Ghost Rider, which drops its third issue this week, is a book that has been building its aesthetic increasingly with each issue, and that aesthetic promises to both reestablish a neglected character and finesse a bit of influence from his earliest stories. It also stands in a very strong place to continue—however loosely and tenuously—the unresolved plot from his last series.
As in his original series, the book sees Johnny as a sort of wanderer (originally, his stunt show and, later, as a sort of spooky, two-wheeled David Carradine), but this book accentuates what comics in the 70s and 80s might not have allowed themselves to: it populates the mundane spaces of roadside America with secret hotspots of Hell. There are lurking predators in these woods that the average passersby could never guess at, even in their worst nightmares. It doesn’t take much, the book implies, to become prey.
Most notably, there’s a sense of gothic Americana to these monsters, dark shadows in the American dream. The US interstate system, the arteries of the nation, is peopled with madmen, and killers. Motels—an invention coinciding with that system—operated by voyeurs driven to murder. Traveling salesmen—subscribers to that old dream—with trunks full of bodies.
In this issue it’s the ubiquitous big rig, another token of that automotive American Dream, which becomes the predator. If you want to read deep—and what else am I here for than to read too deeply?—this might speak of corruption at the very foundation of American life, the blue-collar worker twisted by Hell itself. It’s an attack from the very infrastructure of the nation.
Placing Johnny in a precarious, near-amnesiac state right off gives us an arc of trajectory for the story, but it allows plenty of room to play around before getting there. He might be the only force suited to face these threats. Even with all the four-color super-heroes around, it seems that only the Rider stumbles over these shades, happens into the path of carnivorous semis. This is the book relocating Johnny and his Rider from his vaunted position of power in the Marvel cosmology and dropping him back into the $#!+.
With Cory Smith and Brent Peeples’s hectic, dark and sharp artwork (helped along by Roberto Poggi on part of the inks), the world is stark, people twisted by their corruption. An element of body horror coincides with the subtler horror of ghosts lurking in closets or the absurd horror of hulking beasts.
After all of the highs and start-stop lows of recent Ghost Rider volumes—most by incredible masterminds—who else but Benjamin Percy could have taken the character on so satisfyingly? It’s a different side of him than his most recent “look how tough Wolverine is” work, but it isn’t without its gruff, lone wolf vibes. He’s a writer that understands the dark complexities of characters, and though we haven’t delved too deeply into Johnny yet, he’s applied that complexity to the world, the mythology.
At one point Johnny contemplates the disconnection we’ve made between the road and ourselves, a state of mind akin to turning our car windows into video screens rather than feeling ourselves connected with the landscape, our actual presence hurtling through physical space where things “looked like one thing on the outside but another on the inside.” Maybe we think this willful ignorance is for the best, that it keeps us safe, keeps us clean, and uncorrupted from an America filled with monsters.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not still out there.
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