his head that only Max can see. He walks though halls, thinking that they’re crowded, only to realized in the next moment that the hall was empty all this time. And there are times when he’s staring out the window, there’s a grinning dragon staring right back at him.
The town really is filled with supernatural creatures — or shades, as our characters call them. Some are ghosts. Some are spirits, which never were alive in the first place. Most are friendly, polite, and pretty content to just staying out of the way. There are other creatures, though, who would like to have nothing more than treat other ghosts like delicious midnight snacks. Max has gained the power to be “dead without being dead.”
He can see these shades. He can touch these shades. He can also shape the environment around him with the help of a tool. As it turns out, his tool is a mystical baseball bat… the better for smashing. By pure chance, he grabbed the bat in a moment of duress and now it has given him superpowers.
Max’s gifts attract the attention of the Paranatural Activity Club (known to the rest of the school under the inscrutable title of “Activity Club”). The view the world of the shades as a fascinating ecosystem that can only be experienced by the privileged few. They’re also sort of a Junior Ghostbusters squad, protecting friendly shades from malevolent ones who can make them even more dead. They’re led by Mr. Spender, a teacher who always wears sunglasses and who gets pretty frustrated when people mispronounce his name. His star pupil seems to be Isabel, who boasts an array of powers. She can manipulate paper — which is more impressive than it sounds. Turning paper into a whirling morningstar, for example. She can also shoot energy blasts from her fingers and force spirits to stop being evil.
Her classmate, Ed, seems to be equally talented. His tool is a paintbrush, a humble implement that can double as a scythe. While Isabel is ambitious, Ed is a little more of a prankster. Bustin’ makes him feel good. Isaac rounds out the team. He doesn’t carry a tool. In fact, we haven’t really seen him fight yet. However, he doesn’t seem to be shy about laying down the theoretical side of ghost bustin’.
Max sorta waves off the Paranatural Activity Club at first. He’s not the sociable type, and he’s not sure if he wants to take his talents as a spectral any further. There are also politics to consider: the Activity Club is viewed suspiciously by Suzy, who seethes with accusations of betrayal when she sees Max with them. But soon, Max is pretty much forced to side with Isabel, Ed, and the rest. After all… there were those weird noises he heard coming out of his own house….
To sum it up, Paranatural is absolutely delightful. The wild, blustery gesticulations and exaggerated expressions burst with the crazy energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon. And speaking of cartoons, I love how Mr. Morrison unnecessarily gives a sequence, say, three panels that most cartoonists would give one. When Max falls down the stairs, his butt hits all the steps. He then does a backflip, he lands on his feet, and finally he confronts his dad. It really is like watching an anime.
And then there’s the ludicrous dialogue, full of needless dramatics and ridiculous, made-up slang that makes absolutely no sense:
“Ride, my child, to the top of the hill! To your education!”
“He’s gonna need a whole lotta yeast to rise after one-a your punches!”
“Huh? D’joo scone the local protein already?”
“I’m a-rustlin’ your blankets! I’m a rustler!”
At the same time, the general air of silliness doesn’t detract from the moments of dread and unease. Now, Paranatural never really gets too scary. This is Poltergeist levels of horror, where the main event is suspense and not gore, blood, or violence. Generally, I think it’s fine for kids to read. There are moments that can be pretty unsettling… and, at some moments, Grade-A nightmare fuel. The fun art and the odd characters can catch you off guard, putting you in a mood for whimsy before hitting you with something a little more haunting.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)