Friday, 13 June 2014

Essential Ghost Rider volume 2

Essential Ghost Rider volume 2 contains issues #21 to #50 of the series. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Ghost Rider, Doctor Druid, Doctor Strange and the Night Rider. The writing sees a succession of runs of steadily increasing lengths from Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie and Michael Fleisher, with Don Glut contributing one script. Most of the art is by Don Perlin, with an early run by Don Heck and issues by Gil Kane, Tom Sutton, Steve Leialoha and Carmine Infantino.

The same year that this volume was released also saw the launch of the first Ghost Rider movie, in my opinion the best one (not that there's a great deal of competition for that distinction). Although some of the details of both the origin and the Ghost Rider mythology were altered, it remained faithful to the basic concepts and gave some memorable moments, including a teaming of Johnny Blaze and Carter Slade, the original Ghost Rider. So too does this volume. Indeed there's much here that informs the basic backdrop of the film.

The early issues wrap up Johnny's career as a Hollywood stuntman and then he goes out on his own, riding across the West like some latter-day wandering cowboy, moving from situation to situation without ever setting down roots or growing a new supporting cast. Most of the existing characters are left in Hollywood to carry on as before. Also fading from his life with the end of their series are the Champions, though they've generally only made cameos here. Although he can still make all manner of stunt jumps when he needs to, the stunt performances are largely ignored to the point that people wonder what's happened to him. At about the same time that in the real world Evel Knievel was appearing in his final stunt show (although he didn't actually jump in it), Johnny is challenged by Flagg Fargo for his title of stunt champion of the United States and narrowly loses. It's a steady but strong shift in the character, reinforcing his tragic loneliness.

With just four Essential volumes and a total of eighty-eight issues (excluding crossovers, post series appearances and standby fill-ins only used later on but including the initial seven issues run in Marvel Spotlight), it's tempting to see Ghost Rider as a closed saga, with a definite beginning, middle and end. On the face of it this volume may be the longest section but also the least involved, with few of the big moments in his life. However at a more subtle level there's steady development throughout the volume as the relationship between the human Johnny and his demonic side evolves, first as Johnny discovers he can now transform at will and then as the demon increasingly takes over when in skeletal form. On more than one occasion the two are detached, whether because Johnny's spirit is briefly transferred to another human's body or because a magician separates the two or because Johnny has temporary amnesia and consequently is unaware of his demonic form, who in turn finds Johnny's mind is closed to it. More and more Johnny finds he cannot control his demonic side, who often resorts to ever more vicious methods, and wishes to escape it altogether but keeps finding he cannot.

Of course it's doubtful that any sense of a closed novel was considered at the time, with the continued turnover of writers and a drift into a formula as the wandering Johnny Blaze comes across trouble in one settlement after another. However the series is successful in taking the format and offering numerous twists and turns whilst also taking a big step away from conventional superheroics. This is a saga of a man searching for peace and trying to escape the torment he carries with him but all too often finding that he can't. Often he finds people and an environment where he might settle down and find real happiness, but time and again the curse of the Ghost Rider is there. Whether it's Johnny or his new found friends, especially the succession of women he meets, there is always a realisation that the demon is just too great a barrier to happiness and so he must continue his roaming.

Before that roaming begins, we have the last few issues of Johnny's days in Hollywood and a romantic triangle with Karen Page and Roxanne as he struggles to decide between them even though neither seems to actually want a serious committed relationship. Eventually Johnny realises that it's Roxanne who he wants but by then she has accepted the advances of special effects artist Roger Cross. Meanwhile Karen only wants to be friends. Karen's presence in the early issues may have inspired the use of the Gladiator, also from Daredevil, who is now after a device held by the old Human Torch foe the Eel. When the Eel is murdered, Ghost Rider is accused and Johnny has to clear his name, eventually resorting to using hellfire to arrange a simultaneous appearance to cover up his identity. The mastermind behind the Gladiator and new foe the Water Wizard is the Enforcer, whose identity is one of the weakest intentional mysteries of all time as, apart from a brief red herring suggesting he's movie producer Charles Delazny, it becomes all too easy to spot that he's actually Delazny's son. The remaining Hollywood issues are generally inconsequential with new foe Malice being just a guy in a funny suit with laser and vibration guns, and primarily seeking attention rather than offering a substantial origin. Then there's a fight with Doctor Druid over a misunderstanding about the Ghost Rider's nature. Add in anger and frustration about what he thinks is a serious relationship between Roxanne and Cross, and Johnny now hits the road. Roxanne does try to track him down but in the process she encounters the Orb who inflicts amnesia upon her. Johnny never finds out about this and she is last seen #28 as she accepts the claims of local cowboy Brahma Bill that they are sweethearts and goes off with him. Despite occurring in Roger McKenzie's first issue, Roxanne's situation is never touched upon again in this volume and now truly all the connections have been severed, leaving Johnny as just a man on the road with his demonic side, his clothes and, depending on the issue, a metal bike.

Out on the road Johnny encounters a handful of other heroes, starting with Hawkeye and the time-displaced Two-Gun Kid, followed by an encounter with Doctor Strange in which the magician's old foe Dormammu tries to use Ghost Rider to kill Strange. In the process Johnny finds his mind transferred to Strange's whilst Dormammu controls the Ghost Rider's body. Then at the end of the volume Johnny is thrown back in time and teams up with the Wild West hero the Night Rider against his traditional foe, the Tarantula (no relation to the Spider-Man foes by that name). Neither issue #50 nor the Handbook entry explicitly mention that the Night Rider is the first character to use the name "Ghost Rider", renamed in order to distinguish him from the more famous motorcyclist. (However this new name would prove to be a rather unfortunate choice for a man dressed all in white as it's also name used for members of the Ku Klux Klan.) But there are enough indications that Carter Slade and Johnny Blaze are sufficiently similar to justify the team-up in the double-sized issue.

The limited number of guest stars in this volume may have resulted in a very limited number of options for Handbook entries to fill up the page count, though there were still the alternative options of Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (although the latter didn't have an entry in the original Handbook, from which the four entries are taken, and would have had to have been lifted from the Deluxe Edition where the pro forma is slightly different). But the result is that two of the entries contain major spoilers for later volumes. The Night Rider entry is focused not upon the Wild West hero seen here but on his great great nephew seen in a later issue. (It also doesn't seem to know what an "ancestor" is, using the term to describe the later one.) But the Ghost Rider entry is worse, introducing names such as "Zarathos" and "Mephisto" some time before they turn up in the series (the back cover of the volume also uses "Zarathos" earlier than it should), as well as detailing the backstory of the demonic side of Ghost Rider and giving away what will happen in the issues that reveal much of this information.

The series continues to add a variety of new foes, but few last. There's the Manticore, an agent of the Brand corporation, rivals to Roxxon for corporate plots. Or there's "the boy who lived forever", a long-lived boy called Nathan with advanced mental powers that has enabled him to develop technology but the body and outlook of a boy, flying around in a spaceship with his own robots. The foes closest to the Western tradition come at the end, first as a company is building a dam that will destroy land sacred to Native Americans whilst some of the workers plan to loot a town and flood it. In reaction a traditional Indian spirit called the Manitou is summoned and then Johnny is flung back in time to the 19th century where he proves his true nature.

And then there are the more horror based foes. There are a pair of vampires with many bats at their command. The Bounty Hunter is another agent of the Devil, the ghost of a vicious 19th century bounty hunter who has been tasked to bring in fifty souls in exchange for his freedom. Darker still is "Death", manifest in the form of another skeleton on a motorcycle albeit without the flames. This "Death Ryder" challenges Ghost Rider to a racing and stunt duel across the desert, ultimately for Johnny's life. At another level are the various thugs and bullies Johnny meets in his travels, whether biker gangs or construction worker bullies or mobsters. Or there's a cult of death worshippers, which turns out to be a money making scam. Then there's the "Nuclear Man", an armoured and embittered scientist who has turned against nuclear power after his son-in-law was killed by an accident and his grandson was born deformed.

But as the series moves ever further from superheroics and back into horror, it often seems the real threat is the Ghost Rider, slowly asserting its own control and becoming ever more fierce, torturing foes almost for pleasure. Issue #37 is a partial homage to the origin of Robin, featuring a family of circus performers who get killed by the local mobster after the owner reneges on a debt; the sole survivor is a son who wants vengeance. But rather than taking in the boy as a sidekick, Johnny instead scares him away from summoning the Devil and, as the Ghost Rider, pursues the mobster to his death. It's a harsh reminder that Johnny is no great hero but a man burdened with a real curse. The reaction of those around him, especially the various women he meets, is mixed, with some scared off by him. Others are prepared to stay with him but Johnny is not prepared to put them at risk. There's one time when it seems he has found peace when he loses his memory and winds up as a mechanic for a female racing driver, but incurs the wrath of her foreman. Neither the amnesiac Johnny nor the Ghost Rider is able to access the other and it seems as though Johnny is at peace. However the rival foreman attacks him, restoring his true memory and forgetting his alternative life altogether. Another chance at escape comes when the magician Azaziah splits Johnny and the Ghost Rider; however the two prove unable to survive without each other, finding their energy levels much drained, and so Johnny has to perform the spell to reunify them. Later, after losing his title in the competition with Flagg Fargo, he briefly turns to drink in the hope of "keeping the demon at bay" but it doesn't have the desired effect.

Overall this volume offers more than it seems at first. Most of it may lack a supporting cast or recurring foes, but it shows a good way to handle the wandering hero who brings help to those he meets on his travels whilst at the same time balancing his curse. And the whole relationship between Johnny and the demon is steadily built up over these adventures as he steadily loses control and finds the biggest monster around is within him. The backdrop works well, making for a good latter-day western. It's easy to see where the first movie found much of its inspiration. It's just a pity the Handbook entries and back cover give away spoilers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...