Here’s a character that’s been in the public consciousness lately for two reasons, one kinda cool, and one far more upsetting.
I’m talking, of course, about Marvel’s Ghost Rider, which is about to hit theatres again this Friday with the sequel to the Nicolas Cage-starring comic-book adaptation, SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. Unfortunately, this premiere was marred by the news that Ghost Rider’s 68-year-old creator Gary Friedrich, who had attempted to sue Marvel for ownership of Ghost Rider and lost, had also received a judgment against him in Marvel’s countersuit, which ordered him to pay Marvel $17,000 for prints of the character he sold at conventions without Marvel’s permission, $17,000 that Friedrich simply does not have. As much as it’s easy to simply jump to conclusions about who’s right and who’s wrong, there are some shades of gray in this dispute like any other; however, you don’t have to pick sides to not want a fellow like Friedrich to be thrown out if his house, which is apparently what’s about to happen.
To that end, writer Steve Niles has done a very good thing and set up a PayPal donation site to help keep Gary Friedrich under his own roof. I’ve donated, and I hope those of you who are able and have ever enjoyed a Ghost Rider comic book, cartoon, toy and film will do the same: http://www.steveniles.com/gary.html
With the character in the news, it seemed like an opportune time to take a look back at Ghost Rider’s early days, which actually go back a little farther than most people think, all the way back to the Silver Age and the year 1967, when the first version of Ghost Rider appeared, a Western version, written by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich and drawn by Dick Ayers.
This version told the story of Carter Slade, who rode the Old West fighting evil as the Ghost Rider, in a glowing phosphorescent costume given him by Flaming Star, a Native American medicine man. This version of the Ghost Rider, essentially a Wild West Batman scaring galoots and roughneck train robbers into thinking he was some sort of evil spirit, only lasted seven issues, and made sporadic guest appearances in Marvel’s other Western comics in the years following.
But the name was too good to lay fallow. As the story goes, when Friedrich was writing DAREDEVIL in the early ’70s, he suggested to editor Roy Thomas that they introduce a weird motorcycle-riding villain called “Ghost Rider.” Thomas reportedly responded that the idea was too good to waste on a villain, and plans then went forward to give Friedrich’s new “Ghost Rider” character his own feature. As for who came up with what, recollections vary. Thomas contends that Friedrich was absent when he and artist Mike Ploog designed the character, with Thomas claiming credit for the character’s jumpsuit, reminiscent of Elvis’ leather outfit from the 1968 comeback special, and crediting Ploog with the notion of the flaming skull. Friedrich counters that the flaming skull was always his idea, while Ploog doesn’t recall who came up with the flaming skull idea, but notes that the tunic design was taken from the original Western character, while the blue stripes on the jumpsuit’s arms and legs were merely to allow the rest of the suit to be rendered as black as possible.
Creative credit aside, the character made his premiere in August 1972, in MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #5, in a tale logically titled “Ghost Rider,” written by Gary Friedrich and drawn by Mike Ploog.
Let me tell you, this is one weird comic book. I can’t imagine Marvel putting a book out like this today, as our hero Johnny Blaze has one of the weirdest and most disturbing origins of any superhero I can think of.
He just straight-out sells his soul to the devil. Not Mephisto, or some made-up Marvel analogue. Old Scratch. The capital-D Devil. Satan himself.
We first meet Johnny Blaze as a little tyke, when his father, a motorcycle stunt rider, is killed in a fiery wreck, and he’s adopted by his father’s partner in the stunt show, Crash Simpson.
Tragedy strikes again when Johnny is fifteen, when his adoptive mother is killed in another motorcycle-related-accident.
Despite a deathbed promise to his dying mother not to ride again, Johnny continues to practice in secret, while Crash thinks the worst:
More years pass, and Crash’s motorcycle stunt show gets its biggest break ever: a gig at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, Crash can’t enjoy the good news:
Despite the entreaties of Crash’s daughter Roxanne, whom Johnny had fallen in love with, Johnny still refuses to ride in the show. A decision that is not met with understanding:
So put yourself in Johnny Blaze’s shoes. Your girl is upset, and your adoptive father is dying of cancer. You can make everyone happy by breaking a promise to your departed mother. Do you have any other options?
Of course you do. Paint a pentagram on your chest and start praying to Satan.
Wow. Johnny needs to work on his decision-making.
So of course, Satan shows up and offers Johnny a deal:
Weeks pass, and Crash decides to perform at the MSG show, and not only that, try for the world’s cycle jump record. What could possibly go wrong?
How does Johnny react to the horrible, mangled death of his adoptive father? Does he comfort Roxanne? No, he decides to try the jump himself.
Johnny makes it, but Roxanne naturally isn’t too pleased with his one-upmanship while Daddy Crash’s body hasn’t even gone cold. However, Johnny has even worse problems, with another visitor to his dressing room:
But before Satan can take possession of Johnny’s soul, Roxanne comes to the rescue:
How does Roxanne know what to do, you might wonder?
So your boyfriend has big stacks of books about Satan, and rather than asking him what exactly is going on, you read up on how to make the devil take a powder? Man. That’s love. And a surprising amount of forethought.
So Johnny thinks he’s out of the woods. At least until that night. When, you guessed it, his head spontaneously catches fire.
Not only that, now he can spontaneously generate fire, or more specifically “hellfire,” as he calls it.
This, then, is Johnny Blaze’s curse. Every night he transforms into the Ghost Rider, with Satan still out there scheming to collect on his soul. And all this was just the first issue. It would get much worse, and much weirder, in the issues to come. Come on back next week and see.
Scott Tipton is looking forward to talking about the best Ghost Rider villain ever. If you have questions about Ghost Rider or comics in general, send them here.