Previously, in COMICS 101: We’ve been talking about Marvel’s flame-headed biker hero Ghost Rider inrecent weeks, and last week ended with the observation that what was originally a very supernatural series was slowly shifting its focus to being more of a traditional superhero title. And how better to demonstrate that than by joining a super-team?
In 1975, Marvel launched a new superhero team book called THE CHAMPIONS. (For all the details, check out my full CHAMPIONS columns from back in 2007.)
But just to get you up to speed quick, the CHAMPIONS consisted of former X-Men Angel and Iceman, former Avengers Hercules and the Black Widow, and the Ghost Rider. As I said back in ’07:
The behind-the-scenes origins of the team are legendary, and maybe apocryphal, but this was the story as I’ve always heard it. Marvel writer Tony Isabella was looking to pitch to Marvel a new series featuring the Angel and Iceman, as the only two members of the original X-Men not currently in play either in X-MEN or AVENGERS. However, Marvel editorial (I’ve read differing accounts of either Len Wein or Marv Wolfman) decided that if you had more than one star, it was a team book, and you can’t have a team book with only two members. Furthermore, for a proper superhero team, it was declared, you had to have a strong guy, you had to have a woman, and you had to have a member who was also starring in his own comic. Accordingly, Isabella saw Hercules (strong guy), Black Widow (woman) and Ghost Rider (solo series) added to the roster of his new team, which was to be called “The Champions.”â€¨
Okay. Now what?â€¨â€¨
That was essentially the problem with the Champions from the very beginning, and one that never really went away. If you look at all your truly classic super-teams, you can sum up the bare-bones concept in a single sentence. â€¨â€¨
The Justice League of America: “The world’s greatest super-heroes.” Period. What more do you need?â€¨â€¨
The Avengers: “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assemble to tackle threats that they couldn’t handle alone.” Again, pretty basic, but pretty good.â€¨â€¨
The Fantastic Four: “A family of explorers is forever changed by cosmic rays and protect the world from threats great and small.” The family and explorer angles set it apart nicely.â€¨â€¨
The X-Men: “Trained in the use of their powers at a secret school, a band of mutants fight to protect a world that hates and fears them.” Boom. High concept. You’re golden.â€¨â€¨
The Champions: “Two mutants, a Greek god, a Russian spy and a motorcycle-riding demon hang out in an office building. In Los Angeles. Because the weather’s nice, I guess. I got nothin’.”â€¨â€¨
Actually, if you think about it, there is a good concept analogy for the Champions, but it’s not an exciting one, and it certainly wasn’t going to sell any comics: Five people with very little in common but their occupation go to a high-rise building every day to do their jobs, despite the fact that they don’t much like each other, and grudgingly take orders from a boss that no one really thinks is qualified.
Sound familiar? Being in the Champions was like going to work every day. They might as well have been punching a time-clock and sitting in cubicles…
So how did Ghost Rider fit into the Champions? Well, he joins up when he just happens to be cruising through the UCLA campus the same day Hercules is lecturing and is attacked by the Olympian demon-god Cerberus:
And by the way: Hercules lecturing? Really?
Anyway, Hercules sees past the whole flaming-head thing (he’s cool like that) and is soon cozying up behind Ghost Rider on the Skullcycle for a lift:
Before long, Johnny Blaze is hanging out with the whole group, all pretty much brought together by happenstance:
One thing that did stand out in this first adventure was that, of all the Champions, Ghost Rider seemed to be the only one who ever had a plan, as here when he outwits Pluto:
Despite his early leading role, Johnny Blaze took a back seat for much of the next few issues, vanishing entirely for the team’s encounter with the insane industrialist Rampage, and then staying decidedly in the background as the storylines focused on the Angel’s sudden inheritance of his family’s millions and the Widow’s Soviet history coming back to haunt her. Which makes sense: Ghost Rider was the only member with his own book, so giving the other members the spotlight was only logical.
We did finally begin to see some character interplay about 10 issues in, when the mistrust between Herc and Ghost Rider began to bubble to the surface:
And it also didn’t hurt that Ghost Rider started to look a lot cooler once John Byrne took over the artistic duties:
We also started to see some good characterization in Johnny Blaze’s mistrust and resentment of the team’s newest recruit, the Soviet defector Darkstar:
Byrne always drew him with human-looking eyes, which seemed all the creepier to me.
After 17 issues, THE CHAMPIONS kind of whimpered to a close, with its dissolution taking place not even in its own series, but in an issue of PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, where we see in flashback that the exasperated Ghost Rider is the first to leave:
So what was next for Johnny Blaze? Come on back next week and find out.
Scott Tipton thought the Champions were big-time when he was a kid. He was wrong. If you have questions about Ghost Rider or comics in general, send them here.