Get to Know Marvel’s Ghost Rider

Hello again Creeps and Ghouls! In my last article, I explored one of the more esoteric characters of Marvel’s supernatural pantheon, Son of Satan. This time around I’m going to examine someone a little more mainstream, a character that exudes cool and preternatural menace all at once, The Ghost Rider!

One company that always managed to capture the nation’s zeitgeist in the 70’s was Marvel comics (for indisputable proof of this, they inked a deal to produce Star Wars comics six months prior to the film’s release, when there was absolutely no buzz surrounding the project whatsoever). Another thing they were masterful at was combining genres into exciting new concepts (such as the aforementioned Son of Satan, a heady blend of super heroics and The Exorcist). So in 1972, Gary Friedrich, with an assist from legendary writer/editor Roy Thomas (Conan the Barbarian) and master artist Mike Ploog (Marvel’s Frankenstein), combined the daring theatrics of Evel Kinevel (whose ambitious, though not always successful acts of motorcycle stunt riding had captured the nations heart), with the occult elements so popular in the movies and books of the time, and sprinkled a little Faust on top to create The Ghost Rider.

The story of the Ghost Rider concerned Circus motorcycle performer Johnny Blaze, who enters into a deal with the Devil (later revealed to be a lesser demon named Mephisto when Marvel editorial once again got cold feet) in order to save the life of his terminally ill mentor/step father “Crash” Simpson . Crash’s daughter, Roxanne, learns of the deal, and thwarts Mephisto’s plans by professing her love for Johnny, thereby denying the demon Blaze’s soul. In a blinding rage, Mephisto binds Johnny to the demon Zarathos, thus creating the preternatural creature Ghost Rider (whose name was taken from an earlier Marvel Western hero). Throughout the series long run (81 issues that ran from 1972-1983), Blaze became an unwitting enforcer of Mephisto’s will, defeating various demons and sending them back to the demon’s domain in Hell (a popular concept in comics, mirrored in everything from the Japanese Devilman, to the more modern anti-hero Spawn), before finally freeing himself from Zarathos, who left Blaze to pursue Centurious, a man born without a soul.

While the story may borrow heavily from long established tropes, visually Ghost Rider could not have been more fresh and exciting. Clad head to toe in black leather (reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s attire in his renowned ’68 comeback special), and topped with a flaming skull for a head, Ghost Rider is a testament to economy of design working toward an iconic end result.

Strangely enough, my introduction to the character did not start with the comic book series. I first encountered the Rider on a visit to my cousin’s house in 1976. Always savvy on the newest comic book trends, he showed me his newest acquisition, Fleetwood toys Ghost Rider figure, which featured ol’ Ghostie perched atop a red chopper with chrome everywhere. I was immediately hooked!

The legacy and appeal of Ghost Rider continues to this day. After his initial series ended, The Ghost Rider made a huge come back in the 90’s (although a new avatar, Danny Ketch took on the mantel, before teaming up with Johnny Blaze in the Spirits of Vengeance series) with a new series that ran for 93 issues, and a finale issue that arrived a decade after the series ended its run! Other takes on the character have appeared over the years as well, such as a cyberpunk version that appeared in the Ghost Rider 2099 series, an intergalactic version that appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy, and most astounding, a zombie version that appeared in the Marvel Zombies series. The character appears to this day in other mediums as well, such as in video games (Capcom’s upcoming Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom), to major Hollywood releases (the second Nic Cage Ghost Rider film is due out next February). And, of course the Rider still has a presence in today’s comic market as well, as he is currently featured in a new series from Marvel.

If you are interested in reading the original Ghost Rider adventures, check out the Marvel Essentials Ghost Rider Volume One, which contains 560 pages of 70’s supernatural excitement. Also, please check out my debut horror novella, The House of Thirteen Doors for some more supernatural motorcycle excitement!!

Daniel XIII

Daniel XIII: equally at home at a seance as he is behind the keyboard! Raised on a steady diet of Son of Satan comics, Kaiju flicks and Count Chocula, ol' XIII is a screenwriter, actor, and reviewer of fright flicks! What arcane knowledge lurks behind the preternatural eyes of the Ouija Board Kid?

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14 thoughts on “Get to Know Marvel’s Ghost Rider

  1. Doug says:

    Good write up, Daniel, but I have to be a spoilsport on this one. Ghost Rider, cool though he is, represents the only two things about Marvel that I didn’t like. 1) They would exploit whatever fad was big: Kung-Fu (Iron Fish), surfing (Silver Surfer), and motorcycle gang imagery. That’s all Ghost Rider is; a motorcycle gang image made into a character. 2) Many of their characters were two people in one so that you didn’t know which was which. Ghost Rider and Hulk are the two most prevalent. This is so problematic that in the latest Hulk movie Norton whines that he is not the Hulk. But if he’s not, who do we root for? How can two be in one? It’s messy.

    I still say “Make Mine Marvel”, but I wish they hadn’t been as explotative, creating characters that didn’t fit as well in the U, and that they would have cleaned up the two-in-one mess a bit.

  2. Doug I agree that a lot of characters at Marvel start off as a response to a trend, which is unfortunate (and some like Iron Fish, do not always find a firm footing), but the Ghost Rider mythology has really been fleshed out over the years and when it is good, it can be really interesting.

    I have often thought about the confusing nature of characters with duel personalities and I think I tend to agree with you on that point. When the story gets all Banner vs Hulk heavy I tend to get less into it, but when they did Planet Hulk and World War Hulk and you really got to explore the character as 1 character, I enjoyed it a lot more.

    Although I am sure many would disagree and enjoy the “conflict” between the personalities, I am over that.

  3. Hey Doug, sorry you didn’t dig this article. I agree with your points about Marvel’s characters to a degree, but that is precisely what drew me to their characters as a child. I loved horror movies, dirt bikes, superheroes, etc., and if I saw something that combined things that I loved (no matter how shamelessly), then my interest was immediately piqued. I think that Marvel realized that, and exploited that to it’s fullest. In a way, they were similar to the Grindhouse movement of the time (which also combined genres shamelessly). It’s precisely that pop culture hodgepodge that I try and channel in my own work, albeit with a greater range of disparate elements.

  4. Doug says:

    It’s not that I didn’t dig it or Ghost Rider; I do. It’s just that there were some flaws in the Marvel pattern of assimiliating these hot images, flaws that made the characters hard to understand. Even in the Nick Cage movie, they had that discussion of whether he was Johnny or he was the Ghost Rider.

    What makes this worse is that it would be so easy to fix. In the movie, he dropped the line, “I am Satan’s bounty hunter.” That’s all you need. No binding to demons, bring other personalities into the story. Just, “I’m Satan’s bounty hunter.” Same with the Hulk. In the Norton film, Liv could have just said, “You’re you when you’re the Hulk, just you out of control.” Problem solved.

    Your write-up was good, and this branch of the Marvel U is interesting, it is just that I get a little frustrated at loose ends like the ones in these characters.

  5. The Imortal Iron Fist series from Brubaker is pretty top notch kung-fu/mysticism storytelling, imho.

    Good article Dan. I once tried to convince my friend Geoff to light his head on fire for a Ghostrider photo shoot I wanted to do. He didn’t even talk me out of it. Just walked away.

  6. I agree with you, Daniel Th1rte3n! I think what first caught my attention with Marvel Comics, because if you remember I started as a fan of the DC Universe with Captain Carrot and House of Mystery, is the mashing of popular genres. Ghost Rider has always been one of my favorite “B-List” heroes, no doubt about it. Great article!

    Daniel Th1rte3n, did you have a favorite supporting character from the Ghost Rider series?

    JB is 100% right about the Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker by the way, if you haven’t treated yourself to his work before…stop reading this comment and rush to the comic shop this very instant. By the way, while definitely “Mature” I can’t recommend Brubaker’s Incognito series enough, concerns a super villain that was captured and forcibly put in a witness protection program and had his powers nullified. So after having these powers and being more than a mere mortal he must work in an office for the rest of his days…of course…things go awry.

  7. Hey Vic, glad you enjoyed the article! I think as far as supporting cast members go, I really loved the team dynamic that Ghost Rider experienced when he joined The Champions. That team was amazing to me due to it’s diversity. Demon, demi-god, mutants…misfits one and all, but united they were extraordinary!

  8. Kris Knives says:

    I’m really enjoying these comic review. Thanks for the suggestions, with the New DC relaunch looming and many burned bridges at Marvel (*cough*onemoreday*cough*) turning me off the current titles it is nice to have some classic material to turn to. I wonder if we’ll see Morbius on here later?

    I also think it is worth mentioning that the two (motorcycle) ghost riders are very different as are the tone and themes of their stories. The classic Johnny Blaze ghost rider whom was really a villain protagonist often clashing with heroes and wreaking havoc. The best of these comic played up the uneasy alliance between Johnny Blaze and Zarathos against a greater evil such as Mephisto. I remember a classic one where Johnny and Zarathos are separated and summoned to Hell by Mephisto fight his minions and defeat them, only to be tricked into escaping together causing them to merge once again. These kind of not so happy endings I always thought when this version of Ghost Rider was at it best.

    The second Ghost Rider the 90’s spirit of vengeance had a very different vibe which I liked a little more if the execution of it was often off. In this one Ghost Rider was the aforementioned Spirit of Vengeance. When innocent blood was spilled Ghost Rider came forth to avenge them. I really like this angry wrathful Ghost Rider. They set him apart from other 90’s heroes though with things like him Penance Stare allowing him to bring punishment down on the wicked without simply killing them as so many 90’s heroes did (which was embodied in his rival/nemesis arch 90’s anti-hero Vengeance) and unlike most heroes Ghost Rider had no ulterior motive. He wasn’t fighting because he failed to save a loved one or was looking for his own vengeance and busting a few head along the way, Ghost Rider genuinely cared about the innocent and was genuinely enraged by the actions of wicked. He cared about the people as much as the punishment he administered. In some ways this made him rather pure hearted and empathetic if single minded. He was vengeful but not blood thirsty like other 90’s anti-heroes like Venom or The Punisher. Not something you expect from a skeletal biker.

    @Doug – I don’t think the problem with these characters is the cashing in on a theme; a lot of good stories came out of Ghost Rider and Iron Fist and even some good stuff with the Silver Surfer. My problem is often a lot of work is put into their look but no one knows what their powers are. Good writers have done some wondering stuff developing the mythology and villains but struggle with the actual action due to ill-defined and poorly thought out abilities.

    Take Classic Ghost Rider for instance, he threw around Hell Fire. What did it do? Well basically the same as ever other sort of energy in the marvel universe it blew stuff up, same thing with the Silver Surfer so their battles mainly involved pointless blasting a semi-invulnerable enemy over and over again. Similarly 90’s Ghost Rider had a magic chain which they were always trying to figure out things for him to do with it aside from just hitting people. (Ideas they came up with included turning the chain into a spear, wrapping people up in it, throwing links from the chain as projectile weapons and basically using it like Scorpion’s Grappling hook from the Mortal Kombat series.)

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