Friday, 27 February 2015

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4 consists of issues #66 to #81 which concluded the original series plus later appearances in Amazing Spider-Man #274 and New Defenders #145 & the first few pages of #146. After the final issue of Michael Fleisher's run the rest of the series consists of runs written by Roger Stern and J.M. DeMatteis, with artist Bob Budiansky co-plotting a number of issues. Most of the art is by Bob Budiansky with early contributions by Don Perlin and Tom Sutton. The Amazing Spider-Man issue is scripted by Tom DeFalco and drawn by Ron Frenz while the New Defenders issues are written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Don Perlin and Luke McDonnell.

The final volume of the original Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider starts off with the series in a rather traditional fashion but then steadily builds up to deliver a bold conclusion to the run. But before it gets there it goes through a few routines. Michael Fleisher's run ends on a somewhat flat note as the carnival is attacked by a witch's spirit. There's then a fill-in by future writer J.M. DeMatteis in which Johnny fights a group of small town thugs and encounters a woman who has withdrawn from life in bitterness over her daughter's death but comes to help due to the intervention of her daughter's spirit. This mix of wandering through small time thugs and spirits had dominated the series for quite some time now but over the last two runs we get some more developed ideas that also make good use of the supporting cast in the carnival.

Issue #68, which also provides the striking cover to the volume, includes a retelling of the origin for the first time in a while. Told via the device of Johnny going into a church confession booth, it sees a number of minor additions to tidy over some of the more awkward bits such as establishing that Johnny had an interest in the occult before he made his infamous pact or that Roxanne Simpson learned of his promise to his dying adoptive mother and did not think him a coward. And although the being he made his pact with is still called "the Devil", Johnny says "Don't be so shocked, Father. It wasn't the Devil you warn kids about in Sunday School -- though, as far as I was concerned, he might as well have been." It's the first noticeable step away from identifying "that devil-thing" as the traditional Satan from Christianity. However it's not until issue #73 when the Ghost Rider is talking to Johnny within his mind that the name "Mephisto" is first used (overlooking the inventory story from Marvel Super-Heroes that was reprinted in volume 3), presumably as part of a general move to avoid depicting the Devil directly. Overall issue #68 is one of those origin retellings that manages to stay fresh, helped by a framing device as the Ghost Rider stops a priest killer who has come to rob the church, and makes for a strong debut for both Roger Stern and Bob Budiansky, the latter quickly establishing himself as one of the best artists the series has yet seen.

Stern's run may only last six issues but manages to pack a lot in. Following the origin retelling we get another small town tale as Johnny gets caught in the machinations of a romantic triangle of a flirt that leads one of her boyfriends to attack the carnival in a giant earth mover. There's then an attack by a swarm of deformed people who kidnap Jeremy, the carnival's freakish but gentle giant, and yet once their apparent master is overthrown Jeremy finds the attraction of an island where he is normal too good to reject. Another DeMatteis fill-in goes smoothly into the flow as Null the Living Darkness temporarily fuses with a teacher frustrated with his life. But the high point of Stern's run comes in his last two issues as Cork the Clown's son Eliot is revealed to be the Circus of Crime's Clown, trying to put his past behind him but lured back when his old comrades commit acts of sabotage and seriously injure his father. However Eliot is more devious and lures the Circus into a trap - but the Ghost Rider doesn't realise this and attacks the Clown with his hellfire. For the rest of the series Eliot is a hollow shell of himself, a reminder to Johnny of the horror within himself. This is also one of the best uses of the Circus, with the Ringmaster deliberately left in prison allowing the other characters to thrive and show how a talented performer like Eliot got drawn into crime in the first place. Overall Stern's brief period on the book has revitalised it but even better is still to come.

Many comic series have ended abruptly. Some get a rushed final issue or two that seek to provide a quick conclusion at the expense of many loose ends. Others just go out with a routine issue and only a brief acknowledgement of the series's ending in a closing caption or on the letters page. And there are those series that just stop abruptly mid story and no sense of a conclusion at all. Sometimes this would lead to another title being conscripted in order to provide a conclusion but sometimes the whole thing would be left up in the air with the planned final issues confined to file. (The 1990s Ghost Rider series was one of the worst of these with the scheduled final issue not even being printed and the story prepared for it didn't see the light of day for another decade. A generation earlier the original Ms. Marvel was another such case.)

But this Ghost Rider is much luckier. This is a series with a good conclusion that feels as though it was planned out. I'd be surprised if J.M. DeMatteis had actually been signed up for an entire eight issue run to end the series as that seems a rather long commitment but from the outset we get a steady building up of the mythology, both revisiting key elements whilst also adding to them. It's also notable that the series avoids the most obvious conclusion, which would be to have a showdown in Mephisto's realm that sees Johnny freed from the curse and escape to a happily ever after life. That precise story almost happens in issue #76, which is also the first to establish the Ghost Rider as a fully independent entity with a hitherto forgotten past and a name, Zarathos. As a contest between Mephisto and his rebellious underling Asmodeus, Zarathos has to win his freedom from Johnny by surviving a gauntlet in the underworld. However the ending comes with a twist as Johnny and Zarathos's determination to stop each other results in their being remerged as they leave Mephisto's realm. Had they continued to work together they could have peacefully walked through the portal together and arrived back in the world free of each other.

Other issues introduce Centurious, a long-lived man without a soul of his own who devours others', whilst the carnival is given its own climax as owner Ralph Quentin succumbs to the suggestions of Steel Wind, a female cyborg biker acting on behalf of the mysterious Freakmaster. Eventually we learn the Freakmaster is the vengeful son of two freaks abused by Quentin during his early years as a carnival owner. Now the son seeks to liberate freaks and perform drastic surgery on the Quentin carnival to turn the scales. Coming in a period when Johnny has one more than one occasion encountered images of his birth and adoptive parents it's a good contrast between the different ways filial duty has led to vengeance in different forms. Between this story and the Circus of Crime one most of the supporting cast get expanded and given a strong resolution to their stories. One who doesn't though is Cynthia Randolph, the journalist who has been travelling with the carnival for some considerable time as she researches an article about carnival life. The problem is that she seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time on this one project since the carnival has been shown moving between multiple venues and also there are indications that the series is occurring at something close to real time. Towards the end of the run she starts talking about using all her notes to produce a whole book and there are hints that she's also investigating Johnny's secrets, but ultimately nothing comes of it and she joins a long line of supporting characters who drift endlessly through multiple writers.

But the main emphasis in these final issues is on the conflict between Johnny and Zarathos, who has now regained his identity and memories due to the intervention of Nightmare. We learn of the demon's history of being awakened by a tribe and stealing souls that led him to conflict with Mephisto. The latter attacked through agents including a prince, subsequently revealed as Centurious, who resisted the power and led to Mephisto's triumph. Conflict between Johnny and the Ghost Rider has been present throughout much of the series's run but it now develops a new edge as we head to the conclusion. Also adding to the resolution is the return of Roxanne Simpson after a long absence. Now she seeks Johnny's help in dealing with the Sin Eater, a small town evangelical preacher who claims to consume people's sins but is actually stealing their souls for Centurious. In the final issue the Ghost Rider frees the town's people from Centurious's Crystal of Souls, trapping his foe there instead. But this denies Zarathos final vengeance; however the dying Sin Eater offers a way to send Zarathos into the Crystal, freeing Johnny in the process. But Johnny is unaware and resists, fighting to control the body... In a symbolic ending it's the intervention of Roxanne, whose feelings towards Johnny have been mixed due to their long separation, who now reaches out and makes Johnny surrender, allowing Zarathos to triumph and be dispatched to the Crystal. Johnny is now free and he and Roxanne ride off for a life together whilst the Crystal falls into the possession of Mephisto, making Zarathos his slave once more.

As conclusions to long running series go, this is one of the best. Roxanne's saving of Johnny mirrors the way she saved him from Mephisto's control back in the origin. Zarathos's history may be a recent addition but it feels a natural part of the cycle, allowing for a conclusion to an ancient run. And the final page of Johnny and Roxanne biking away with Mephisto holding the Crystal superimposed over them makes for an excellent last shot. The series has gone out on a true high.

As well as the end of the regular series we also get a further adventure for each half of the Ghost Rider. Unusually they're not printed in the original order of appearance, but given the second tale this seems appropriate. The first is Amazing Spider-Man #274, a special overlong issue with no adverts and also a crossover with Secret Wars II. In this story the all-powerful Beyonder is set to destroy the entire multiverse but agrees to a wager with Mephisto to delay this for twenty-four hours if his champion of life can prove mortals are worthy of existence. The Beyonder temporarily releases Zarathos to serve as his agent and get Spider-Man to renounce his sense of responsibility by refusing to prevent the assassination of the Kingpin. As a Spider-Man adventure this may be an usual scenario but it goes right to the heart of the character and his fundamental philosophy of life, also making it one of the best Secret Wars II crossovers. But Zarathos feels very out of character to the point that he didn't need to be used. For most of the protracted torment he is disguised as various dead characters in Spider-Man's life, and then goes for a direct attack in the form of a hooded avenger. Only briefly do we see him in anything like his traditional look (still minus the biker gear) and using his hellfire. Any demon could have filled his role in this story of temptation. It's a rather ignoble return of the demon.

The final material in the volume consists of New Defenders #145 and just the first six pages of #146. Taking place in the aftermath of a major Defenders battle these issues are mainly focused on character and organisational developments in the aftermath. It's in this context that Johnny and Roxanne turn up at the Defenders mansion, having detected the now passed danger, both to visit Johnny's old Champions comrades, Iceman and the Angel, and to ask the latter for a loan. The reason for only including the first six pages of #146 become clear as it's at this point Johnny and Roxanne say their farewells and department, with the Defenders commenting on their good fortune. Despite prominently featuring on #145's cover, Johnny isn't the main focus of these issues and at times the end of the volume feels to be detouring massively into the late era Defenders status quo. Nevertheless they serve as a nice little epilogue to the run. Johnny has now found peace and happiness and this gives a brief glimpse at his happily ever after days.

All in all this volume is a very strong conclusion to a series and character that it's been a delight to discover through the Essentials. The series has had its periods of formula and wandering before but here it takes the elements and enhances them, building up the mythologies of both sides of the character. Lasting well beyond the fads for both horror and motorcycle stunts, the ending of Ghost Rider shows how even the most faddish of concepts can be used for dramatic tales well beyond the fad they feed off. There are careful tweaks to the mythology and an honouring of the series's past that all make for a perfect ending.

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