Review by Ian Keogh
Thierry Smolderen’s consistently inventive action thriller begins with the idea that just before flying their planes into the World Trade Center in 2001, Al Qaeda made billions by gambling that the US stock market would plummet. No-one’s ever been able to discover where the money went. Flash forward to 2025 when most of the civilised world has elected conservative leaders, leading to frequent protests. During one in London, Lindsey is rescued from being crushed by enigmatic Chamza, who has her secrets along with a fortune. They form one thread followed, and the another is four off the books US agents, a law unto themselves and desperate to locate the missing Al Qaeda money. The other main player is the Emir of Lights, a middle Eastern man of power and influence who wants to make a difference to the world. We don’t know if he’s a force for good or evil, only that Chamza trusts him, while for the American agents his nationality is enough to justify him as a target. Someone else also affects the plot, but is sparingly used until well into the story, their technical expertise and curiosity becoming essential.
Ghost Money fits the long tradition in Europe of action thriller graphic novels, so Smolderen’s plot is very traditional, but also contemporary. It extrapolates on the boundaries of current technology and presents Americans automatically demonising any Arabic initiatives and considering it their right to mess with other countries. Smolderen highlights the hypocrisy by placing a convicted paedophile and a rapist among them, and that being of no concern to their partners beyond a few jibes. The most pertinent leap of technology is implants enabling remote viewers to see through the eyes of someone else, used throughout to good effect. Audience sympathies are projected onto Lindsey, an ordinary person first elevated to a world of glamour, then to dropped into one of terror as the realities circling Chamza come home to roost.
Dominique Bertail’s art is eccentrically laid out using multiple small panels, and sometimes four widely spaced tiers, so some pages resemble newspaper strip collections. When he opens up, though, it’s into ornately attractive sights with exquisitely rendered backgrounds. He sells the idea of the future with familiar shapes in new configurations, such as the cars, and there’s a gloriously designed swimming pool in a perspex container high in the sky over London. Smolderen’s attempting to present a world almost within reach, and Bertail’s responsible for the convincing. His art also progresses tremendously over the eight years it took to complete the story.
While the way the plot twists will be beyond the ability of anyone to predict, Smolderen’s not as adroit with the people populating it. The Americans are cartoon villains, and work as such, but other people need a little more motivation and don’t have it. All too often they drift from one scene to the next because they have to be there for the plot instead of a depth of feeling. Still, that plot’s good, unpredictable from start to finish with plenty of big visual moments, and in his afterword Smolderen writes about how much of what he tried to anticipate during the early sections of Ghost Money had real world equivalents by the time he came to write the final chapter. It’s one hell of a thrilling ride.