I really enjoyed this six-part Vertigo miniseries when it came out in 1995. The art was very good, and though the plot wasn’t terribly deep it was engagingly written, with themes that spoke to me. Ten years later I’m less forgiving of the comic’s flaws, though I still find it an entertaining read.
Ghostdancing is the story of an ex-hippie rock star named “Snake” who discovers a drug called “Ghostdancing” which opens his mind to deeper realities. A generation ago he tried and failed to usher in the “Fifth World,” a new era where the humans would live in harmony with nature and the gods, all the filth and corruption of the Fourth World (our reality) having been washed away. Now, with help from some Native American Power-Beings, this dream can become a reality.
Back in ’95 I was starting my spiritual phase, happily exploring Wicca and Neo-Paganism, and had a couple books on Native American myth and history. At the same time, I was getting some practice as an angry queer activist. All this made me the perfect audience to Ghostdancing’s themes of cultural respect, environmental awareness, spiritual awakening, and the the idea that a better, saner world must be possible, though it might take an apocalypse to get it.
Over ten years later—a bit mellower, a lot more cynical—I’m painfully aware of the story’s simplistic black-and-white views and cliché-ridden plot. Snake and the other good guys are generally clueless, innocent and powerless until Coyote-Old-Man blows into town and opens their minds and souls (yet even then they don’t actually get to do much of anything except serve as martyrs or prophets. It’s the gods that take up the real job of reshaping the world), while the main bad guys are called “the Mammonites”: a centuries-old super-secret organization of coldly vicious control freaks, directly responsible for the physical and spiritual colonization of the Americas. Snake’s nemesis, one of the Mammonites’ henchmen, is nothing but a brutal, cocaine-sniffing thug. Basically, it’s the wise and spiritual “Noble Savage” (and Noble Savage gods, and the Flower Children who learn from the Noble Savage) vs. evil materialistic white men.
The spiritual/religious themes that I didn’t mind then, but now just grate, include: the belief in a primordial golden age, and in a golden age that will come again after a spiritual apocalypse if you believe hard enough (see, for example, the Ghost Dance cult, from which this comic got its title and borrowed a few details of the apocalypse). The use of drugs to open your perceptions to a “deeper reality” is an old standby (but not just any drug. Nasty, artificial cocaine numbs your brain. Clean, natural Ghostdancing frees it.) Most annoying of all is the typical New-Agey habit of mixing and matching cultures: the Fifth World is a Hopi belief, but the Power-Beings in this comic are very “Tribe Hollywood,” a generic mix of different mythologies—the famous trickster Coyote-Old-Man, Thunderbird, White-Buffalo-Woman, and various other unnamed human/animal beings.
It does help that writer Jamie Delano knew exactly what he was doing: he admits Ghostdancing is pure wish fulfillment, a wildly over-the-top tale of destruction and renewal coming from a place of outrage at the plight of Native people. And though outrage and passion by themselves don’t make for a very engaging story, I have to say Delano and artist Richard Case have pulled off something pretty special. If you can keep from rolling your eyes at the preachiness, Ghostdancing is a hell of a ride.