I feel like we’re not making nearly enough noise about it being Johnny Blaze’s anniversary year. There was the promotional push last October, which seemed to imply big moves for not just Johnny but the whole Bone Buffet, starting with Avengers 1,000,000 BC, progressing through the original Ghost Rider of the wild west and flying out into the future with the Riders of both 2099 and the 31st Century.
What I’m saying is I was expecting a spooky party. What we’ve gotten so far—now a third of the way through Johnny’s 50th year—is a long-awaited ongoing, Robbie Reyes’ Real Big Deal adventures in Avengers Forever and, starting this week, a release slate of some hefty trade paperbacks.
It’s not a bad start, per se, but I was led to believe there would be fireworks.
The trade paperbacks aren’t exactly something to be maligned—this week sees the re-release of a Rise of the Midnight Sons book that’s been out of print for six years, which puts one of the major GR stories of the ’90s back in people’s hands. More pressing to Johnny’s time in the (made of hellfire) hot seat is the first volume of Ghost Rider Epic Collection.
I won’t continue going on and on about how great the Epic Collection format is, but I can tell you that it’s a tremendous joy to finally have a book collecting these issues in full color.
Last collected nearly twenty years ago in the black-and-white, phone-book-sized Essential collections, Johnny Blaze’s first nineteen appearances are a fully different experience in color. They are also, to be frank, hokey as hell.
There are few things in this world as gleefully, unabashedly comic-booky as a flaming skeleton on a motorbike, and while this collection never quite lands on who Blaze is or how to utilize him, there is nonetheless a sense of embracing Marvel’s “see if it sticks” attitude of the 1970s. Capitalizing on the public’s then-fascination with stunt rider Evel Knievel, the gloomy marketing potential of skulls, and, of course, children’s absolute love for
Satan motorcycles, Ghost Rider was a book born from gimmick after gimmick. The fact that the concept clicked with readers long enough to produce 81 issues of a solo book (on top of the seven debut issues in Marvel Spotlight) is, in itself, validation of the awesome power of malarkey in comic books.
The character (whose creatorship is a legal nightmare) seems custom-built to give the Comics Code Authority the middle finger (in the rearview, as they receded ever in the background). With a principal cast that includes Satan himself, the character’s adventures first writer, Gary Friedrich, sometimes struggled with purpose and logistics, but they nevertheless felt vital and engaging—no matter how many times the core concept necessitated Johnny doing a big jump on his motorcycle.
Friedrich’s era seemed more interested in the plight of Indigenous Peoples and what I can only hope is a tongue-in-cheek insistence that the Women’s Liberation Movement lead women to witchcraft, than it was in the conceptual troubles of a literal Satan and literal Hell, but it nonetheless pushed at the established boundaries of the supernatural in the Marvel Universe. While Doctor Strange found himself squared off against interdimensional horrors, Ghost Rider implied a world a razor’s edge removed from the reality of religion—whether they be problematic (and, obviously, wrong) representations of faith on reservations or equally faulty takes on damned souls.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the book was taken over by other writers—first Marv Wolfman, then Tony Isabella—that the book veered into heroism and integration into the Marvel Universe at large, bringing with it all its sordid, compelling implications of faith-based magicks.
Those Isabella issues—Hulk inclusion or no—are the weakest in the collection, but they are nonetheless foundational for the concept to keep afloat in the universe. It would be Len Wein’s Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man and Isabella’s paper-thin Hulk plot that ensured that a future Ghost Rider might exist in the 31st century or, more improbably, be the central character of their own Avengers title.
Joyous, moody, and often hilarious, Johnny Blaze’s Ghost Rider is a comic that exemplifies just how far afield a book can wander. It’s the quintessential post-Code Authority book, and though Hell on Wheels never manages to find the eventual heart and soul of the character or concept, it’s nonetheless foundational. And, honestly, a joy to read.
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