Friday, 10 October 2014

Essential Ghost Rider volume 3

Essential Ghost Rider volume 3 contains issues #51 to #65 of the series plus what appears to have been an unused fill-in issue that eventually saw print in Marvel Super-Heroes #11, and guest appearances in Marvel Two-in-One #80 and Avengers #214. Bonus material includes the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry for Arabian Knight. The main series is all written by Michael Fleisher, with the Marvel Super-Heroes fill-in by Tina Chrioproces, the Marvel Two-in-One appearance by Tom DeFalco and the Avengers issue by Jim Shooter. The art is more varied with a run by Don Perlin giving way to contributions by Carmine Infantino, Jim Shooter, Jack Sparling, Herb Trimpe, Alan Kupperberg and Luke McDonnell. The Marvel Super-Heroes piece is drawn by Greg LaRocque, the Marvel Two-in-One by Ron Wilson and the Avengers by Bob Hall. That's a lot of creators so there's a separate labels post.

The four Essential Ghost Rider volumes demonstrate a remarkable lack of forward planing considering the first only came out in late 2005 by which time Marvel had made a long term commitment to the reprint series. Of the eighty-eight core issues (including the initial bannered run in Marvel Spotlight), no less than fifty-seven, plus two crossover issues, were reprinted across the first two Essentials, whilst also leaving out some pretty major appearances in Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One that would have impacts on the regular series and would be often referenced here. This left just thirty-one core issues to complete the series - too many for a single volume even before considering a few other key issues that also merit inclusion, but really not enough for two separate volumes. Hence the resort to guest appearances that are frankly not needed here (especially when compared to the earlier omissions), and even then this volume looks and feels rather thin for one published on the slightly thicker paper the latter-day Essentials use. It's a good idea in principle to include standby material that was prepared for a series but not actually used for one reason or another without affecting continuity, but scraping around guest appearances can produce the most needless of filler material.

That said, Ghost Rider's appearance in Marvel Two-in-One does actually tie in well with the ongoing themes, even though it's a bit of a surprise to find Johnny in New York, performing major stunts before huge crowds at big stadiums when at this stage in his regular series he's still wandering the roads in the west or mid-west, surviving from job to job and suffering from a post-title reputation as yesterday's man. But both the regular series and guest appearance share the focus on how Johnny is increasingly losing control of his Ghost Rider self, who is lashing out at criminals for even minor offences. Here it falls to the Thing, who is also finding his monstrous form isn't always easy to control with bad results for those around him, leading to a fight between the two. (This is one of a number of Marvel Two-in-One issues that forgoes the original team-up concept and here actually bills the two characters as "versus".)

Also tying in with the series's themes but getting the status quo wrong in the opposite direction is Avengers #214. Placed during the period when Johnny is now working for a carnival, it instead shows him as a loner on the road who succumbs to taking up a low paying job at a petrol station. The Ghost Rider continues to be out of control, attacking his old ally the Angel which brings the Avengers (via a call searching for the now departed Beast) out to the west to hunt him down. Once again Johnny's situation is compared with a regular character, in this case Yellowjacket who has been suffering a breakdown, been expelled from the Avengers for his dangerous actions and is now being divorced by the Wasp after an act of domestic violence. Though Yellowjacket and Ghost Rider don't meet themselves, the comparison is all too clear between the two sinking in unhappiness and despair, leading them to act with ruthlessness and savagery. The resulting battle is unusual in that it's not a clear victory for the heroes in the book's title. Instead the Angel staggers from his hospital bed to confront the Ghost Rider about what he's become, causing the latter to calm down and revert to Johnny. It's an okay issue but not really essential. It would also have benefited from being placed before issue #63 instead of after it.

As for the "lost" issue, this also displays a problem of placement. The story in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 carries the caption "This story takes place prior to events in Ghost Rider, vol 1, #80" (yes "vol 1" - somebody had forgotten about the series starring the western Ghost Rider, but then Marvel Super-Heroes was published at a time when Johnny Blaze was usually billed as "the Original Ghost Rider") but otherwise gives no formal clue as to when precisely it's set. Here it's placed after issue #63 and before Avengers #214. But informally there's a lot in this story that suggests it would be much better placed later on in the run, at least after issue #65 but better would probably be somewhere in volume 4. Other than Johnny the only regular character to appear is Red Fowler, who is introduced in issue #63 but his relationship with Johnny shown here is much friendlier which would place it after events in issue #65. But what really makes the issue stand out as an anachronism are the uses of the names "Zarathos" and "Mephisto". Neither name has appeared yet in the regular series where the Ghost Rider is not given a name and the source of the power is still described in both dialogue and the intro box as "Satan" (though the actual origin hasn't been touched upon for a while) and their use here is frankly confusing. I wonder if this issue was commissioned around the mid #60s as a standby to go to print if the regular creative team missed their deadlines, and it was subject to minor rewrites over the next few years in order to keep the names up to date. That might perhaps explain why it's been placed at what is now clearly too early a point in the run. The story itself is rather functional as Johnny and Red arrive in a small town where they get caught up in a struggle between a cult leader planning to destroy a nearby nuclear power plant and his daughter who has rejected the cult's ways. But for the presence of Red in a sidekick role, it's a fairly typical example of the one-off adventures that take up most of this volume. It also appears to be the only credit ever for Tina Chrioproces. I wonder what became of her or if she was just a pseudonym for a more familiar creator.

Over in the regular series we're almost at the end of Michael Fleisher's run and it's starting to show. There are only really three significant developments throughout this volume. By far the biggest at first seems to be a one-off story but it soon proves to have had far deeper significance. Issue #53 introduces Azmodeus, another demon who becomes a recurring foe within these pages, who wants the Ghost Rider as his agent of chaos but needs to dispose of Johnny first. He sends his agent Tabicantra to do this and she uses her power to weaken Johnny's control each time he becomes Ghost Rider and the link ultimately destroyed so long as he changes enough times before an hour glass runs out. However she meets Johnny and has a change of heart before the final transformation, sacrificing her life as her magic prevents his transformation whilst she sees off a monster. In its own right this is a strong story but over subsequent issues it becomes clear that the Ghost Rider is becoming ever more out of control, getting ever more vicious whilst Johnny struggles to change back.

Otherwise the series continues the theme of Johnny Blaze wandering the roads, occasionally entering races and undertaking stunt jobs as part of long term practice for an eventual challenge to regain his title. Issue #58 sees the long anticipated rematch with Flagg Fargo as Johnny challenges him to regain his title and would have achieved it but the tournament is cut short when the Ghost Rider's old foe the Enforcer hospitalises Fargo as a match fixing scam. Johnny saves Fargo from death and the two earn a degree of respect such that later on Johnny feels able to ask Fargo for a loan to visit Saudi Arabia to take on a sheikh with ambitions to take over all the oil states in the Middle East utilising the Water Wizard's powers which can also work on oil. Fargo provides the money albeit with an impossibly short repayment period but thanks to the Arabian Knight and his flying carpet Johnny is able to make it back just in time. The final development comes at the end of the volume as Johnny seemingly settles down for the time being. Although he's previously stayed around in first Las Vegas and then Chicago for more than a single issue, he now joins a carnival, acquiring a supporting cast in the process. Owner Ralph Quentin is primarily a background figure at this stage but of greater significance are the existing stunt bike performer Red Fowler and accompanying journalist Cynthia Randolph. Red is initially displeased at being displaced to become Johnny's assistant but changes his view when Johnny risks his life to save Red from loan sharks. Meanwhile Cynthia is travelling with the carnival to research a feature for her magazine and resists Johnny's advances but soon realises there is more to him and determines to find out his secret.

In the meantime Johnny starts off the volume as the wandering hero helping those in need whom he comes across and facing down a succession of local bullies, crimelords and more exotic foes. There are some return appearances by the likes of the Orb, the Weather Wizard and Moondark, with the latter two teaming up for revenge, though their egos undermine them. Meanwhile the Orb makes multiple appearances, even turning to Machine Man's foe Madame Menace for new weapons. One adventure sees the awakening of the Sirens from Greek mythology who have been long trapped in sarcophaguses hidden in a cave in the American wilderness. They promptly seek vengeance on the world and capture a nuclear missile then launch it at a city. Later in Chicago the Ghost Rider's attempts to prevent a bombing are hindered by the Destroyer of Demons, a reverend with a hereditary power to tackle demons.

Ghost Rider occasionally acquires allies in these adventures but the most surprising is a modern day incarnation of the Night Rider (who once again appears with no explicit reference to having originally been named "Ghost Rider"; I wonder if contemporary readers were told this in the letterspages). Issue #51 contains a back-up story with a further adventure of Carter Slade and then in the present day issue #56 sees Hamilton Slade, a descendant of Carter's brother and successor Lincoln, discover a burial jar in a desert burial ground which transforms him into a modern day Night Rider, albeit without Hamilton being aware of his alternate form. Once more the Night Rider comes to the aide of the man with his original name. Another brief ally is "Clem", an old-fashioned lorry driver who helps Johnny against a biker gang - and is revealed to be the ghost of a victim of an earlier gang.

The pattern of women being drawn to Johnny but repelled by the Ghost Rider continues with the return of Gina, the woman he met when amnesiac in the previous volume. She is horrified at his treatment of the Orb and further by the handling of Tatterdemalion in a team-up with the Werewolf by Night, and so leaves him. One of the few women who does not flee in panic is Nora, one of the team of an auto circus that Johnny briefly joins as part of the training for his rematch. However the circus is attacked by the Apparition, the ghost of one of the circus's former stunt drivers turned criminal and executed. Johnny thinks he's tricked the Apparition into believing all his targets are dead, but miscounted and although the ghost is vanquished, the issue ends with Johnny cradling Nora's body.

At 416 pages this is the shortest Essential volume of all, though not by much. Blame for this state of affairs lies firmly with volume 2, released to tie in with the first movie and being a little overlong in order to include the team-up between Johnny and Carter Slade. This left the awkward state of affairs that results in the rest of the run being stretched over two volumes and padded out with two inessential guest appearances plus a fill-in later rescued from inventory. The Marvel Super-Heroes issue really belongs in volume 4 and that would also have allowed this volume to complete the Fleisher run. The core issues are slight but do manage to advance Johnny's saga forward, finding a good new angle on the character amidst a run of relatively typical adventures. There's no sense of building towards anything but equally there are no real stinkers in this volume. It's a solid but not too spectacular collection that keeps the character afloat for now.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...