Remember how I said these things always end up being autobiographical? Well, here’s the story of how this week’s installment wound up being about Ghost Rider (and no, it has nothing to do with the new movie).
It started with my Wednesday pilgrimage to the local comics shop (by the way, Secret Avengers #22 came out this week; Rick Remender is no Warren Ellis, but it’s still a great issue), where I overheard a conversation between two fellow fan boys. One of them, who seemed a good deal younger than his counterpart, was saying something about Ghost Rider that I couldn’t quite follow before the older guy cut him off.
“Why do I care?” he asked.
“You don’t, I know,” the kid responded.
“That’s right, because Ghost Rider sucks,” the older fanboy said, and then went off to look at the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man (which, to me, suggests you can completely discount his opinions altogether).
Now, if they were talking about the Nicolas Cage flicks, the idea of Ghost Rider sucking would be perfectly understandable to me, but somehow I got the impression that they weren’t. I got the impression they were talking about comics Ghost Rider, who to me has never sucked in the least. Bad Ghost Rider comics have been written, yes, but Ghost Rider himself has always been cool to me. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something about a flaming skull atop a motorcycle that just always screams badass to me.
Anyway, that encounter, along with the news that the Rider’s co-creator Gary Friedrich now owes Marvel a monumental (and court-ordered) sum, despite being broke, because he’s done things like sell prints of the character at comics conventions, put me in a Ghost Rider state of mind. So we find ourselves here, looking at the story that started it all: the introduction of Ghost Rider in Marvel Spotlight #5 way back in 1972.
Apart from the Rider himself, there’s nothing particularly standout about the book. Ghost Rider was billed as “The Most Supernatural Superhero of All,” and in keeping with the darker tones of ’70s comics (compared to the often all too jovial ’60s), was given a Satanic origin to match his fiery visage. The character ended up catching on pretty well (never as well as Spider-Man, mind), and a lot of subsequent writers tried to brush in a little more depth, but I think it’s still the flaming skull thing that really does the trick.
Anyway, the thing that struck me most about that very first issue is how Friedrich begins by not only placing the Rider in a state of anonymity, but by making him anyone. The word “you” is applied to describe him in captions. Before we understand that Johnny Blaze is Ghost Rider, we see Ghost Rider as us. It’s not exactly a complex comic, but if you read it now, almost 40 years later, it’s like reading a story about how we’re all sinners, all so close to the edge of madness that all our skulls could end up bursting into flames.
The issue follows the same origin story formula that we’ve all grown accustomed to at this point. First, show the hero in his element, then reveal that the hero once was (or still is) just an ordinary guy who got caught in a tough situation. From there, we watch the transformation begin, and the issue ends with a more triumphant view of the hero. The difference here is that Ghost Rider isn’t born from gamma rays or radioactive spiders or the death of his parents in Crime Alley. He’s riddled with guilt and sadness over the fact that everyone he loves seems to keep dying, and so he offers himself up to Satan to save someone’s life. And when I say Satan, I’m not talking about a metaphor or an abstract rendition. I’m talking about A GIANT DEMON WITH HORNS AND HELLFIRE.
For me, the reason Ghost Rider was awesome to begin with is that kind of storytelling, laying it all out there without any sense of subtlety. We have Gary Friedrich to thank for that. Ghost Rider was and is awesome.
By the way, because Friedrich is broke and he’s dealing with this massive new debt to Marvel (along with rent and groceries and everything else we humans deal with), the comics community has started working to get him some help. Steve Niles (of 30 Days of Night fame) has organized a donations page over on his site to help Friedrich out, so if you’re a Ghost Rider fan and you want to lend a hand to the man who conceived him, head over there and drop a few bucks in.