By Tony Isabella, Gary Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Jim Mooney, Frank Robbins, George Tuska, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2214-6 (HB)
At the end of the 1960s American comicbooks were in turmoil, much like the youth of the nation they targeted. Superheroes had dominated for much of the decade; peaking globally before explosively falling to ennui and overkill. Older genres such as horror, westerns and science fiction returned, fed by radical trends in movie-making where another, new(ish) wrinkle had also emerged: disenchanted, rebellious, unchained Youth on Motorbikes seeking a different way forward.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen, Captain America and many others all took the Easy Rider option to boost flagging sales (and if you’re interested, the best of the crop was Mike Sekowsky’s tragically unfinished mini-masterpiece of cool Jason’s Quest in Showcase). Over at Marvel – a company still reeling from Kirby’s defection to DC/National in 1970 – canny Roy Thomas green-lighted a new character who combined the freewheeling, adolescent-friendly biker-theme with the all-pervasive supernatural furore gripping the entertainment fields.
Back in 1967, Marvel published a western masked hero named Ghost Rider: a shameless, whole-hearted appropriation of the cowboy hero creation of Vince Sullivan, Ray Krank & Dick Ayers (for Magazine Enterprises from 1949 to 1955), who utilised magician’s tricks to fight bandits by pretending to be an avenging phantom of justice.
Scant years later, with the Comics Code prohibition against horror hastily rewritten – amazing how plunging sales can affect ethics – scary comics came back in a big way. A new crop of supernatural superheroes and monsters began to appear on the newsstands to supplement the ghosts, ghoulies and goblins already infiltrating the once science-only scenarios of the surviving mystery men titles.
In fact, the lifting of the Code ban resulted in such an avalanche of horror titles (new stories and reprints from the first boom of the 1950s), in response to the industry-wide down-turn in superhero sales, that it probably caused a few more venerable costumed crusaders to – albeit temporarily – bite the dust.
Almost overnight nasty monsters (and narcotics – but that’s another story) became acceptable fare within four-colour pages and whilst a parade of pre-code reprints made sound business sense, the creative aspect of the contemporary fascination in supernatural themes was catered to by adapting popular cultural icons before risking whole new concepts on an untested public.
As always in entertainment, the watchword was fashion: what was hitting big outside comics was incorporated into the mix as soon as possible. When proto-monster Morbius, the Living Vampire debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #101 (October 1971) and the sky failed to fall in, Marvel moved ahead with a line of shocking superstars – beginning with a werewolf and a vampire – before chancing something new with a haunted biker who could tap into both Easy Rider’s freewheeling motorcycling chic and the prevailing supernatural zeitgeist.
The all-new Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, August 1972 (preceded by western hero Red Wolf in #1 and the aforementioned Werewolf by Night in #2-4).
This sturdy hardback and equivalent digital compendium collects more of those early flame-filled exploits: specifically Ghost Rider #6-20 pairing with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #8 and a crossover with Daredevil #138, spanning June 1974 to June 1976, and preceded by an informative Introduction in writer Tony Isabella’s ‘The Remembrance Run’…
What Has Gone Before: Carnival cyclist Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father Crash Simpson from cancer. As is the way of such things, Satan follows the letter but not spirit of the contract and Simpson dies anyway. When the Dark Lord later comes for Johnny, his beloved virginal girlfriend Roxanne Simpsonintervenes. Her purity prevents the Devil from claiming his due and, temporarily thwarted, Satan spitefully afflicts Johnny with a body that burns with the fires of Hell every time the sun goes down…
Creative team Isabella, Gary Friedrich, Jim Mooney & Sal Trapani hit the kickstart here as GR #6 sees a perhaps ill-considered attempt to convert the tragic haunted biker into a more conventional superhero. ‘Zodiac II’ sees Blaze stumble into a senseless fight with a man possessing all the powers of the Avengers’ arch-foes. However, there’s a hidden Satanic component to the mystery as Blaze discovers when reformed super-villain turned TV star Stunt-Master turns up to help close the case and watch helplessly as the one-man Zodiac falls foul of his own diabolical devil’s bargain in ‘…And Lose His Own Soul!’ (Isabella, Mooney & Jack Abel).
A final confrontation – of sorts – begins in Ghost-Rider #8 as ‘Satan Himself!’ comes looking for Johnny’s soul, with a foolproof scheme to force Roxanne to rescind her protection. She finally does so as the Hell-biker battles Inferno, the Fear-demon and most of San Francisco in a game-changing epic called ‘The Hell-Bound Hero!’. Here Blaze is finally freed from his satanic burden by the intervention of someone who appeared to be Jesus Christ…
The cover of issue #10 (by Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott) featured GR battling the Hulk, but a deadline cock-up delayed that tale until #11 and the already included origin from Marvel Spotlight #5 filled those pages. Gil Kane & Tom Palmer reinterpreted the scene for their cover on #11 as the issue finally detailed ‘The Desolation Run!’ (by Isabella, Sal Buscema, Tartaglione & George Roussos).
As Johnny joins a disparate band of dirt-bikers in a desert race, he collides with the legendarily solitary and short-tempered Green Goliath and learns who his true friends are, after which we divert to Marvel Two-in-One #8, teaming Ben Grimm with the supernatural sensation in a quirkily compelling Yuletide yarn. Crafted by Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ sees the audacious Miracle Man attempting to take control of a very special birth in a modern-day stable…
Artists Frank Robbins, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito limn Ghost Rider #12 wherein Isabella reveals the fate of World War I fighter ace Phantom Eagle. When Blaze tries to rescue a stranger from a ghostly aerial assault, he soon learns he has innocently thwarted justice and helped the warrior’s murderer avoid the ‘Phantom of the Killer Skies’…
Ghost Rider #13 declares ‘You’ve Got a Second Chance, Johnny Blaze!’ (Isabella, George Tuska & Vince Colletta) as the terms of the hero’s on-going curse are changed again, just as the dissolute biker heads to Hollywood and a promised job as Stunt-Master’s body-double. No sooner has he signed up, however, than Blaze becomes involved with starlet Karen Page – Daredevil’s one-time girlfriend – and a bizarre kidnap plot by super-villain The Trapster.
‘A Specter Stalks the Soundstage!’ features Blaze’s revenge-hungry nemesis The Orb who returns to destroy the Ghost Rider, an action yarn that spectacularly concludes with ‘Vengeance on the Ventura Freeway!’ (illustrated by Bob Brown & Don Heck).
Whilst hanging out on the West Coast Blaze joins new superteam The Champions, but they play no part in Bill Mantlo, Tuska & Colletta’s fill-in yarn ‘Blood in the Waters’, as the Ghost Rider oh, so topically tangles with a Great White Shark in the gore-soaked California surf.
Back on track in #17, ‘Prelude to a Private Armageddon!’ by Isabella, Robbins & Colletta sees a team-up with the Son of Satan wherein fellow stunt-actor Katy Milner is possessed by a demon and only Daimon Hellstrom can help…
The saga continues in ‘The Salvation Run!’ as Blaze must race through the bowels of Hell and relive his own traumatic past before finally saving the day, Katy and his own much-tarnished soul in ‘Resurrection’.
All this time the mystery of Karen’s attempted abduction had percolated through the subplots here, but explosively boil over in Daredevil #138 as ‘Where is Karen Page?’ (by Wolfman, John Byrne & Mooney) reveal the machinations of criminal maniac Death’s-Head to be merely part of a greater scheme involving Blaze, Stunt-Master, the Man without Fear and the homicidal Death Stalker. The convoluted conundrum cataclysmically climaxes in Ghost-Rider #20 with ‘Two Against Death!’ by Wolfman, Byrne & Don Perlin…
This spooky compendium compounds the chilling action with a cover gallery from repint series The Original Ghost Rider #14-20, and original art covers from Gil Kane to truly complete your fear-filled fun fest.
One final note: backwriting and retcons notwithstanding, the Christian boycotts and moral crusades of a later decade were what compelled the criticism-averse and commercially astute corporate Marvel to “translate” the biblical Satan of these early tales into generic and presumably more palatable or “acceptable” demonic creatures such as Mephisto, Satanish, Marduk Kurios and other equally naff downgrades, but the original intent and adventures of Johnny Blaze – and indeed series spin-offs Daimon Hellstrom and Satana, respectively the Son and Daughter of Satan – tapped into the period’s global fascination with Satanism, Devil-worship and all things Spooky and Supernatural which had begun with such epochal films as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 film more than Ira Levin’s novel) and remember these aren’t your feeble bowdlerised “Hell-lite” horrors.
These tales are about the real-deal Infernal Realm and a good man struggling to save his soul from the worst of all bargains – as much as the revised Comics Code would allow – so brace yourself, hold steady and accept no supernatural substitutes…
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