Friday, 1 March 2013

Essential Ghost Rider volume 1

Essential Ghost Rider volume 1 contains Marvel Spotlight #5-12, featuring the character's debut, the first twenty issues of the original Ghost Rider (although issue #10 carried an emergency reprint of Marvel Spotlight #5 to plug a production delay) and also Daredevil #138 which contained a crossover with the series. For those unfamiliar with it, Marvel Spotlight was a try-out book which carried a succession of new characters before they were launched in their own series. Other series launched by it included Werewolf by Night, The Son of Satan and Spider-Woman. Effectively issues #5-11 are the "real" first seven issues of Ghost Rider in all but name, whilst issue #12 was a crossover at the start of headlining The Son of Satan. Additionally the volume also contains Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both Johnny Blaze and Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan.

Not included are Ghost Rider's appearances in Marvel Team-Up #15 and Marvel Two-in-One #8, even though the former introduces recurring villain the Orb. In this period Ghost Rider also became a member of the Champions, largely because of an editorial edict that at least one team member had to have their own series regardless of how much sense the team made. Events in The Champions get referenced on occasion, and it can be a little confusing when Ghost Rider is reflecting on his actions there. Hopefully one day The Champions will get the Essential treatment - there's just about enough material for a volume (and one issue had already appeared in Essential Super-Villain Team-Up).

The writing is primarily by Gary Friedrich and Tony Isabella, with Doug Moench, Marv Wolfman (who also wrote the Daredevil issue), Steve Gerber and Bill Mantlo all contributing scripts, plus Roy Thomas plotted the first Marvel Spotlight issue. The art sees runs by Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton, Jim Mooney, George Tuska and Frank Robbins, and individual issues by Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown and John Byrne, who also drew the Daredevil issue. (Because there are so many names, I've created a separate post to carry the relevant creator labels.) The character was created by... erm... this is a point of contention. The very first issue in the volume states "Conceived & written by Gary Friedrich" but there's some dispute over how much he contributed vis a vis Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog. The name "Ghost Rider" had previously been used for a 1967 Western series and character but there was no connection between the two, with the earlier version later renamed the "Phantom Rider" to remove confusion. (However the 2007 movie did connect the two characters but that's another story altogether.)

In all my years of collecting, Ghost Rider is probably the longest running character I have had the least contact with. The second series was still running for the first few years of my collecting, but the only issue I ever purchased was #-1 from "Flashback Month" This was one of Marvel's big events, the idea being that almost every title would have a special issue with odd numbering set in the past before Fantastic Four #1 and presented in retro style with old fashioned logos and colouring. Unfortunately the idea in practice resulted in a set of random issues that weren't very good introductions to many series because it was years before most characters gained their skills, powers and friendships and really did anything, and so instead young characters and their supporting cast often wandered around rather dull situations. This was certainly true of Ghost Rider #-1 which I can barely remember the details of but by definition it couldn't actually feature any of the Ghost Riders once powered up. (Flashback Month was also a disaster saleswise with many retailers and readers seeing it as an opportunity to take a month off without a gap in the ongoing narrative or the numbering of their collections.) Otherwise the Ghost Rider passed me by. Perhaps it was because there weren't any in crossovers that I collected. Perhaps it was a consequence of the "Marvelution" whereby for a significant chunk of those years the Marvel line was divided up between five separate group editors-in-chief and crosspromotion between titles in different groups was rare. Maybe it was sheer bad luck.

Going by just this volume it's clear that I was missing out. It's incredibly well written, with events flowing from one issue into the next and really making one want to keep going. (This can create problems for other appearances in this era and some are explicitly stated as taking place between panels but that's their problem.) There may be some individual stages where the series drifts from its course, particularly when one issue ends promising something and the next has either a reprint (#10) or a fill-in (#16) and indeed at one point an issue ends with "Next: We honest to goodness really don't know! How's that for honesty?", perhaps a sign of the general problems plaguing Marvel's schedules in this era. However, in general it's able to get things back to normal. The first Marvel Spotlight issue describes Ghost Rider as "the most supernatural superhero of all!" but the early issues in this volume are less superheroey than the average Marvel title of its time. Instead, it's far more of a horror title, exploring the struggle between Johnny Blaze and the Devil himself. On a secondary level the title and character was launched at the height of Evel Knievel and we get a protagonist who is a motorcycling stunt daredevil, though wisely there isn't too much time actually spent on showing him actually undertaking stunts, since it's difficult to translate the awe of achieving real life astounding feats into a medium that has long done just that. As the series goes on it also taps into another theme of the wandering young man searching both the country and themselves that was in vogue at the time but which also goes back to classic westerns.

Ghost Rider's origin is quite downbeat even by the standards of many heroes, as Johnny Blaze loses not one, not two, but three parents, all in separate incidents - his father, Barton Blaze, dies in a cycle stunt, then his adoptive mother, Mona Simpson, dies when a cycle explodes, and finally his adoptive father, Crash Simpson, contracts a terminal disease. Blaze is also very quick to make promises without thinking through the consequences and also relatively easy to break them - on his adoptive mother's deathbed he promises her that he won't ride in the show but never reveals this pledge (although his adoptive sister Roxanne deduces it) even though it weakens him in the eyes of his adoptive father. Then when his adoptive father dies performing a stunt Johnny quickly breaks that promise and completes the stunt himself. But most notably of all he is suddenly revealed to also be sufficiently knowledgeable in the occult to summon up Satan and pledges his soul in exchange for Crash not dying of the disease. But literally the devil is in the detail as Crash instead dies in the arena. Then Johnny tries to resist Satan when he comes to collect, though it takes Roxanne's purity to drive off the Devil, leaving Johnny with the ability to turn into a flaming skull with fire powers at night time. It's incredible how Johnny so easily turned to the ultimate evil rather than break a pledge that he wound up easily breaking anyway. And before the panel of him seeing the Devil there's nothing preceding in the flashbacks that even suggests he had the interest and knowledge to go this route. And then there's the being he dealt with.

I have previously expressed my surprise that Marvel would create Mephisto, a character initially presented as being all but named as the Devil but there was enough potential ambiguity to avoid being drawn too close on that point. But Ghost Rider goes a step further and doesn't even avoid calling a character "Satan" or "the Devil". What relationship he has to Mephisto is not explained at this stage - was this Marvel's equivalent of DC's Atlantis problem whereby different series portrayed the same basic concept in wildly different ways?  But even more surprising is the appearance from issue #9 onwards by a stranger with long hair and a beard who sees off Satan and understands about sin and the soul. If it wasn't for how daring a move this is, the stranger's identity would be all too obvious. Indeed by issue #18 Johnny/Ghost Rider has worked it out even before he sees an image of the stranger being crucified by several villains which should dispel any remaining doubts. However the following issue backtracks on the idea (by all accounts due to an editorial rewrite to overrule on this point) and instead declares the stranger was always a illusion created by the Devil. So it was deemed acceptable to portray Satan but not Jesus Christ. They even went as far as to release a series entitled "Son of Satan". Marvel in the 21st century has shown more caution - whatever the other arguments for it, the first volume of Essential Marvel Horror is really "Essential Children of Satan" (there's also Satana, the Devil's Daughter) but in this day and age it's hard to see such a title being used on shelves. True there was a mini-series in 2006-7 entitled "Hellstorm: Son of Satan" (the spelling of Daimon's surname jumps about a bit) but the emphasis of the logo design was heavily on "Hellstorm" and there's a difference between the specialist comic shops and the general market.

What is quite overwhelming is just how many times the foes are either Satan or servants of him. These include variously a gang of motorcyclists led by the spirit of Crash Simpson, Snake Dance, the head of a native American tribe who can become a giant serpent, Witch-Woman, his daughter who has succumbed to Satanism whilst at college, Roulette, the spirit of a gambler who looks like Death, One-Man Zodiac, formerly Aquarius who is now able to impersonate all eleven of his ex comrades, Slifer/Inferno, a demon augmenting him, Legion, a multitude of possessing demons, and Challenger, an arch demon. There are a few who aren't so directly connected, such as Big Daddy Dawson, the leader of another biker gang, or Hermann von Reitberger & Phantom Eagle, combatants from the First World War who present a scenario where things are not as they seem at first, whilst from other titles we get the Trapster, the Orb (introduced in Marvel Team-Up despite his connection to the Simpsons), and seemingly Death's Head, who is in fact Death Stalker, along with sidekick the Smasher, all Daredevil foes.

The wider Marvel universe doesn't make too many appearances despite this volume reprinting some twenty-nine issues in total. There's a crossover with Daredevil at the end and the Hulk pops up but otherwise existing characters are alluded to rather than actually appearing, though in issue #18 the Challenger produces illusions of the Thing, Spider-Man, Hercules and the Black Widow as part of his torment of the Ghost Rider. The early issues of the series also see the debut of Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, who returns later on. But it's two supporting characters who prove the most surprising imports. The Stuntmaster had previously appeared in a handful of issues of Daredevil where he started off as a villain but reformed and went off to Hollywood where he now has a television series and Johnny Blaze gets roped in as another stuntman to work on the series. This brings him into contact with Karen Page, who is also familiar from Daredevil where she had initially worked as Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson's secretary before seeking new career horizons in acting. Here she's still working as a mainstream actress (her more infamous work came later), and there's an extended tease about whether she and Johnny will become an item, with the Daredevil crossover largely serving as a way for her to fully cut her romantic ties with Ol' Hornhead. However any developments with Johnny are compounded by the presence of "Katy Milner", Karen's stunt double who turns out to be a disguised Roxanne Simpson.

Roxanne is by far the most prominent recurring character, successfully transitioning from the early issues when Johnny is still attached to the Simpson carnival, to the later issues based in Hollywood. She is in the awkward position of being both Johnny's adoptive sister and romantic interest though the potential complications are never explored here. At this stage she is deliberately presented as a young naive, innocent woman - factors that play key parts in storylines first when her innocence saves Johnny when Satan first tries to collect his soul, and later when she is tricked into renouncing that protection as she believes it will save her father's soul from suffering. After this she feels she has to mature and leaves Johnny for a while, but in what feels like another editorial rewrite she is later revealed to have been unknowingly disguised as Katy Milner, perhaps as a way to quickly get her back into the series after a change of writers. There are various other recurring characters such as Bart Slade, Johnny's crippled road manager, or Coot Collier, a Hollywood director, but none are of too great an importance.

As for Ghost Rider himself, the character undergoes some development throughout this volume as he leans from repeated encounters with Satan and steadily becomes less selfish. His powers undergo a subtle shift in line with this - at first Johnny Blaze turns into Ghost Rider every night at sunset but later on his power shifts after three occasions when he opts to help others instead of merely escaping he finds himself now changing only when there is danger. His physical powers are primarily strength and his hellfire energy, which he most notably uses to create a motorcycle from nothing when more corporal ones are other of action. Early on he seems a little too willing to use his hellfire blasts to kill or at least put his foes in real jeopardy, with thoughts such as "Don't like killing anyone -- but better he die than innocent drivers!" As the series progresses this becomes less notable. Of more prominence are his cycles, with the hellfire versions usually reflecting the physical versions. I know nothing about motorcycles but visually I prefer the design he originally uses, as shown on the cover of this volume, to the "Skull-Cycle" he uses in the latter part with the windscreen and headlights integrated into a skull-like design on the front of the bike. Ghost Rider's identity is generally not a secret, although there's the occasional moment when this isn't so certain, but I feel the Skull-Cycle is somewhat of an overkill and a more conventional design works better.

Overall, this volume turned out to be quite a surprise. It may have a heavy focus on a single foe and his minions, but this works to the series's advantage, allowing it to show the extended struggle and journey Johnny Blaze is on as he steadily attains redemption. This isn't in anyway an overt religious preachy story but rather an adventure/horror series that follows one man through his trials and tribulations. I am amazed at how much the writers were able to get away with in regards to the religious elements, but combined with everything else they make for quite a good run. I am amazed at just how much Ghost Rider has passed me by before now.

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