First in a series of chronological reviews of Ghost Rider comics
This issue is an interesting beast. On the surface this story has your standard first issue tropes to it. Meet your new strange and interesting hero, learn their backstory, and set the stage for what is to come! But it’s really not that simple here.
I don’t have much more than a passing familiarity with Ghost Rider. I know the pop culture knowledge that’s Johnny Blaze is the fiery avatar for heaven and hell, tricked by Mephisto (here Satan) into possessing this power, and riding the world bringing vengeance to those who deserve it most. Largely this comes from the first movie, his occasional appearance in other hero’s series, and the latest 9 issues series that spun out of Fear Itself.
With that small knowledge base in mind this issue kind of surprised me. The weirdest and perhaps boldest choice made by the writer is to put you in the role of Johnny Blaze through the narration boxes. There is none of the Stan Lee “our heroes” stuff, or even talking about Johnny in the third person. No, he’s talking about YOU. I find this to be an odd choice but as you go through the issue its actually kind of brilliant.
The first scene introduces us to the Ghost Rider but he’s not doing any of your expected Ghost Rider-y things. He’s just riding around waiting for the night to pass and keeping his head down. He doesn’t want to be seen or get involved in anything at all. He even passes a couple of thugs who we see outright murder someone and he does nothing. He just rides on by and hopes they didn’t notice him. Turns out, they noticed him and proceed to chase him. Eventually he loses the thugs and dawn comes, changing the Ghost Rider back into Johnny Blaze. That is apparently his curse. By day he is human and by night he transforms into the Ghost Rider. Very werewolf-ish except it’s every single night.
This is where we get Blaze’s backstory. Johnny and his date were a part of a travelling circus type act that revolves around motor cycles. Johnny’s dad dies during one of the shows and Johnny is given a choice by the man running the show, Crash Simpson. “If you like…you can stay with us…and we’ll raise you like a son..or…YOU CAN GO TO AN ORPHANAGE!” Clearly Gary Friedrich wasn’t the best at writing touching scenes but he does well enough. The writer does do a good job of of really making you care about Johnny though. He puts him through hell and makes causes you to be even more attached though those narration boxes I mentioned.
For example: Five years after Johnny’s father died he’s riding hid Ike with Roxanne (Crash’s daughter who Johnny is in love with) when all of a sudden the motorcycle catches fire. Johnny gets Roxanne to jump off and rides the flaming motorcycle out of the tent to safety. He crashes the bike into a tree and Crash’s wife, the woman Johnny has come to see as a mother comes to his aid when suddenly the bike explodes fatally wounding her. What follows is a scene when Johnny comes to her deathbed and she makes him promise not to ride in the show. He reluctantly makes her that promise while finally calling her Mother, which she doesn’t hear because she dies. All the while the narration says things like “She wasn’t even related to you…Still, she raised you…and given her life for you…” “So there was no way you could deny her last request…” That’s powerful stuff and attaches you to the character because by the end of the issue, despite having the powers given to him by Satan and knowing his curse, Johnny Blaze still has no purpose. When we meet him he’s had the powers of the Ghost Rider for all of three weeks so by attaching you to him through his hardships and struggles instead of just “isn’t this dude and his powers cool?” makes it way more likely you’re going to come back for more. Especially since, you know, he VERY easily called up the devil like he’s #1 on his speed dial. Overall, super solid and way more engaging than I thought an early 70s comic could be.