Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb takes place in an alternate 1935 America. The geography is just different enough to keep you on your toes and remind you that Johnny’s world isn’t quite our world (there’s a map—it looks like the South won the Civil War, for instance, and our United States became four separate nations). Ghosts very much exist, though not everyone can see them, and they serve a role well beyond simply haunting. They even hold down jobs and continue to be a part of society to some extent, although they are in many ways second class citizens.
Johnny Graphic is a 12 year old news photographer. He took a test to place out of high school, so he’s starting his career as a professional photographer for a newspaper. His older sister Melanie is a professional etherist—she interacts with ghosts, often encouraging them to stop pestering humans. As the story opens, we learn that someone is sending ghost assassins to kill etherists, and they’re after Melanie next.
This pulp adventure, with ghosts and zombies and flying boats, is quick paced and engaging. It reminds me a bit of Dinocalypse Now in tone—clever and action packed—although with its young protagonists it’s more explicitly aimed at the middle grade set. My son loved Dinocalypse Now, so I’m anxious to see what he thinks of Johnny Graphic.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Ghosts are very real, but the book has an unusual take on them. Since Johnny and Melanie can see ghosts, the reader also gets to experience a variety of ghostly characters. Like humans, they have different personalities and roles in the story—some are allies, some are enemies, and some don’t fit into either category. At first the ghosts were a little creepy to me, but as the story went on I developed more and more sympathy for their plight—they’re part of the world yet can’t interact with it unless commanded to by a human, they live forever yet can still be injured and feel pain, they have no way of ever moving on beyond this existence and over time some of them tend to come a bit unhinged. The ghosts who are allies the protagonists are great characters, particularly the Civil War era brigade that answers to Melanie.
Some ghosts have learned to inhabit the bodies of the newly dead. They keep their own memories, personalities, and voices (which is called out as one of those weird things you can’t explain but is still the case), but they have a different, slightly earthy smelling body and a craving for raw meat. They’re referred to as zombies, but like the ghosts they aren’t your run of the mill Halloween critters. As a zombie, a ghost can interact with the world on its own terms, making the evil ghosts that much scarier.
What many ghosts want most is some measure of equality. Melanie and Johnny are sympathetic to this—after all, some of their best friends are ghosts—but the violent means of the villains are unacceptable. Melanie’s primary job is help ghosts coexist peacefully with human beings.
The story opens with the ghost assassins killing one of the etherists. He’s old and dying of cancer, so he goes fairly willingly. It’s still a pretty creepy scene. The good news is that if your child isn’t too freaked out by this scene, nothing in the rest of the book should be too much. The ghosts, most notably the assassins, carry the injuries that killed them—the main assassin has bleeding holes where his eyes used to be.
Nearly all the ghosts came from tragic ends (not everyone who dies becomes a ghost, although scientists are still studying why that’s the case). One of the ghosts is a 10 year old girl—the story of how she became a ghost after being strangled is very sad. We see a young scientist die and become a ghost. His confusion and sorrow is a bit rough. There’s a mention of an infant ghost at the end that would probably make my girl a bit upset.
There are lots of battles with ghosts. At one point, Johnny beats a ghost to a pulp with his camera. Since the ghosts don’t die, eventually there are a lot of beheaded ghosts walking around. The etheric bomb of the title is one of the worst bits of violence done to the ghosts. It’s highly destructive to humanity, but instead of ending a ghost’s existence (a relief many seek) it simply blows them up into millions of tiny still conscious bits. It’s really horrible to contemplate.
As it’s 1935, there is some sexism. One lesson Johnny learns is not to argue with a girl. On the other hand, there are female pilots, including Johnny’s friend Sparks who is his age and is a fantastic navigator. She saves the day on a few occasions. Melanie is a great sword fighter and some of the ghostly warriors are women. There are women, including Johnny’s mom, who are great researchers, thinkers, and scientists.
Melanie and Johnny’s parents disappeared a while before the story opens. Melanie is the stressed out older sister, trying to hold everything together as the money runs out and they risk losing the house. She tries to keep her brother from knowing the truth about what’s happening so he won’t worry. That, of course, totally doesn’t work out. Johnny spends a lot of time trying to protect Melanie, too. They’re very aware that all they have left is each other. When they get hints that their parents might still be alive, they put off that quest until they’ve saved the world. (This leaves the story open to a sequel!)
Honora, an older family friend, has to face the fact that her beloved son has become an evil ghost zombie. While truly saddened by this, she still manages to hold things together to do what she must to foil his plans. Her son is pretty malicious, betraying her in ways he knows will hurt her most.
Science and Logic
The Graphic parents were scientists, an interest that has been passed down to their kids. Melanie’s job as an etherist requires a lot of research—in fact, this is part of what got her into trouble. Johnny is as much an artist as a scientist, but he takes his job as a journalistic photographer very seriously. Most of the characters don’t tend to be swept up in emotion, dealing with things logically as befits the cutting edge pulp characters they are.
Johnny inadvertently ends up in the middle of a love triangle with his friend Sparks and a jealous young ghost. Johnny is pretty oblivious to all of this until it’s spelled out for him. The young ghost makes a significant sacrifice in the climax of the story, even though she’s been timid through much of it. For the most part, Johnny and Sparks are truly just best friends, although it seems like she wouldn’t mind if it was more someday.
Melanie and the dashing young pilot of their airboat have a bit of a thing. The reader learns about it mostly through Johnny’s observations.
At one point Johnny is blinded by the blast from an etheric bomb. Although it’s temporary, it lasts for a while and he isn’t sure that he’ll ever recover. It goes into some depth about how he copes and the despair that he feels because a blind photographer is useless. At some point he makes the conscious decision that he needs to stop feeling sorry for himself and he needs to let other people help him. The Graphic kids are very independent, so this is a huge step for him.
Johnny has a dream where he’s naked and running for his life. It feels pretty real, so it may bug kids if they’ve had similar nightmares.
The nonstop action and off-kilter but still familiar world make for an engaging read. Although I get a slightly “boy book” vibe from it, it’s full of proactive female characters, too. The plight of the ghosts adds depth to it—I hope that most readers will go from finding them spooky and sometimes funny to feeling sympathy for the difficult situation they’re in. It opens the door to a lot of conversations about any group of people that’s marginalized.
Due to some graphic violence and the themes explored, I’d recommend this either for older readers (maybe 10 and up) or as a read aloud so you can discuss things with your kids.
He enjoyed this and it got him thinking. He liked how zombies were handled.
Disclaimer: The author provided me with a copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.