Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ghastly Rider

Throughout the 1960s, mainstream comics were growing up, growing away from the silly, tame, light-hearted fare for children to which they'd been forcibly reduced by the Wertham-inspired witchhunt of the 1950s. Marvel Comics led the way, with Stan Lee and his merry band crafting a gigantic comic universe populated by a more diverse and complex group of characters than the medium had ever seen. The 1970s opened with Marvel successfully challenging the overbearing restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, that most prominent remnant of the Wertham reign of terror. The move led to the reform of the code, and, with the straight-jacket loosened, the medium hit puberty, and an era of wild experimentation was inaugurated at Marvel. Old ideas were re-tooled, while new ones blossomed in remarkable abundance, and often seemed to be carried from thought directly to the page without much consideration as to how or even if they'd actually work in execution. It made for a lot of interesting work, both among the successes and the failures. Marvel has just collected, in one of their wonderful Essential volumes, the first few years of one such experiment, "Ghost Rider."

I was quite a "Ghost Rider" fan when I was younger, but I'd first gotten into it a little later in the run, during Michael Fleisher's excellent stint on the title, and I've never gotten to read most of these earliest tales. Unfortunately, having now done so, I can only report that "Ghost Rider" was a book that radically improved after the period covered in this first Essential volume. GR was launched by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, the writer/artist team that would subsequently unleash upon the world the classic "Monster of Frankenstein." GR proves not to have been their most glorious moment. Ploog departs after four issues, and art chores on the title become a revolving door, but Friedrich stays on for 13 of the first 14, at which point he's replaced by the normally rock-solid Tony Isabella, whose run, reprinted in its entirety, is, likewise, not his finest moment. The book suffers from--and, in fact, is crippled by--a most common ailment of books from its era: no vision. Right from the beginning, there's no sense of what the book is supposed to be about or where it's supposed to be going or even what it is, and there's no more of a direction evident at the end of the 28 issues collected in this volume as there was at its beginning.

"Ghost Rider" tells the story of Johnny Blaze, stunt cyclist extraordinaire, who makes a pact with Satan to spare "Crash" Simpson, his adoptive father, from a disease which is killing him. There's not a single line or hint of buildup to Blaze's interest in the occult, prior to the page in which he decides to enter into this arrangement, and the panel in which he does so had me howling:

NARRATION:
...you couldn't go... Not when they needed you! Still, there was no one you could turn to... No one except...

BLAZE:
SATAN!

That "Satan" in HUGE letters, on the page, would have been funny, in any circumstance; a reader in a world that has experienced Dana Carvey's Church Lady character will, of course, find it even more amusing.

That little bit of silliness aside, Blaze makes the deal, and Simpson miraculously recovers from his illness. But the Devil proves, as devils usually will, not to have been an honest broker, and, three weeks later, Simpson is killed while performing a motorcycle stunt. Satan appears to collect on Blaze's debt, but, in the midst of working some horrific hoodoo on the stunned cyclist, he's interrupted by Roxanne Simpson, Blaze's adoptive sister and the love of his life. As it turns out, she's a woman "pure in heart," and her love for Johnny prevents Ol' Scratch from carting off Johnny's soul. Vowing vengeance, the stymied Satan departs, leaving his intended hoodoo half-worked. Half a hex is still a hex, though, and, with the coming of each night, Blaze finds himself transformed into... the Ghost Rider!

From this point, it becomes painfully clear the creative team had no clue where to take the story. Later in the series (beyond the scope of the Essential volume), the book's writers would introduce a Jekyll and Hyde element, explaining that the Ghost Rider is Johnny bonded with a VERY violent, ruthless, and powerful demon (the two having seperate personalities, always battling for dominance). In these early issues, however, the transformations, aside from being visually stunning, are pretty lame, as such tranformations go. Blaze retains his thoughts, and full control over himself, and the change doesn't even seem to give him any more stength or durability than he normally has. It almost begs the question of why the writers had him transform at all. Admittedly, having one's head change into a blazing skull every night is an inconvenience, but, under the circumstances established in early GR, it isn't really much more than that. In any case, it doesn't give one a direction in life, particularly one worth chronicling in a bi-monthly comic, so the book's standard plot, introduced in the second issue, becomes "Ludicrously incompetent Satan hatches some absurd and needlessly complex scheme to get revenge on Blaze, and fails." That, believe it or not, adequately describes the substance of the first 19 issues of the book.

Even that, however, doesn't come close to doing justice to how very little direction there seems to be to the title. Plot points are introduced then contradicted or discarded. The Ghost Rider's powers seem to change from one issue to the next, often with little or no explanation. Characters are created, developed, then disappear forever. It's quite a mess.

Satan proves to be one of the most incompetent Masters of Evil in comics. Unfortunately, this is an inherent flaw in the scenario established by the book's creators. For over half of the Essential volume, Roxanne's love for Johnny is the only thing protecting him from Satan--if she dies, Satan will possess his soul. The obvious answer, if you're Satan, is to kill her, which would seem a VERY simple matter for any Prince of Darkness worthy of his title. This one doesn't quite seem to have gotten the hang of this "Evil" business, yet, though. He tries to kill her once, in the second issue, but his plan for seeing it done is so absurdly convoluted, it comes off as farce. He has the soul of Roxanne's father, Crash Simpson, returned to earth in a new body to do the deed, but instead of simply having Crash shoot her, stab her, bludgeon her, or kill her in any of the hundreds of easily available ways, Crash is ordered to "sacrifice" her to Satan. This leads to some cheesy b-horror-flick-derived "Satanism," and Roxanne escaping, as GR rides to the rescue. Satan and Crash are even thoughtful enough to schedule the planned sacrifice at night--the night after they kidnap Roxanne--so that Blaze could be transformed into GR for the occasion. From this point, issue after issue is filled with Satan huffing and puffing, threatening, menacing, and all the while watching his laughably ineffectual scheming fail miserably because he doesn't attempt a simple assassination that would solve all of his problems. Worse, four issues after trying to do her in, one of Satan's minions actually saves Roxanne's life when she's on the verge of death from snake-bites!

As those snake bites indicate, the fact that Satan is too incompetent to simply arrange for her death doesn't mean Roxanne has a very good time in these stories. She is, in fact, kidnapped four times in the first four story arcs, menaced by a mentally unstable fellow in the the fifth, then kidnapped again in the sixth, this time by Satan himself. When she leaves the book for a time, the damsel-in-distress role is assumed by Daredevil gal-pal Karen Page, who dutifully gets kidnapped by the Orb then by Death Stalker. Before the book's end, however, Roxanne is back and being kidnapped again, this time by a being known as the Challenger, who swipes her in order to force Johnny to run an odd "race" designed to challenge him "on every level" (the Challenger, btw, turns out--no surprise, here--to be Satan, undertaking another of his ridiculous schemes).

Storywise, the collection's lowest point is the story arcs set in Arizona, during which it's fairly obvious that the very creative people working on the book are merely grinding it out for a paycheck. It's difficult to overstate this; the book becomes almost completely incomprehensible. Johnny plans to jump "Copperhead Canyon" on his bike. He run afoul of some local Indians who say the canyon rightfully belongs to them. They're in court trying to get it back, but if Blaze jumps it and "makes if famous", they're afraid they won't be able to reacquire it. Go figure. Their leader is a medicine man named Snake Dance, who describes his goal as delivering his people from "hunger" and "despair." In his first appearance, he demonstrates the power to control the minds of others, conjure serpents from thin air, and even tranform himself into a giant snake monster; by his second issue, he's revealed to be a charlatan without any real powers, and no effort is ever made to explain how he accomplished any of his previous feats. This revelation also makes rubbish of his grand scheme, which is to kidnap and sacrifice Roxanne to a "snake god." He sees her death as an unfortunate but necessary part of his charade. It's never clear how needlessly bringing kidnapping and murder charges upon himself would further his aims of helping his people. It's just an excuse for filling more pages. So Roxanne is once again kidnapped, once again about to be sacrificed, and once again saved by GR. By the next issue, Snake Dance's story changes again and he's presented as a crazy old man who genuinely believed that the sacrifice would mean "the gods would smile on our people once more." Whew.[1]

With this last flip-flop, we're introduced to Snake Dance's daughter, Linda Little Tree (in later issues, because, I guess, no one could remember, "Linda Littletrees"). Much time is spent on Linda, and it seems as though she's being primed to become a major character in the book. It's revealed that, as a child, she was once saved from being hit by a truck by Crash Simpson. She's given a lengthy origin story; most of Spotlight #11 is dedicated to detailing her past. Unfortunately, Friedrich simply treats her as more page-filler--she's created, developed, then thrown away, just when it looks as though she's about to become a regular. Her story begins with her posing as a skeptic of superstition. She's quickly revealed, however, to be a witch in the service of Satan. Roxanne is, at this point, dying from those snake bites (acquired during her near-sacrifice), but Linda, Satan's little helper, inexplicably saves her life. Even more inexplicably, she then goes forth to claim Johnny's soul for her boss, something she'd theoretically just rendered impossible. She fails, of course, and she's ordered to destroy herself. She does so in spectacular fashion, setting herself ablaze and diving from a cliff. In the next issue though, her entirely unburned and unbroken self turns up at her father's house, in a trance. Satan possesses her body and goes forth to commit more mischief. Much pointless page-filler follows, including a crossover with Daimon Hellstrom, the rebel Son of Satan. At the end of it, Linda is returned from Hell to Earth and apparently restored to normal; no longer dead, no longer a witch, no longer under Satan's power, and stripped of her own powers--no explanation for any of it.[2] She was earlier established to have a fiancee, but he disappears and is never mentioned again, as Friedrich begins setting up Linda as a romantic rival for Johnny's affections--she's suddenly seriously aflame for Blaze, and she has it bad. So bad, in fact, that she follows him to Las Vegas. Seeing Roxanne there in his arms, she seethes. "I should just march in and claw her eyes out. But I won't! If I bide my time, my moment's sure to come!" She apparently stays there, in Vegas, for two months while Johnny recovers from some injuries. The first time she tries to put the moves on the cursed cyclist though, he kicks her to the curb and she's never seen again!

In the Vegas storyline that follows, Johnny goes to work for stock car promoter Dude Jensen. At first, Jensen is just a corrupt businessman. He owns enough police and politicians to get Johnny out of a legal jam and he even puts out a hit on an independent driver who, he says, is "costing me a fortune." The book's lack of focus rears its head again though. After the first issue set-up, Friedrich leaves and the story is completed by Doug Moench and Marv Wolfman, who have Jensen suddenly emerge as yet another of Satan's little helpers. He partakes of the book's tradition of kidnapping Roxanne then sets out to burn Las Vegas, but the Ghost Rider puts him away.

With "Ghost Rider" #6, Tony Isabella assumes the authorial reins with the obvious intention of turning the book into more of a regular superhero comic and away from horror-related stories. The pronounced shift in tone isn't as jarring as it would be on most books precisely because the book had already proven to be so lacking in any other direction--it comes across as par-for-the-course. In his first storyline, Isabella has GR team up with the Stunt-Master, a rather lame reformed villain (the Stunt-Master's own creator once dismissed him as "a very lackluster character."[3]). The two join forces to take down a super-villain, Aquarius, but, in a tip of the hat to the previous GR tales, the villain turns out to be--you guessed it--another servant of Satan. Ack!

By his third issue, Isabella begins his most talked-about change in the book. Satan kidnaps Roxanne, insists he still has possession of her father's soul, then tells her he could be persuaded to release it if she'd only renounce her pesky love for Johnny. Poor Roxanne comes across as a bit of a twit; after a little finagling, she takes the bait. Satan howls with delight, tells her he'd never had possession of her father's soul and mocks her for handing him Blaze's soul on a silver platter. Why her "renouncing" her love for Johnny when she still, in fact, loved him would have changed anything isn't clear, nor is there any reason offered for why she can't just un-renounce him, when informed she's been duped. As sloppily as it's done, though, this still comes across as a gutsy move by Isabella. The whole "Roxanne's love" thing had been used as a deus ex machina device from the beginning of the series. No matter what else happened in the book, it was always there to foil Satan's various schemes. Isabella would have deserved kudos for removing it, except for the fact that, only six pages later, he immediately replaced it with an even bigger deus ex machina.[4] Just as GR is about to buy the farm, no less than Jesus Christ appears on the streets of Sausalito to save his bacon, and tell Satan that "Johnny Blaze's soul is beyond you."

The introduction of Jesus acts as a check on Satan's scheming and results in a brief period of stability wherein the book focuses on standard-issue superhero stuff. GR battles the Orb, the Trapster, and, most implausibly, the Hulk, who can withstand brief period in the open vaccuum of space but is defeated, in "Ghost Rider," by having GR use fire to "burn up all the oxygen in the air around him" (while he just stands there, stationary) until he faints. Yeah, that's really in the book. There's an even worse fill-in issue during this period by Bill Mantlo and Geoge Tuska, where GR goes to Mexico and tangles with a fellow who obsessively shoots dolphins (don't ask). The standout story in the entire Essential collection, however, occurs during this period. It's "Phantom of the Killer Skies," from issue #12, which sees the Phantom Eagle, a hero of the first World War, return as a ghost to haunt the man who, 60 years earlier, murdered he and his parents. It's a fantastic read from beginning to end and features the first--and best--work on GR by the late, great Frank Robbins, whose artwork here, under the inks of Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito, is pure Golden Age-style poetry. Though GR's involvement is merely peripheral, the story is much closer to the kind the book would see in its later glory days, and is actually out-of-step with the rest of Isabella's effort to turn GR into just another superhero book. Reading through these stories, I came to see that effort as terribly misguided. Admittedly, I'm perhaps not the best judge of this, being tainted by knowledge of (and affection for) what the book later became, but this sort of approach came across, to me, as an extended exercise in missing the point; failing to recognize what made GR unique. Nearly all of these stories could just as easily have appeared in Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America and any number of other Marvel books of the time, with GR seamlessly replaced with one of those characters. "Phantom of the Killer Skies," on the other hand, would have looked quite strange in one of those books. It looks out of place among the other superhero tales in this phase of "Ghost Rider," but it points the way to the better material that was to come.

Isabella has complained bitterly about the sabotaging of the conclusion of his run by Jim Shooter (who, after Isabella's departure, would briefly assume writing chores on the book). Shooter changed Isabella's story so that the Jesus whom Isabella had introduced was revealed as a phony, a ploy by Satan. Shooter's actions, as described by Isabella, were undeniably ham-handed--among other things, the changes were instituted after the issue had already been finished--and, of course, Shooter is notorious for being an overbearing ass. Still, given the title as it had existed to that point and given the fantastic book it later became, I suspect history's ultimate judgment is that those changes were for the best, whether anyone at the time realized it or not. I'm a fan of Isabella's work and I certainly disagree (quite strongly) with his own assessment that his run was "one of the best extended stories I ever wrote." Aside from the excellent #12, I found very little in his time on GR to recommend, and I found his description of what he would have done with the book, had he remained on it, equally uninspiring,[5] particularly compared to the direction in which the book was ultimately taken. It's undeniable that Shooter's changes made a hash of the Jesus plot. In all honesty though, the book was already a hash. As I think I've indicated here, a lot of what Isabella had, himself, done with the book was just as bad (including introducing the Jesus plot in the first place). The changes by Shooter aren't particularly jarring by the time one gets to them--by then, it's just the sort of thing one has come to expect from the book.

The Essential volume concludes with a two-part crossover with Daredevil, a standard-issue superhero slugfest written by Marv Wolfman and with art by John Byrne. Byrne's artwork is excellent, as usual. The story wouldn't belong in this collection, though, if it didn't inaugurate some new and bizarre change, and Wolfman's script radically alters Johnny's previously rather nondescript speech pattern into a thick Southern accent, reminiscent of Jonah Hex. Go figure.

Early "Ghost Rider" hasn't yet found its way, and in this respect it's reflective of many of the various experiments of its era. A lot of the others never got their act together and went away. GR grew into a much better book and became a success. Another pair of Essential books could collect the rest of the original run. The good news is that Marvel has, for a while now, been timing the release of their Essentials to coincide with the release of films based on the characters, and with the "Ghost Rider" movie scheduled for next year, we're likely to get a second--and much better--Ghost Rider volume in the near future (probably the only good thing that will come out of that movie).

--j.

----

[1] The Arizona-set storylines put away another page-filler subplot Friedrich had introduced then taken nowhere. Back in Showcase #7, he'd brought in a character named Bart Slade, a security man for the cycle show Johnny and Roxanne own. In the course of his 7 issues, he appears a handful of times to secretly pine for Roxanne, then, in Arizona, is ignominiously killed while trying to jump Copperhead Canyon, after Johnny goes MIA.

[2] While all of this is going on, Roxanne is kidnapped yet again, this time by a no-good thug of a biker by name of Big Daddy Dawson. Blaze being a bit of a celebrity, this bright boy assumes he's all money-bags, and plans to ransom the lass for big bucks. Unfortunately for him, the Ghost Rider, freshly returned from Hell, catches him first, and the hog-riding pig is reduced to a mere pork rind.

[3] Roy Thomas, interview, Comic Book Artist #13.

[4] He later admitted "I set up the scenario...and probably discovered I'd written myself into a corner." --Tony Isabella, "Vengeance Unleashed" interview

[5] Johnny becomes a Christian, reclaims his soul, and "you wouldn't have seen either Jesus or Satan in the book again. Johnny would have led his new life according to Christian principles, but without the heavy religious overtones I'd brought into the book specifically to bring Johnny to this point. He would have continued his dual careers: working as a Hollywood stuntman and helping people as the Ghost Rider. He and Roxanne would have married and had as normal a life--kids and all--as possible in a super-hero comic book. I'd always pictured Johnny as a motorized cowboy and this new direction would have transformed him from Kid Colt Outlaw to the Lone Ranger." --Isabella, interview with John Knutson

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