This is very much the puzzling failure from J. Michael Straczynski. His hit rate in comics has been high, and even series deemed less successful have embodied the core values of a strong premise, interesting character interaction and well-conceived plots. Here, oddly on a creator-owned series, these desert him, and we have a rambling and ponderous read featuring a protagonist sketched in the vaguest of terms.

19th century rich man’s son Jonathan is one of the lost souls of the title. Intelligent, handsome and thoughtful, he’s unlucky in love and employment. Just prior to ending it all by flinging himself from a bridge he’s handed an imposing book by a stranger, as ballast. This is the book of the title, in which Jonathan is to inscribe his successes in saving those also rudderless and at the end of their tether. This is only after seemingly succeeding in his suicide and finding his way, over a century later, to a secret cavern occupied by a talking cat prone to abstruse pronouncements.

Jonathan never moves beyond a cipher. Sometimes accepting and obliging, at other times able to make up his own mind, such as when he rejects the blandishments of the Dark Man, he remains a blank slate. A recurring theme is the suppression of artistic endeavour by well-intentioned concern for the practicalities of life, but it’s never connected to the larger picture, it’s just thrown in, and that applies to other aspects also. The final chapter’s explanations to much of the background plays on the concept of mysteries being more alluring than answers. Some might consider this a witty cop-out.

Straczynski’s plotting too, usually such a strength, lacks any depth. The set-upon housewife and fractured artist Jonathan encounters in the early chapters blend fantasy and reality, but in dealing with their situations Jonathan is a rabbit from the hat man. Familiarity abounds. There’s a deliberate attempt to cultivate gothic strangeness, so successfully exploited by Dark Shadows, and in comic terms there are elements similar to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Michael Fleisher’s Spectre, and a less obvious nod to Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

Artist Colleen Doran does her best to make sense of everything, providing clear storytelling and a suitably enigmatic Jonathan bearing a perpetual expression of benign puzzlement (as on the book cover). Her suitably shadowy depictions, though, are sabotaged by colourist Dan Brown. In some places he deems a single large wash of reflective neon pink suitable, and in others decides a stained glass window effect with dozens of colours is what’s required. There’s none of the 21st century sophistication that might be expected.

Optimistically labelled Volume 1, there have been no further. There is an irony in Lost Souls rather becoming the graphic novel equivalent of its title, but there should be few willing to rescue it, the reputation of its creators notwithstanding.