Marvel has been a dominant force in cross-media entertainment for the last decade, earning the franchise immense mainstream popularity (despite the occasional misstep). That broad popularity has yet to transition to the comics the franchise draws its source material from. And it might not anytime soon, what with Captain America being revealed as a sleeper Hydra agent in Secret Empire.
Jason Aaron’s Ghost Rider so effectively embraces its campy grindhouse themes that I can’t help but love it.
With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Roland Boshi, Tan Eng Haut, Tony Moore
Issues: Ghost Rider (2006) #20-35, Annual #2
Next Issue: Death Race on Ghost Cannibal Highway OR Cycle Nurses Kill! Kill! Kill!
There’s a moment near the end of Volume 2, when Ghost Rider (Johnny Blaze) confronts his misguided brother Danny Ketch. Ketch had been absorbing the power of other Spirits of Vengenace around the world, and was prepping for a final battle against the last few holdouts. He challenges Johnny to a race around the world, and Johnny points out the absurdity of going on a silly race in the middle of a giant battle. Then they promptly race, which includes soaring past pyramids and over oceans, complete with Ketch picking up a shark and hurling it at Johnny.
Your reaction to that last sentence is a good indicator of whether or not you would enjoy Jason Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider circa 2008-09. I try not to throw the phrase Ridiculously Awesome around too much but Ghost Rider so effectively embraces its campy horror-grindhouse themes that I can’t help but love it.
My previous experience with the motorcycle-ridin’, skull-flamin’ vigilante was limited to Nicholas Cage. I never had much motivation to actually read a comic, but my best bud and comic aficionado recommended this run as a good jumping on point for an awesome arc – and I couldn’t agree more.
Our first story picks up after Johnny Blaze had just been given a startling revelation about his past – his powers come not from Hell, but from Heaven. Specifically directly from God as avatars of justice, overseen by the archangel Zadkiel. Zadkiel acts as a mostly off-screen but menacing super villain throughout the arc as he storms heaven’s gates to usurp God.
“Hell Bent and Heaven Bound” (#20-23) eases us into the life and times of Johnny Blaze by having our anti-hero get mixed up in a creepy small town filled with undead ghouls, hillbilly cannibals, and busty cycle nurses. Blaze ends up following a lead on a young man that experienced a near death experience – and actually saw Zadkiel. The plot leads to multiple factions literally running into each other in an explosive finale in the town square. It’s super campy and a hell of a lot of fun, particularly how Blaze simply gets caught up in these crazy events.
The plot slows back down when Blaze puts himself in prison to follow yet another lead on Zadkiel in “God Don’t Live on Cell Block D” (#24-25). It mostly serves to introduce the gigantic villainous Deacon, a monstrous tattooed man with daggers that spews Bible verses as he kills the unbelievers.
In “The Former Things” (#26-27) we’re introduced to the new important character of Sara, a nun that finds out her long lost grandfather is the Caretaker of the Ghost Riders. The old caretaker is slain by a motley crew of villains (presumably from Ghost Rider’s rogue’s gallery) and Sara gains all his knowledge, eventually going through a nice character arc from meek nun to Sarah Connor-esque badass.
We’re first teased with Danny Ketch – Blaze’s long-lost brother and former Ghost Rider in the first Volume. “The Last Stand of the Spirits of Vengeance” (#28-32) continues Ketch’s quest to absolve all the Ghost Riders and absorb their powers. He’s funneling the power directly to Zadkiel, which is bad, and Blaze and Sara have to meet up with the few remaining survivors to battle him.
Seeing other people as Ghost Riders is a lot fun, and Aaron really gets inventive as we go international, with brief glimpses of Ghost Riders riding bears, elephants, and even a shark! Such greatness.
In Issue #33 we even get a fun history lesson on past, present, and future Ghost Riders, from World War II vets with hellfire tanks to the Prohibition era Undead G-Man. How about some cybered-up Ghost Riders from the future? Hell Yeah!
The last stand is gloriously action-packed, but Ketch, along with an army of Zadkiel’s angels, ultimately wins. Zadkiel storms the golden city, but we’re only teased about what happens next.
The final Volume (“Trials and Tribulations” #33-35) acts as an epilogue of sorts, each issue starring one of our main cast (Ketch, Sara, Blaze). It’s surprisingly entertaining with good old fashioned horror stories, especially Danny Ketch battling a satanic ghoul-trucker on the highway. The major plot and the battle for heaven concludes in the six-part mini-series Ghost Riders, which I’ll save for later.
I honestly didn’t think I’d love Ghost Rider as much as I did. It also helped that the art steadily improved with each new artist on each volume. Volume 1 had a cheap, simple look that I wasn’t quite into (though it fit the campy theme well enough) but by the end the art looked great without ever getting too glossy or polished. The major exception being Ghost Rider Annual #2, a one-shot about Blaze battling a demonic sheriff in a small town, with super glossy, ill-fitting art.
Jason Aaron effectively combined campy B-movie supernatural horror with memorable characters and an impressive overarching plot that lasted nearly two years. Blaze’s quest to find Zadkiel and meeting up with Sara and other Ghost Riders is just as entertaining as the random creepy side adventures they get into. For someone that wasn’t into Ghost Rider or really into horror or supernatural stuff at all, I absolutely loved it.