Matt is a psychic. And he is haunted. By memories. By disturbing visions. By the ghost of a little boy he desperately wants not to be real. But the ghost is real. The visions are real. The memories are real.
Matt has no choice but to live with his abilities, and he needs to come to terms with that fact fast. Because something is riding its way into the heads of Matt’s fellow psychics. Something vicious enough to kill, and sadistic enough to kill badly.
Phantom on the Scan is frustrating. Illustrator and colorist Mark Torres is doing indisputably beautiful, eerie work. Author Cullen Bunn has built a moody, disturbing tale. Matt’s spectral “friend” is a particular highlight. Torres never lets him become fully corporeal. He is supernatural power with the suggestion of form, might given personality — and perhaps purpose.
At its best, Phantom on the Scan is an enjoyably spooky comic that captures the dreadful isolation of its protagonists through mood. Consider the pages above. Between framing the initial part of Matt’s conversation with the ghost so that Matt and Matt alone is visible on page and the emptiness of his apartment, Torres generates an abiding loneliness for Matt to stew in. When Matt does make contact with his fellow psychics later in the book, Torres repeats the isolating framing for them. When the meet-up happens, all four of the psychics are withdrawn and uncomfortable. They are together and they are lonely, but they are not lonely together. They are together, and they are alone. Until they are not, and when that happens, Torres lets the chaos run and run gorgeously. It is visceral, to say the least, and barring one major misstep, it’s strong comics craft.
But while Phantom on the Scan‘s handling of mood is strong, its storytelling is disappointingly threadbare elsewhere. Matt and his fellow psychics are thinly sketched, and whatever or whoever their enemy ultimately turns out to be, at the moment they are first and foremost a whole lot of carnage. That can work, but it requires a little more information on who Matt and company are and what they are up to than is currently available.
As it stands, Phantom on the Scan feels both too gossamer like to grab ahold of and too overstuffed to breathe. The extended dialogue-free nightmare sequence that opens the issue is evocative as all get-out, and does a lot to explain Matt’s state of mind, but not a lot to delve into it. In other words, the reader knows how Matt is and some of why he is, but not yet who he is. There are threads — he’s a tether to his ghostly companion morally as much as spectrally, but they are not yet strong enough to weave into a compelling character.
That’s the case for Phantom on the Scan as a whole. There’s a ton of intriguing ideas, but there are so many of them that none of them quite get the space they need to blossom in this first issue. As a mood piece, I think highly of it. As a story, it frustrates me — especially a pivotal moment that introduces a character at the very end of a panel, leaving their full appearance confusing. It breaks immersion, and while the events of the story offer some justification for the framing, it remains a frustrating choice that hurts the book as a whole.
There’s quite a bit of good to Phantom on the Scan. I’d be curious to check it out in trade. As it stands though, there is not enough here for the issue to wholly work on its own.
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