Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
I am not a person blessed with a great memory — my childhood is a wash of emotional tones, brief flashes of moments, specific media and toys and stories I told myself. I don’t have a good grasp on the order of events, I don’t remember who was in my classes, and I don’t remember November of 1990.
I do remember Ghost Rider #7.
Ghost Rider #7 is hard to forget.
Looking back, the issue is the first in the series to really hit, to feel undeniably the way the series was destined to feel; with the ignoble duty of establishing our narrative done, and a remarkably uneventful two-issue Punisher crossover to bring in readers out of the way, issue #7 is given the chance to be something altogether incredible: a near tone-poem of horror, brutality, and loss, uninhibited with the overwrought narrative establishment, team-ups, or flashy set pieces.
Instead, the issue begins to hammer home the third volume of Ghost Rider’s early themes and concerns. It is often a series about having no control over your own life, of not quite succeeding in the ways that really matter, and that is true for both protagonist Danny Ketch and the issue’s villain, Ebenezer Laughton, the low-tier supervillain Scarecrow.
The narrative, like a good portion of the early issues of the series, occurs in dual threads — the world of Danny Ketch and the world of the Ghost Rider, each of them a unique identity nearly disconnected from the other. Danny, whose life has been thrown into upheaval, is worried for his comatose sister, frightened of the force that takes his body from him in the night, and is unable to connect with his loved ones.
Ghost Rider, on the other hand, is on his endless quest for vengeance, and there is no matter more pressing than a series of grisly murders committed by Scarecrow.
The issue opens in the dark cell of Laughton. Ebenezer crouches on his bunk, naked but for his underwear and his signature mask, gazing up toward the barred window of his cell, from which moonlight streams onto him and his padded walls. The page is black, and the scant moonlight instills a sense of isolation, dread. We know nothing about Ebenezer, here, and yet his pose — contorted, hands grasping mask, eyes cast toward the night sky — imparts an understanding that he is unhinged. The image effortlessly evokes the gothic Renfield, mad servant of Stoker’s Dracula, awaiting his master in his own cell. Like Renfield, Laughton will not stay locked up — a straight razor allows his murderous escape.
It’s the first issue that Mark Texeira, who has inked each issue previously, steps into the role of penciller, and this single splash page alone is enough to understand why his scratchy, heavy-lined work becomes emblematic for both the series and the character. Heavy blacks fill each page — there is darkness in every corner. The world of Danny and the Rider — and the world in which the Scarecrow lurks — is bled of the bright, vivid colors found elsewhere in the Marvel Universe of 1990. There are no bright blue skies like the ones Spidey swings through, no vividly garish Batroc the Leaper costumes. Texeira illustrates a truly visceral world full of terror, in which Scarecrow’s victims hang from lampposts, where a young couple on a date, as Dan and his girlfriend, Stacy, are, might stumble across the bloody crime scene where a mother and her baby — ripped from its stroller — have only just been carted off to the morgue.
It’s a world that doesn’t just need the Ghost Rider; it’s a world that deserves him. Danny, terrified still of the entity, cannot deny it. He gives up control to the Spirit of Vengeance, deserting both his girlfriend and his own chance at a normal life at the crime scene tape.
Ghost Rider is a book that seems to want you to pay attention to sight — or the lack thereof. Issues deal with villains named Death Watch, Snowblind, and Blackout. There’s something being hidden from us, as readers, and from both the Rider and Danny; neither of them can see a larger picture. In issue #7, that obscuration of the larger narrative covers the actions of Blackout, the issue’s second madman.
Blackout — whose powers snuff sources of light about him, furthering the metaphor — attempted to feed on the Rider in an earlier issue and, in doing so, disfigured himself in the Rider’s flames. Like Danny, Blackout’s own actions have left him horrifically changed. Out for his own vengeance, Blackout has uncovered the Rider’s secret: a young man, tragically mortal, is the Rider’s vessel, and he has identified the boy’s loved ones. He sneaks into the basement of the hospital, his powers overwhelming the lights, and feasts on an innocent janitor. His infiltration, we feel, is a long one—he haunts the hospital leisurely, taking victims as he goes. He is in no rush.
In the end, Blackout is the only force who succeeds—he is the darkness itself, infiltrating Danny’s life. Scarecrow’s failure comes in his attracting the Rider in the first place: he has been murdering these people to attract the attention of Captain America; even in his horrible brutality, he is beneath the notice of the Sentinel of Liberty. During the scuffle, realizing that Captain won’t come for him, the Scarecrow throws himself on his own pitchfork, ending himself.
The Rider, denied the vengeance that drives its very being, comes up empty handed. There is no justice, only disappointment, regret, a purpose unfulfilled. It’s Danny who suffers the greatest loss, of course: he has allowed the rider this opportunity and, in doing so, left his wounded sister to the whims of Blackout.
Barbara is dead, murdered in her hospital bed.
The full moon, silhouetting the Scarecrow’s corpse, shines no light in the corners of the book, in the corners of Danny’s life. In a world like this, there is no brightness.
It isn’t common for a comic to be so rife with tragedy; the Rider’s four-color cohorts suffer less, month to month, than his host suffers in this single issue. 1990’s Ghost Rider #7 is bleak. It’s horrifying. It’s haunting. And it has remained with me for three decades.
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