The recent revival of Marvel’s Satanic superhero Ghost Rider has been both a joyful thrill and a crushing disappointment for me. As a child of the early 90s, I grew up with the Danny Ketch incarnation of the character and his ongoing series was second only to X-Men in my 9 year-old heart. Of course, not being the original Ghost Rider has left Danny in the shadow of his predecessor, Johnny Blaze, who has been at the forefront of this sudden burst of reinvigorated interest in the brand. But that’s getting away from things.
We’ve gotten some good and bad out of Johnny’s return to fame; Jason Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider Vol. 5 exceeded my expectations like you wouldn’t believe, while Nicholas Cage’s turn as Johnny in the first live action Ghost Rider film met those expectations precisely. And they were set very, very low.
But with a new Nicholas Cage flick on the way this weekend, I thought it prudent to take a look back at some of the villains the different incarnations of Ghost Rider have faced over the decades. Particularly, let’s focus on the ones that sucked.
1. Vengeance (Deputy Kowalski)
The original Vengeance who appeared in the second volume of Ghost Rider (the Danny Ketch series from the 90s) was Lt. Michael Badilino. Although he was a rather obvious attempt at cloning the success of Spider-Man’s black-clad doppelganger, Venom (but in Ghost Rider form), Vengeance was never-the-less a great villain… for the one storyarc he was actually a genuine villain in (he immediately turned to the side of good because, you know, that’s what Venom did). And although he spent much of his career as an “antihero” (or “lethal protector”, as Venom called it), Vengeance still emitted an aura of “cool” contrary to his stupid Mohawk that kept the character alive throughout the remainder of Ghost Rider Vol. 2 and into his own solo stories depicted in Marvel Comics Presents.
But we’re not talking about him. We’re talking about the second incarnation of Vengeance, Deputy Kowalski, who showed up in Ghost Rider Vol. 5.
The Kowalski-Vengeance was a case of a whole lot of build-up with absolutely no pay-off. First appearing as a small town deputy in Ghost Rider (Vol. 5) #21 (written by Jason Aaron), Kowalski was subsequently kidnapped by a cannibal named Wojciehowicz, had his hand lopped off, got stuffed in the trunk of a car and left to be eaten alive at a later date. He escaped and whilst trying to take Woj… Wokka… The Wachowski Brothers down, got in Ghost Rider’s way and was given the penance stare for his troubles. He later obtained a hellfire shotgun from Lt. Badalino and was given the powers of a Spirit of Vengeance by servants of the renegade angel Zadkiel. Close to 20 issues of build-up as the new and improved Vengeance and he wound up going down like this:
And then was left like this:
Jason Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider produced some of the absolute best Ghost Rider stories ever written, full of Gun Nuns and Devil Rigs and a guy getting beaten to a pulp with a Bible. Alas, the conclusion suffered mightily from low sales that led to an early cancellation. Aaron was then left to tie all his story threads up in a single jam-packed 6-issue miniseries (Ghost Rider: Heaven’s on Fire). The primary plot (Johnny and Danny teaming up to storm the gates of Heaven and take Zadkiel down) naturally required the majority of attention, leaving other threads to be neglected entirely. Vengeance was one of those threads.
In a way, it kind of worked, as Kowalski was such a goofy loser that it made sense he would be taken down with almost comedic ease after such an epic introduction. I mean, one of his insidious revenge schemes consisted of sitting out in the middle of the desert in a lawn chair until Ghost Rider drove by, then shooting his tires out with the hellfire shotgun.
But again, 20 issues of build-up for one quick joke? We didn’t even get a real fight scene out of the guy. And the hasty conclusion to Aaron’s run will always leave me wondering if making Vengeance out to be a gag villain was the original intention all along, or if something much more interesting had been in the cards.
Perhaps the greatest of all the hobo villains, Tatterdemalion first appeared in Marvel Team-Up #93 where he battled Werewolf by Night and Spider-Man. The gist of this guy is that he’s homeless, he hates money, he smells really bad and he has gloves that can dissolve all paper or fabric but only paper and fabric. He combined these traits into a supervillain identity and began his quest to destroy money, fancy clothing and anything else that rich people enjoy by way of his corrosive gloves and terrible hygiene.
Tatterdemalion fought Ghost Rider only once, in Ghost Rider (Vol. 1) #55. In this story, Johnny Blaze and Jack Russell (AKA Werewolf by Night) both happen to be at Las Vegas at the same time when Tatterdemalion attacks a casino, destroying some guy’s tuxedo because that was the cusp of his brilliant scheme. Unfortunately, instead of fighting Tatterdemalion, they fight each other and he gets away.
As it happens, Tatterdemalion’s insidious scheme to destroy all that the wealthy hold dear reaches further than dissolving random articles of clothing. He’s going to destroy a racecar. Rich people love racecars. Anyway, Werewolf by Night tries to stop him, but Tatterdemalion easily thwarts him with the terrible smell of his hobo blanket. He then beats the wolf-man into submission with his lead-weighted scarf because Michael Fleisher was actually paid to write this and he should be ashamed of himself.
Tatterdemalion then makes off with the racecar only to be pursued by the Ghost Rider. The Spirit of Vengeance uses the powers of his hellfire to force the stinky bum to face his mortal sins, thus restoring his sanity through self-actualization and confession. Tatterdemalion is taken to prison to be reformed and maybe take a shower.
Nah, I’m just kidding. Ghost Rider forces him to drive the racecar over a cliff and kills him in a giant ball of flames and twisted metal wreckage.
And nothing of value was lost.
3. Black JuJu
I feel like I’m picking on Michael Fleisher, as the overarching story during his run on Ghost Rider Vol. 1 wasn’t half bad, it’s just that he populated it with some of the worst villains you can possibly imagine. I already covered Tatterdemalion, but for your sake, I’ve also skipped the likes of Moondark and Water Wizard.
However, there is no skipping the glory that is perhaps Fleisher’s most infamous bad idea. And that is Black JuJu.
“Black JuJu, “blackest evil”, “blackness where you lurk…” I’m sensing a trend, here.
As a matter of fact, though the character is identified as Black JuJu in the promo caption at the end of Ghost Rider #59 (“Coming next ish: The Murderous Menace of – Black JuJu!”) and, as you can clearly see, on the cover of Ghost Rider #60, I think editors Davis A. Kraft and Jim Shooter realized at the last moment just how stupidly offensive the entire character concept was. I say this because, in the issue-itself, the character is exclusively identified by the less catchy name “Destroyer of Demons.”
As it so happens, Reverend Joshua is a descendant of a great demon slayer of the Yoruba people, who once dwelt in darkest Africa. The original Destroyer of Demons got his powers from a mystical amulet that was given to him by a witch doctor, who in turn received from a leopard god while he was chillin’ in a cave for some reason. Joshua eventually had the amulet passed to him by his father (who was a former slave) and swore to carry on the family tradition of dressing like this:
In the 70s, Marvel was pretty intent on creating lots of new black superheroes to draw in a more diverse collection of readers. But while their hearts were in the right place, well… what we got was Black JuJu. I wonder if Black Mack Daddy or Black Trousersnake or “Hey, why is my wife talking jive all of a sudden?” was next on the assembly line at the ole House of Ideas?
The 90s era Ghost Rider series was superb. If you can, snatch up a trade or two of Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch Classic. There is some great art and great storytelling in there.
Unfortunately, there’s also a little bit of crap, such as Suicide.
After losing his kids in a divorce, Chris Daniels sought to kill himself but kept wussing out. This led to a confrontation with Mephisto, who offered him the courage to commit suicide in exchange for his own soul. Because Mephisto never plays fair, he also granted Daniels immortality with only one method on Earth capable of killing him. And you better believe Mephisto wasn’t telling.
So the distraught Daniels did what anybody in his shoes would do: he borrowed an S&M clubbing outfit from his next door neighbor and began hounding the Ghost Rider (whom he thought was capable of killing him).
And that’s one of the problems with Suicide as a “villain”; he doesn’t so much want to beat Ghost Rider as he wants Ghost Rider to beat *him*. Like, beat him to death. He’s really more of a nuisance than a villain. Ghost Rider and Suicide eventually team up to take down the villain Zodiak, Suicide saves a pregnant woman and is hailed as a hero by the media, though he still wants to die because he’s such a whiney baby.
Suicide vs. Death Ninja. There’s a sentence I may never get an opportunity to write again for the rest of my life.
Author Howard Mackie later called kind of a “do-over” with the concept, creating a villain named Death Ninja who had pretty much the same deal going: only one man could kill him and he figured it must be the Ghost Rider. While Death Ninja would endure in small doses through Ghost Rider Vol. 5, Suicide got one more appearance before being mercifully forgotten by the writers.
5. Gunmetal Gray
Ghost Rider Vol. 3 (otherwise known as “The Hammer Lane”) by Devin Grayson is more or less regarded as about the worst Ghost Rider story ever penned. And have you read some of that s--t I just talked about up there? This was quite an accomplishment.
Ghost Rider as a character had been out of circulation for three years by 2001 and apparently that’s enough time for Marvel to decide nobody remembered him and he needed a complete overhaul. So they called in Devin Grayson (the author who gave us that issue of Nightwing where Dick Grayson is raped by a super villainess) who had no prior knowledge of Ghost Rider other than “Well gee, he sure looks neat!” Vol. 3 opens with Johnny as an accountant for some inexplicable reason who regains his Ghost Rider powers for some unexplained reason and then proceeds to hire a biker mercenary to assassinate himself for some idiotic reason.
Technically, Johnny hires Gunmetal Gray to kill Ghost Rider, but the point is that Johnny Blaze, the most knowledgeable person about Ghost Riders in the whole Marvel Universe because he spent the best years of his life AS a Ghost Rider hires a normal human being to kill the Wrath of God-incarnate and thinks he stands a chance. Or rather, Devin Grayson thought this would make for a suspenseful 6-issue miniseries. Try to imagine Superman battling a gun-toting bank robber (the kind of “villains” he eats for breakfast) and having that battle stretched over a half-dozen mind-numbingly boring issues.
Yet the whole while, Gunmetal Gray is presented as the Best New Ghost Rider Villain Since I Dunno I Never Read A Ghost Rider Comic Before Now and his “threat” is played with a straight face for the entire duration of the storyline. He’s boring, he’s lame and thank Zarathos, he’s never heard of nor seen again after Vol. 3 concludes.