As the new movie roars onto the big screen,
IIt’s 1972. Evel Knievel was the most famous man in America; films like Blacula, Deep Throat and Deliverance were topping the box-office; events like Watergate and Vietnam meant there was a darker edge in the air. Marvel were running stories like Werewolf by Night and Tomb of Dracula, but craved another addition to their ranks of horror to rival the usual superhero fare. The team ended up amalgamating all these seemingly disparate aspects of pop culture to create Ghost Rider, which debuted in Marvel Spotlight. Or more accurately Roy Thomas, Gary Freidrich and Mike Ploog created Ghost Rider, the phantom cyclist with the blazing skull. By day champion stunt-rider, Johnny Blaze, by night - after being tricked by Satan himself - a ghostly apparition who rides his chopper across the American badlands.
Then, in 1973, there was the runaway success of The Exorcist, all things demonic where hot property. Ghost Rider branched out into his own title, alongside the launch of Marvel’s most diabolical creation yet, The Son of Satan. All this is documented in Essential Ghost Rider, Volume 1 (Marvel, 4 stars), a huge compendium reprinting all the character’s early adventures from 1972 - 1976. It’s classic superhero comic writing from the age, with a supernatural twist, over the top and always enthusiastic, there’s even time for an obvious Jaws cash-in, alongside Ghost Rider’s usual run-ins with demonic cults, biker gangs and supervillains.
Johnny Blaze’s transformation into the Ghost Rider was also recently retold in Mythos: Ghost Rider (Marvel, 4 stars), perhaps the most successful entry yet in Paul Jenkins series retelling the early stories of various superheroes. Paolo Rivera’s fully painted pages really coming into their own with the flame and fire of Ghost Rider.
Then, as only happens in comics, a complete refit took place in 1990 masterminded by writer Howard MacKie. This time around the character of Daniel Ketch takes on the mantel of the Ghost Rider, reborn as the Spirit of Vengeance. The first seven issues are still in print as Ghost Rider: Resurrected (Marvel, 3 stars), another comic that reeks of the age it was written, and is fairly entertaining in a throwaway manner. Events gets incredibly convoluted for young Ketch, who eventually turned out to be the long lost brother of Johnny Blaze, but this series came to an early close as Marvel faced bankruptcy in the mid-90s. Ghost Rider was cancelled with only one issue left to print, which never saw the light of day. Until now. Marvel have delved back into the achieves for Ghost Rider: Finale (Marvel,
1 star). While this must have seemed a great idea, especially for any fans left hanging, the reality is overly complex and fairly incomprehensible as a stand alone issue.
With the film adaptation on the way, GR is back as Johnny Blaze, last seen in Garth Ennis’ Road to Damnation (Marvel, 3 stars) a lurid tale of hell in Clayton Crain’s over emphatic, cartoon style. And of course there’s Daniel Way’s new ongoing series, the first five issues reprinted as Vicious Cycle (Marvel, 2 stars), which features a nice pun but rough art, a lack of pace and a generally poor attempt at reviving the character. Admittedly, these first issues are a set up for the series as a whole, and here’s hoping it revs up a bit more steam as the series motors on.
Ghost Rider represents a perfect microcosm of the world of comics: creation, cancellation, relaunch, reinvention, cancellation and full circle back to the origins. The character has always been in a weird position, a fan favourite simply because he looks so goddamn cool, though his stories often let him down. He’s never been a huge seller but the new film should help revaluate one of comics’ most enigmatic characters.