Thursday, March 22, 2018

Ghost Rider (1990) # 83

Cover Artist: Pop Mhan
Published: March 1997
Original Price: $1.95

Title: "House of Burning Souls"
Writer: Ivan Velez Jr.
Artist: Pop Mhan
Inkers: John Lowe & Jason Martin
Letterers: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Brian Buccellato
Editor: James Felder
Editor In Chief: Bob Harras

The Ghost Rider laughs as he chases down a mugger, telling him to do no more evil after catching him.  Ghost Rider stops in an alley and ponders the unfairness of his curse and if he should relinquish his body, but then reconsiders when he remembers what it would do to his human host.  He transforms back into Danny Ketch, who realizes he is near his mother's house.  When he goes to see her, however, he finds her on the floor in tears with a strange package.  She had been visited by her daughter, Danny's dead sister Barbara, who left them a rotted human heart in a box with a note promising to return.

Meanwhile, in an abandoned auto junkyard, Brother Voodoo and the vampire Lilith investigate the disappearance of seven corpses from Cypress Hills Cemetery.  They find six of the bodies, which have been partially eaten, unaware that the seventh missing corpse is Barbara Ketch who is watching them from afar.  With her makeshift pitchfork, Barbara sends a flock of crows to attack Voodoo and Lilith, prompting the vampire to call forth her own army of rats to fight.  Elsewhere, Jennifer Kale returns to her destroyed apartment with John Blaze close behind, nagging her about helping him find his missing kids.  She kicks him out of the apartment but tells him to call her tomorrow.

Back in Cypress Hills, Danny takes his distraught mother to stay with Stacy Dolan, who tries to get Danny to call the police.  He tells her that it's a family problem and has to deal with it himself.  On the way back to his mother's house he's confronted by Barbara, who attempts to kill him with her pitchfork.  He realizes quickly that the Scarecrow, who he last saw in Hell, has taken over his sister's body.  When Danny threatens to transform into Ghost Rider, Scarecrow plants the seed of doubt that any harm he does to him may harm her as well.  Blaze drives by and grabs Danny, saving him from Scarecrow's flock of birds, and the two brothers take refuge inside Mrs. Ketch's home.  While Danny goes to check the back door, he notices something odd.  Blaze, then, is knocked unconscious from behind by Danny, whose body is now possessed by the Scarecrow.  In Hell, Blackheart and Black Rose watch and laugh, confident that their plan is working.

Ghost Rider last appeared in Marvel Fanfare (1997) # 3.

Danny Ketch last faced the Scarecrow in Ghost Riders: Crossroads # 1; in that same issue he was reunited with his dead sister Barbara and was forced to leave her behind in Hell along with the Scarecrow.  Scarecrow was sent to Earth by Blackheart to reanimate Barbara's corpse in Ghost Rider (1990) # 77 and in Ghost Rider (1990) # 81 he sent a flock of crows to attack Francis Ketch.

The Lilith in this issue is the daughter of Dracula that first appeared in 1974's Giant-Size Chillers # 1; not to be confused with Lilith, Mother of Demons, who first appeared in Ghost Rider (1990) # 28.

Brother Voodoo met Danny Ketch and the Ghost Rider once before in Midnight Sons Unlimited (1993) # 7.

Jennifer Kale learned that she was a cousin to Dan Ketch and John Blaze in Ghost Rider (1990) # 78 and she agreed to help Blaze find his missing children in Ghost Rider (1990) # 81.

The Scarecrow makes a truly horrific return as Velez starts to pay off a lot of his simmering subplots from the last few months.

I have a confession to make: there was a period in the mid-1990s that I actually stopped reading Ghost Rider.  When Howard Mackie left the book it was coupled with my waning interest in comics as a whole, so I dropped everything I was reading (which by that point wasn't much) and walked away from my favorite character.  Fast forward about two years later and I find myself wandering into a comic shop while out with some friends.  I wandered over to the new comic shelf to see what Ghost Rider was up to, checking in on my old buddy, and I found two issues on the shelf.  One was issue # 79, the debut of the yellow and red costume, and this one, issue # 83.  I couldn't resist the temptation and picked up both to take home and read.  Issue # 79 wasn't that big a departure from what I was used, it still had Salvador Larroca on artwork, and though I was a little put off by the garish costume I was digging the story.  It did not prepare me for what I was going to find in THIS issue, though.

I hated this comic when I first read it, mainly as a reaction to Pop Mhan's artwork.  A lot of fans STILL hate this brief run of issues due to the art, and I totally get why readers used to Texeira and Larroca would have that opinion.  Looking at them now, though, I think I've come around to appreciating Mhan's work on the series more than I did back in the day.  The previous issue, the infamous one with Devil Dinosaur, is still uniformly terrible, don't get me wrong.  But this one, when paired with the really suitable inks of John Lowe, perfectly captures what is actually an extremely disturbing and scary storyline.  Everything is really exaggerated and stylized, of course, but look past that to some of the individual panels.  The shot of Scarecrow unleashing his crows in the junkyard, with the lightning flashing behind him, is amazingly terrifying.  The way Mhan draws Ghost Rider himself, with his cartoonishly grotesque skull, is offset by the amazing way he conveys the flames of his head and motorcycle.  I LOVE how Mhan draws fire, it has such motion and energy to it.  The artwork trails off again for the back 1/4th of the issue, when Jason Martin takes over the inks and makes things a lot more sketchy and blocky, but those first 16 or so pages look really, really nice.

The story, too, takes a real sharp turn with this issue.  Velez had given us two pretty long arcs in his run so far, the Vengeance story and the Noble Kale/Furies saga, and both had been pretty standard vigilante/supernatural superhero fare.  Instead of keeping that "par for the course" mentality, Velez drives the metaphorical motorcycle right over the edge into psychological horror for this third arc.  The Scarecrow suffers a bit from a wild characterization inconsistency, but I can deal with that when you've got the villain reanimating the corpse of Danny's dead sister, which makes for some really disturbing implications.  Velez makes an unfortunate decision to clutter up the story with two 1970s horror comic castoffs, Brother Voodoo and Lilith, which flags up an issue with his plots for the last few months.  He littered the previous issues with Valkyrie, Devil Dinosaur, and Howard the Duck, the former of which offered absolutely nothing to the story she was in.  Maybe editorial forced these characters on Velez to try and drum up interest in them?  I know the guest-stars stopped appearing once the book's editorship changed from Felder to Brevoort.

Regardless, "House of Burning Souls" sticks out in my memory as the comic that brought me back to Ghost Rider for the remainder of Velez's run.  I think it's a pretty great comic with only a couple of unfortunate creative decisions. 

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ghost Rider (1973) # 22

Cover Artist: Jack Kirby
Published: February 1977
Original Price: $0.30

Title: "Nobody Beats the Enforcer!"
Story: Gerry Conway
Script: Don Glut
Artist: Don Heck
Inker: Keith Pollard
Letterer: Irv Watanabe
Colorist: Don Warfield
Editor: Archie Goodwin

Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider, is being pursued by the police through Los Angeles, and after a harrowing chase he is finally able to lose them in an alley.  With the danger over, he transforms back into Blaze and returns to his parked motorcycle, thinking about his recent run-in with the Eel and the Gladiator. He goes to visit Karen Page, and despite proclaiming his love for her gets the cold shoulder, with her asking him to give her more time.

Meanwhile, the Enforcer meets with the scientist responsible for his technology, who provides him with a miniaturized medallion version of the device stolen from the Eel.  The Enforcer goes to a meeting of West Coast mob bosses and declares himself to be their new leader, and when one protests he uses the medallion to disintegrate him.  The other criminals quickly fall in line.  Meanwhile, Coot Collier gets a surprise visit from his son, Carson Collier Jr., who seems to be up to something sinister.  The next morning, while filming a scene for the Stunt-Master television show, Blaze is called up to the office Charles Delazny, head of the television studio.  Waiting in Delazny's office is a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department named Flannigan; Johnny's identity as the Ghost Rider is public knowledge from his cycle show days, and they want to question him down at the precinct about his antics endangering the city.  Blaze puts up a fight and escapes the police, turning himself into a fugitive.

Later that evening, Johnny calls Roxanne Simpson, who has dug up information on who hired the Eel as a consultant for the Stunt-Master show.  The hire was made from Delazny's office, but that doesn't mean that Delazny himself is involved.  Johnny laments that he can only transform into Ghost Rider when he's in danger, but after concentrating harder than ever before is able to force the change into his supernatural form for the first time.  Johnny goes to Delazny's mansion estate just in time to see the Enforcer and his men leaving in a car, which he follows all the way to the San Diego Naval Yards.  While Ghost Rider takes out the gangsters, the Enforcer turns his disintegration ray (now contained in a ring on his finger) on one of the parked battleship, declaring it proof that "no man can stop the Enforcer!"  Ghost Rider confronts him and chases him on and off of the battleship, with Enforcer making numerous comments about movies and the film industry while under duress, and eventually the fight takes both men into the water.  Enforcer loses his ring but is able to escape unharmed while Ghost Rider makes his way back to shore. 

The next morning, Johnny wanders into the police station to confront Flannigan, saying "if I'm Ghost Rider then who is that?" and pointing to an image of the Rider driving by outside.  The police are forced to drop their charges, with a smiling Blaze thinking to himself that he can create hellfire images of the Ghost Rider whenever he needs to protect his identity.  Still, though, he can't help but feel that disaster is right around the corner.

Ghost Rider appears next in The Champions (1975) # 14.

This issue is the first occurrence of Johnny being able to transform into the Ghost Rider at will.  Starting in Marvel Spotlight on Ghost Rider (1972) # 5 he would transform against his will every night.  That changed in Ghost Rider (1973) # 13, when his transformations began to occur whenever he sensed danger, in daytime or night.

This issue was reprinted in the Essential Ghost Rider vol. 2 trade paperback.

Gerry Conway is already walking out the door with his second issue, providing nothing but a plot for scripter Don Glut.  Similarly, Gil Kane has departed, replaced by Don Heck.  Things are not looking up for the "All-New" superheroic Ghost Rider series.

Hoo-boy, this is not a good comic, people.  It seems to take every tired cliche and problem from Silver Age Marvel and compacts into this perfect example of nonsense.  The plot hinges one some extremely shaky logic and the villain's motivations don't progress further than dick swinging.  The dialogue is a chore to slog through and the characterization of our hero is nearly insufferable.  Where to start, then, with this review? 

I suppose we can begin with Johnny Blaze himself, who is absolutely insufferable throughout the issue.  You have his "love triangle" with Karen Page (who seems like she could care less about his advances) and Roxanne Simpson (who here is just his "girl (space) friend" that helps him like he's in an episode of Scooby Doo).  Blaze is kind of a piece of shit in the way he treats Roxanne, who he had professed his love for numerous times in the past, but now he's all enthralled with movie star Karen.  It's soap opera romance that makes Johnny into a cad and Karen into a manipulator, shoving Roxanne into "poor damsel" status AGAIN.  Then there's Johnny's approach to dealing with the police, who know he's the Ghost Rider due to him having the worst secret identity ever, and their reasonable request for him to stop Ghost Riding all over Los Angeles before someone gets hurt.  Instead of going down to the police station as requested, he does an all-out assault on the cops that have come to get him.  At the end he tricks them with more Scooby Doo logic revolving around a Ghost Rider hologram, but then they let him go after he assaulted several police officers the day before?  The cops should have thrown his ass in the slammer just to put the punk in his place.

The Enforcer doesn't fare much better, as he's probably the least interesting villain this series has seen so far (and that's up against guys like Roulette and Big Daddy Dawson, which should tell you something).  His big plan is to take over the mob in LA, fair enough, then use his power ring to destroy some naval ships...apparently just to improve his reputation?  There's no blackmail or ransom involved, just his desire to prove that "no man can stop the Enforcer!"  Really, that's all the dude wants, some validation that he's the baddest dude in town?  I guess it kinda makes sense if you think real dumb, that he's in Hollywood and therefore has the most shallow motivation ever, but it doesn't make him interesting to read about.  He's posturing around, using the whole "nice flame thrower tricks" when fighting Ghost Rider, but he just doesn't come off as threatening, as a physical threat or a master planer type.  Unfortunately, the "Enforcer Saga" still has two more issues to go after this one.

The artwork has switched to Don Heck, who had previously been the launch artist for The Champions, and his work here hasn't seen much improvement.  His work is serviceable, I suppose, but it's very bland.  The characters are very stiff and posed, the action doesn't flow very well, and he commits the greatest sin of all on this title: his Ghost Rider looks bad.  Not just bad, but underwhelming, very much just a guy in a costume with a poorly-drawn skull up top.  Maybe Heck was rushed when tasked with this issue, he does do better work in an issue or two, but his style has never been one I've enjoyed.

This is probably the worst issue of the series so far and it's the absolute lowest period creatively in the book's history.  I'd say avoid it and come back with issue # 26, because that's when the series actually starts getting good again.

Grade: D-

Thursday, March 15, 2018

R.I.P. Michael Fleisher

This morning I woke up to some really sad news that comic writer Michael Fleisher has passed away at the age of 75.  It was reported by Mark Evanier on his News From ME blog that Fleisher died back on the 2nd of February, he did not know the cause of death.  Fleisher had been out of the comics field for several decades, his last published work being in the late 1980s, but he had a lasting influence in the medium.  He started work at DC Comics as a writer, redefining the Spectre and Jonah Hex for the Bronze Age and introducing several notable Batman characters, such as the Electrocutioner.

For me, however, Fleisher will always be remembered as one of the defining writers on Ghost Rider during the original Johnny Blaze era.  He stepped into the series with issue # 36 alongside artist Don Perlin, and the two enjoyed a lengthy creative run on the series.  While Perlin bowed out with issue # 58, Fleisher continued to write the series until Ghost Rider # 66, giving him a run of 31 issues in total.  The Fleisher/Perlin team was successful in increasing the sales on the book, upgrading it from bi-monthly to monthly status after just four issues.

Fleisher was also instrumental in the development of the Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider relationship, establishing that they were indeed two separate entities sharing one body.  Fleisher's moody, horror comic approach to the series breathed new life into the book, taking it as far away from superhero motifs as he could get.  Coupled with Perlin's atmospheric artwork, the book truly came into its own under their guidance.  Known for mostly one-shot stories, with the occasional 2-parter thrown in, the highlights of Fleisher's run included "The End of a Champion", where Blaze lost his title of World Stunt-Cycle Champion, and the 50th issue that teamed Blaze with the original Western Ghost Rider for the first time.

I'm going to end this post with some pages from one of my all-time favorite Ghost Rider stories, Fleisher and Perlin's first on the title.  Years ago, when I conducted a poll of "Greatest Ghost Rider Comics of All Time", Ghost Rider (1973) # 36's "A Demon in Denver" came in at # 4.  Click on the images to enlarge the pages.  Reprints of Michael Fleisher's run can be found in Essential Ghost Rider vol. 3 and vol. 4.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Venom: Nights of Vengeance # 1

Cover Artist: Ron Lim
Published: August 1994
Original Price: $2.95

Title: "Nights of Vengeance, Part 1: Reprisals in Blood"
Writer: Howard Mackie
Artist: Ron Lim
Inker: Al Milgrom
Letterer: Ken Lopez
Colorist: Tom Smith
Editor: Danny Fingeroth
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

A homeless man named Sean Knight is being chased through the back alleys of San Francisco by Michael Badilino, former NYPD and now a government agent.  When Knight is cornered, Badilino is grabbed by Venom, who has taken an oath to protect innocent people.  He knocks Badilino unconscious, Knight passes out, and he takes both men back to the underground city Venom calls home.  There, Knight regains consciousness and tells his story to Venom and a woman named Beck: Knight was a DEA agent who infiltrated a group of mercenaries called the Stalkers.  When the group discovered a wrecked alien ship they stole sets of battle armor, Knight blew his cover, and he's been on the run from them ever since.  Badilino wakes up and confirms Knight's story, saying he thinks the Stalkers may have connections to Anton Hellgate, who Badilino has been trying to find.  The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Stalkers, who threaten to blow up the underground city with a bomb if Knight isn't surrendered to them.  Knight goes outside to face them, but the Stalkers are then attacked by Venom, who disables the bomb.  When Venom begins to be overwhelmed by the four technologically superior mercenaries, Badilino transforms into Vengeance and joins the battle.  When the Stalkers are defeated, their armored suits cover them in circuitry, transforming them into hosts for an alien life form that goes from planet to planet looking for lifeforms to hunt.  Believing that Venom and Vengeance are worthy of being hunted, the alien-possessed Stalkers teleport away with the innocent people in the underground city, including Venom's lady friend Beck.  Knight volunteers to help the two "heroes", he knows where the Stalkers have gone.

Vengeance last appeared in Ghost Rider (1990) Annual # 2.

Venom mistakes Vengeance for Ghost Rider, who he met during the "Spirits of Venom" crossover that ran through Web of Spider-Man (1985) # 95-96 and Ghost Rider/Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance (1992) # 5-6.

Michael Badilino had dealings with Hellgate sometime in his past, but most recently encountered him and his agents in Ghost Rider (1990) # 46-49.   He was captured by Hellgate in Ghost Rider (1990) # 50 and subjected to torturous experimentation before being rescued by Ghost Rider in Ghost Rider (1990) # 52. 

Venom's ongoing series of mini-series sees a new storyarc by Mackie and Lim that teams him up with Vengeance, resulting in an overdose of 1990s EXTREEEEEEEME!

I've talked before in previous reviews that the '90s had a bad habit of taking popular "antithesis" villains and turning them into anti-heroes in their own right.  Venom was the first example, going from arguably THE most popular Spider-Man villain to a "lethal protector" with his own comic series.  Vengeance was next, quickly bumped up from villain to supporting character to outright taking over the ongoing Ghost Rider series.  This is the inevitable mini-series that teamed up the two, and honestly all it's missing is Sabretooth, who was going through his own rehabilitative attempt in the pages of X-Men at the time, for it to achieve critical mass of villains-turned-good. 

I can only imagine that this mini-series must have been commissioned when Vengeance was still the lead in Ghost Rider, which resulted in such a huge backlash that the creators had to hit the reset button just five issues later in # 50.  This issue, and the arc as a whole, is pretty indicative of the brief Vengeance era, resulting in a bland and harmless story that feels like it really doesn't belong to the characters involved.  "Nights of Vengeance" is essentially Mackie writing his own version of Predator with the two angriest characters he had available, which makes it as unoriginal as it is inoffensively mediocre.  What could have been an interesting exploration in the anti-hero/villain trend is instead replaced by posturing and lots of teeth.

The artwork by Ron Lim really hammers home a lot of those points, as the work is filled with overly-muscled heroes who look surprisingly sanitized as superheroes despite their horrific character designs.  Lim doesn't really do well on stories like this, he fit in much better on titles like Captain America and Silver Surfer, because of how clean and bright his art looked.  Plus, Lim gives Eddie Brock the sweetest mullet ever, long hair in the back and flat top in the front, it's glorious. 

Ultimately, this is a really bland comic that robs the characters of anything interesting to do while simultaneously being a perfect '90s time capsule.  I say pass on this issue and the mini as a whole.

Grade: C-

Friday, March 9, 2018

Iceman (2017) # 6-7

Cover Artist: Kevin Wada
Published: Dec. 2017 & Jan. 2018
Original Price: $3.99

Title: "Champions Reunited"
Writer: Sina Grace
Artist: Robert Gill
Letterer: Joe Sabino
Colorist: Rachelle Rosenberg
Editor: Darren Shan
Assistant Editor: Chris Robinson
Group Editor: Mark Paniccia
Editor-in-Chief: Axel Alonso

Following the death of the Black Widow, Iceman has orchestrated a reunion of his old superhero team the Champions in Los Angeles to honor his fallen friend's memory.  Outside the old Champions building, which Iceman laments has become a gym, he is joined by Hercules, Warren Worthington III (Angel), and Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider).  They move to a restaurant, where they share stories about when they first met Black Widow; all except for Iceman, who dodges the question.  They're soon joined by their final old teammate, Darkstar, who like the others is mourning their friend's death.  That night, in the Hollywood Hills, Iceman and Angel discover a young lady named Leti with a wrecked Sentinel in her backyard that she's trying to reactivate; they confront her and tell her to get rid of the giant mutant-hunting robot.
Cover Artist: Kevin Wada

The next day, Iceman meets a man named Judah who asks him out on a date, prompting Bobby to ask his friends to join him at the bar that evening.  The date that night is interrupted by a group of attacking Sentinels, who the special effects artist has reanimated in a bid to film them as exposure for her career.  The Champions go into action and pretty quickly destroy the Sentinels, allowing Iceman to continue his date with Judah.  The next morning, the Champions meet up at a Russian bakery to eat pastries, where Bobby finally tells them about how his first meeting with the Black Widow involved him using some terrible pick-up lines on her and how embarrassing it is to look back on.  Later, Iceman visits Leti at her home and, instead of turning her in to the police, gives her contact information for a professor at UCLA who could help her harness her technical skills for something positive.  Back in New York, at the X-Mansion, Iceman continues to talk to Judah and eventually decides to move to Los Angeles for good.

Johnny Blaze last appeared in All-New Ghost Rider (2014) # 10 and appears next in Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur (2015) # 24.

Robbie Reyes, who makes a cameo appearance with Blaze, last appeared in Marvel Legacy (2017) # 1.

The Champions first formed way back in The Champions (1976) # 1 and the team disbanded not long after in Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man # 17.  They briefly reunited once before in X-Force/Champions Annual 1998.

Black Widow recently died during the "Secret Empire" crossover, murdered by a Hydra brainwashed Captain America.

Podcast Review: Inner Demons Episode 16 - "Hellfireface" (Click to Listen)

The Champions make a long-awaited reunion but things aren't quite what they're selling on the covers.

I'm gonna go ahead and say things up front: I don't think this comic book is meant for me.  In case you didn't know, Iceman is now homosexual, and that is this series' focus, exploring his newfound sexual identity.  That's all fine, it's not something I really care anything about reading, but that in and of itself does not make these bad comics.  I'm sure there are readers out there that connect to this material in really deep and meaningful ways, and that's fucking awesome.  It's also not a problem that Iceman is the one that leads the Champions through all their interactions and combat (what little there is of it); this is an ICEMAN series, so it's only natural that he's the driving force of the narrative.  The other Champions are just guest-stars meant to support the main character, again that's all well and fine.

No, my problem is that for a 2-issue arc that uses the Champions' reuniting as its main selling point there's blessedly little for actual fans of the Champions to care about.  The nominal reason for the reunion is to mourn the passing of the Black Widow, who died in the last big event comic, but even that is simply given lip service to bookend the Champions' reasons for coming back together.  Black Widow is a footnote in this story, and other than the token bit in issue # 7 that ties it all back to Iceman's sexuality the story could seem to care less about her.  The Champions are REALLY here to provide Sina Grace some new sounding boards for his take on Iceman, and again, that's FINE.  Just don't sell this book as some big Champions story when they're nothing but window dressing.

There is, of course, the obligatory action sequence against the Sentinels, but it's one that that is over in the span of a few pages.  Character downtime and conversations are important for any series, but when the Sentinels are defeated in a rush so the story can move on to "Netflix and Chill", my patience was at an end with the comic.  Look at that cover for issue # 7, that's absolutely a bait and switch in contrast with the interior comic.  Come for the heroes being defeated by the Sentinels...stay for cheese danishes?  Now, that's not to say that Grace doesn't do well with his character moments between the Champions, because they all do come off as friends even more than teammates.  He gives Blaze/Ghost Rider a few funny lines and action panels, I just wanted more of it.  I wanted more Champions in my "Champions Reunited", is that too much to ask?

The artwork, though, is perfectly solid and serviceable to the story that Grace is telling.  Robert Gil struggles a bit, I think, with all of the conversation scenes, but he hits some high marks with the Sentinel fight in issue # 7.  I actually wouldn't mind seeing him on some Ghost Rider material, because his take on the character looks pretty solid.  He also does a really great Don Heck impersonation when he draws Iceman's memory of the Black Widow, which takes place during Heck's Champions # 1 from 1976.

If you're a fan of the Iceman series, more power to you.  I get why a lot of people would enjoy it.  Unfortunately, I felt a bit robbed that I didn't get what was advertised on the covers, because I was really wanting a new Champions adventure in the modern era.  This emphatically was not that, and whether Grace and Gil intended it to be or not, it wasn't what was advertised.

Grade: D

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Retconning Ghost Rider's Origin (Again)

WARNING: This article contains spoilers from some recently released comics: Thanos # 16, Spirits of Vengeance # 5, and Doctor Strange: Damnation # 1.  If you haven't read them yet and don't want spoilers, please don't read this article.  There are NO spoilers for Damnation # 2, though, which was released today (go buy it, it's quite good).

Ghost Rider is a character with an origin problem, and that's a shame because it all started out pretty simple.  You know the story from the movies: Johnny Blaze makes a deal with the Devil to save his father figure's life but gets cheated, resulting in him becoming the Ghost Rider.  For the longest time, it was theorized that the Ghost Rider was simply the darkest parts of Blaze brought to the fore, but in the early 1980s it was revealed that the entity was an ancient demon named Zarathos that had been bound to Johnny's soul by Mephisto.  The "Satan" from the early issues, the one with which Johnny made his deal, became Mephisto as well (don't even get me started on the nonsensical cosmology of the Marvel Universe's Hell and its various Devils, we'll be here all day). 

The 1990s brought in a new Ghost Rider, who was emphatically NOT Zarathos.  Instead he was part of a line of mystical warriors called the Spirits of Vengeance, who fought Zarathos eons ago and sacrificed themselves to stop him.  The Ghost Rider was one of those Spirits and found himself bound to the body of Danny Ketch, inexplicably the long-lost brother of Johnny Blaze.  A writer change brought forth even more changes to the origin, this time giving the Ketch Ghost Rider a name and backstory all his own.  Noble Kale was a 17th century lad whose father was in league with Mephisto; the elder Kale sold his son to the Devil and had him transformed into "the first" Ghost Rider.  An angel stepped in, gave Noble a semi-permanent amnesiac state, and Mephisto cursed him to possess the bodies of his descendants.  Naturally, Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch were both descendants of the Kale family, but Blaze was never possessed by Noble due to whole Zarathos thing. 

The Noble Kale Ghost Rider disappeared at the end of the 1990s, and when the character returned in the early 2000s it was once again Johnny Blaze as the spirit's host.  It was left really vague which "demon" was possessing Johnny this time around, even with the art clearly drawing him with the same visual look and outfit as the Ketch Rider.  In a run bridging two writers, it was revealed that the Spirit of Vengeance wasn't a being from Hell at all but was instead an angelic entity created by God to punish the wicked.  A whole slew of Ghost Riders were introduced around this time, one from every region on the planet, each with a lineage stretching back to Biblical times.  The story made it clear that all of the other origins for the character were lies and misdirections meant to keep the involvement of Heaven in the dark, and while things weren't absolutely coherent it at least gave the character a solid origin to work with going forward.  Nearly all of the international Ghost Riders were killed and only a few were left in circulation, specifically both Blaze and Ketch.

Subsequent writers only paid lip service to the Heavenly Spirit of Vengeance concept, with it mentioned in passing a few times whenever the character would make an appearance.  A change to a new character as the Rider's host, a girl named Alejandra, did at least confirm that Zarathos was again the possessing "demon" and had been since Blaze had taken back the mantle in 2001.  Still, it seemed like most writers were just happy to ignore the new origin without really addressing it at all.  When Robbie Reyes came around as the "all-new" Ghost Rider, he had a completely different origin involving the spirit of a satanist serial killer haunting a muscle car (though even that's been thrown into question after Marvel Legacy, where Reyes is shown possessing the Penance Stare).

Click to Enlarge

In the last month or two, though, the character's appearances in various books seems to have outright retconned the Heaven origin out of existence completely.  For example, let's break down the first to be released, last month's Spirits of Vengeance (2017) # 5.  It was written by Victor Gischler and drawn by David Baldeon and was the conclusion to the "War at the Gates of Hell" story-arc, where the Ghost Rider is able to enter a demilitarized zone  between Heaven and Hell in order to stop an archangel from being assassinated by bullets made from Judas' silver coins.

Click to Enlarge

When Blade questions how Ghost Rider was able to enter the zone at all, what with him being a demon, Hellstrom gives a convoluted explanation as to how that was possible.  According to him, the Ghost Rider being a "demon" is a misconception and that it technically doesn't originate from Hell.  However, for the Rider to be able to enter the Covenant at all, it couldn't have come from Heaven either, following the rules that the comic set up for the storyline.  That alone seems to disavow the Heaven origin, and with the statement that "the Spirit of Zarathos is the ultimate arbiter of vengeance" seems to be saying that only that specific entity is the Spirit of Vengeance and is outside of matters of Heaven and Hell.  Interestingly (or frustratingly), two comics that have been released in the month since Spirits of Vengeance ended may have invalidated the entire end to that mini-series.

Click to Enlarge

Thanos, by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw, has introduced a future Cosmic Ghost Rider that was revealed to be an extremely insane Frank Castle.  The most recent issue, Thanos # 16, gave the origin story for the Castle Ghost Rider, involving the final war against Thanos that ended with the Punisher's death under a collapsed building.  In his final moments, he thought "I would give anything to punish that purple sonofabitch"; and when he died, that landed him in front of the throne of Mephisto.  And so, Frank Castle sold his soul to Mephisto to become the Ghost Rider, Spirit of Vengeance for a dead Earth.  This, of course, goes back to the original Johnny Blaze origin and the "Deal with the Devil" status quo that places the Ghost Rider firmly as a demon from Hell.  Right?  I mean, Mephisto hasn't been the handler for the Spirit of Vengeance for a few decades now, but this comic seems to state otherwise.  I could maybe just chalk this up to being the results of some future storyline readers aren't aware of, since the Thanos series obviously takes place in an alternate future timeline. 

Click to Enlarge

Than came Doctor Strange: Damnation # 1, which seems to double down on the Mephisto/Ghost Rider origin connections.  The premise of the Damnation event is that Doctor Strange resurrects the recently destroyed Las Vegas, including all of its dead citizens, and unwittingly opens it up as a portal to Hell.  Mephisto is lording over the city, claiming it as his domain, and overwhelms the city with sin and vice; the assembled Avengers fare no better than the regular citizens, either, as they become engulfed in hellfire.  They stand a few moments later transformed into...Ghost Riders?  This isn't just a visual coincidence, they're named as such in the next issue of Doctor Strange that serves as a tie-in to the event.  So, does that mean Mephisto is able to create Ghost Riders on a whim these days?  If the Spirit (or Spirits, plural) of Vengeance does originate from Hell, how does that jive with the end of Gischler's mini-series that hinged on the idea of the Ghost Rider NOT being a demon? 

Look, I know by now that trying to make sense of Ghost Rider's origin story is a lot like tilting at windmills by this point.  With all of this recent stuff, though, I'm afraid the character is again getting bogged down in contradictions that make Hawkman's origin look as simple as Batman's.  I'm now real curious to see where Damnation takes the idea of all these Ghost Riders, and I'm REALLY looking forward to how Jason Aaron is going to handle Robbie Reyes when he adds him to the Avengers this summer.  Until then, I think I'd give ANYTHING to have a solid, definitive origin for Ghost Rider, both as a character and a story engine.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Marvel Legacy (2017) # 1

Cover Artist: Joe Quesada
Published: November 2017
Original Price: $5.99

Title: untitled
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Esad Ribic, Steve McNiven, Chris Samnee, Russell Dauterman, Alex Maleev, Ed McGuinness, Stuart Immonen, Pepe Larraz, Jim Cheung, Daniel Acuña, Greg Land, Mike Deodato, Jr., and David Marquez
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colorists: Matthew Wilson and Daniel Acuña
Assistant Editor: Alanna Smith
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Editor-in-Chief: Axel Alonso

One million years ago, during the Stone Age of the Marvel Universe, a group of heroes assembled by Odin (including the original incarnations of the Black Panther, Phoenix, Starbrad, Iron Fist, and the Sorcerer Supreme) have been in battle with a giant alien Celestial.  The last of the "Prehistoric Avengers" is the Ghost Rider, who swears vengeance upon the Celestial for the death of his mammoth.  When the Celestial stirs, Odin and the others charge forward to attack.

In the present day, Robbie Reyes is asleep in his car before being awakened by a police officer demanding to see his identification.  Robbie speeds away, confused when he realizes he drove in his sleep to Cape Town, South Africa.  He's attacked by the current wielder of the Starbrand, Earth's "energy defense system", who claims that they have been drawn to the area to find something.  While Robbie has no idea what Starbrand is referring to, the attacking hero states that no one can be allowed to find and claim it.  Robbie transforms into the Ghost Rider and fights back, with their fierce battle taking them to an archaeological excavation site overseen by SHIELD.  Starbrand dismissively murders the SHIELD agents and the battle moves on, allowing the surviving archaeologists to descend into the excavated cave.  Inside, deep in the earth, they find the Celestial buried by Odin, which kills them with its giant hand.  Back on the surface, Ghost Rider is able to finally defeat Starbrand by giving him the Penance Stare.  Consumed by the pain he has caused others, Starband dies in a massive explosion.  Robbie transforms back to his human form and is extremely confused that he was able to utilize the Penance Stare.  As he gets in his car and drives back toward Los Angeles, the Asgardian trickster god Loki arrives in the cave as the "inheritor" of the Celestial.
Robbie Reyes last appeared in The Unbelievable Gwenpool # 15 and appears next as a cameo in Iceman (2017) # 7.

The Stone Age Spirit of Vengeance is now the earliest Ghost Rider to be shown on panel; before this, the earliest was the insane Spirit of Vengeance of Thule from Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch (2008) # 3.  How this all fits with the Biblical origins of the Spirits of Vengeance from Ghost Rider (2006) # 33 is unknown at this time.

This issue seems to state that Robbie Reyes is in fact possessed by a Spirit of Vengeance, what with his use of the Penance Stare and him being identified by Starbrand as a "descendant" of the Stone Age Ghost Rider.  Prior to this, Robbie's possessing spirit was his evil uncle, Eli Morrow, a Satanist serial killer that used black magic to become a supernatural entity as revealed in All-New Ghost Rider (2014) # 8.

There are, of course, many other plotlines and characters running through this comic, I just decided to only focus on the parts relevant to Ghost Rider.  Other notable events include the Avengers teaming up to stop some Frost Giants and the return of Wolverine.

This issue was released with numerous variant covers, including one featuring the Prehistoric Ghost Rider by Mike Deodato, Jr.

Podcast Review: Inner Demons Episode 15 - "Canadian Bacon" (Click to Listen)

Cover Artist: Mike Deodato, Jr.

Marvel Legacy launches the publisher's revamped line of titles with this special giant-sized one-shot that surprisingly features a whole lotta Ghost Rider.

I admit, I wasn't prepared for how much attention and love Ghost Rider was shown in this comic.  I knew from interviews and preview art that the prehistoric Avengers team introduced here was going to feature a Spirit of Vengeance (on a woolly mammoth no less), and I believe writer Jason Aaron may have mentioned getting to write Robbie Reyes for the first time.  Still, though, I had no idea Robbie would wind up getting a starring role, let alone the main action sequence of the book.  I considered it a very pleasant and welcome surprise.

I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised, given Aaron's history with Ghost Rider.  The writer had a long tenure with the Spirit of Vengeance over ten years ago, his run on the character is easily one of the highlights in Ghost Rider history, and seeing him return in any capacity is a reason to celebrate. It's also not surprising that a team of "prehistory Avengers" would include a Spirit of Vengeance, considering that it was Jason Aaron who introduced the Ghost Riders throughout history lineage during his run on the series.  The Stone Age Ghost Rider introduced here, though, was a huge disappointment.  The run-up to this comic was filled with press releases and art teases for this team of characters, that this was the big introduction to them, and I remember the huge fan reaction to the mammoth riding Spirit of Vengeance.  Then, the issue comes and the team of heroes get only a few pages of introduction, and the mammoth has been killed off panel.  For such hype that was thrown at fans, the prehistoric Avengers were a big, fat goose egg.  Here's hoping Aaron gets to revisit them at some point (and in all honesty, that's probably an inevitability), and I'll try not to hold any of the unfulfilled hype for this issue against him.

Amidst all of the subplots and character check-ins that he has to include in this comic, I was really happy to see Aaron include the touch-stone fight scene between Robbie Reyes and Starbrand.  Another surprise, that Aaron went with Reyes instead of Blaze for this issue's Ghost Rider, though I suppose it does fit with the "legacy" motif.  See, also, the other main focus of the comic surrounding Falcon Captain America, Jane Foster Thor, and Ironheart, all inheritors of their respective legacies.  For better or worse, Reyes is here to stay as a Ghost Rider, and it was really refreshing to see him in the hands of a writer other than his creator, Felipe Smith.  Robbie was still the same character, easily recognizable, but Aaron's take on the character shows a sharp contrast to what Smith had been doing.  In his appearances before this, Smith had taken great pains to differentiate Robbie from Blaze and the other Spirits of Vengeance, making him in essence a Ghost Rider in name only.  In this comic, however, Aaron seems to be pulling back on those differences by making Robbie's Ghost Rider more in line with what's come before.  It allows Reyes to fall more naturally under that "legacy" umbrella, because without it he'd be a completely unrelated character to the group that Aaron introduced in the Stone Age opening to this comic.  I'm really curious to see where Reyes goes from here, what with his newly-acquired Penance Stare; I hope it gets flagged up as the inconsistency that it is, instead of future writers just shrugging their shoulders and writing him as another version of Johnny Blaze.

Esad Ribic has become Marvel's go-to-artist for world changing and universe defining storylines, from Aaron's initial run on Thor to the Secret Wars event series from a few years back.  His painted pencil work has this mythical, ethereal quality to it that really lends itself well to stories like this.  While other artists are drafted in for other subplots and story pages, the important chunks of the comic are handled by Ribic, and they look magnificent.  The Stone Age Avengers all look decidedly caveman-esque while still retaining visual nods toward their descendants, though the Spirit of Vengeance just looks like a guy with his head on fire.  There's no skull, just a halo of fire around his head, and that's a little underwhelming.  He didn't even get to draw the damned flaming mammoth!  He makes up for it with the fantastic Ghost Rider/Starbrand battle, though, which is simultaneously epic and personal for the characters involved.  The panel that shows Robbie just as he's transformed into Ghost Rider is one of those "fuck yeah!" moments that every book like this needs.

So, even though the Legacy relaunch kind of fell apart after a few months, this was still a pretty wicked kick-off to it.  Ghost Rider gets some time in the big league spotlight and Jason Aaron leaves readers wanting more.  All in all, this was a damn good time for Ghost Rider fans.

Grade: A