Welcome to, what I hope will be, the first in a series called Four-Color Flashbacks. It’s taking the concept of ‘Character of the Month’ and expanding it a little bit, making it, I hope, interesting again. Each month we will focus on a different character or even comic book series, and break it down to four different weekly categories that you’ll see as we go along so let’s get started:
Since he has a movie out and is in the spotlight somewhat, let’s start with the original Ghost Rider. For most people the character is new, having gained some popularity from the movies starring Nicolas Cage which took a lot of liberties with the comics they are sourced from but the reality is the character has been around for some time. How long? Well, the very first appearance of Johnny Blaze and the flaming-skulled Ghost Rider was the August 1972 issue of Marvel Spotlight #5. Yeah, 40 years ago!
This issue was done a little differently than most Marvel Comics, in terms of how characters are presented I mean. See, this story is told through the perspective of the reader being Johnny Blaze and experiencing the hell of becoming Ghost Rider.
Told in flashback, we get the story of how Blaze became a flaming-skulled demon rider.
Blaze was travelling with his father, Barton Blaze, who did motorcycle stunts in the Crash Simpson Daredevil Cycle Show. Barton Blaze would defy death one time too many and would eventually get killed leaving a young Johnny Blaze orphaned (it’s very briefly mentioned that Johnny’s mother was also dead). Crash Simpson would take the boy in, raising him as a son and making him part of the show as well. Blaze would have a fear of motorcycles for a while but around age 15 would begin to overcome those fears and start joy riding himself.
Sadly, it was at this time his life would take a tragic turn. While riding with Roxanne, the cycle caught fire. After Roxanne was safe, Johnny rode the bike away from the tent they were in hoping to prevent anyone from being hurt if the cycle exploded. In the excitement, he hit a tree and landed hard on the ground. Crash’s wife, worried for his safety, runs to see if he’s alright and is next to the cycle when it explodes.
She would later die but not before getting Johnny to promise to never ride in the show. Johnny promises and for five years doesn’t ride a cycle while Crash’s show grew in popularity.
Eventually Johnny would figure as long as he never participated in the show he could still ride a cycle and begins to do so after hours while, unknown to him, Roxanne watches from a distance. It was here than Johnny shows his ability to ride like no other. It was also at this time Roxanne finally professes her love for him.
Things go well until fate steps in again when the show gets it’s biggest break ever: a live performance in Madison Square Garden! With the highest high, we also see the lowest low. While finally reaching the ultimate goal for his show, Crash isn’t the happiest he should be. He’s been diagnosed with cancer and has about a month to live. His main regret is never having a son to take over the show after he’s gone. Roxanne wants Johnny to do it but because of his promise he can’t. Roxanne storms out, thinking he’s a coward and Crash just wants him to leave.
It’s here that the supernatural begins to shows it’s face. Johnny has apparently been a follower of the occult for some time and, while reading through various books, realizes that the only way he can save Crash is to call on the powers of Satan! So, a deal is made: Johnny will serve Satan in exchange for Crash being spared death from cancer.
On the day of the big show Roxanne finds Johnny and tells him that since Crash feels he’s going to die anyway that he intends to set a cycle jumping record 22 cars! He tries to talk Crash out of it, sort of, but storms off feeling confident that with his deal with Satan that Crash won’t be in any danger.
Funny thing about making deal with the Lord of Lies…people are always shocked when he lies.
Crash tries, and fails, to make the jump. Johnny, sad about Crash and angry about Satan’s lie, decides to make the jump and succeeds but is shocked that Roxanne is not happy about it and she leaves him.
That night is all comes together as Satan shows up to claim his soul. He tells Johnny that he did, in fact, keep his promise: Crash did not die of the disease. Now, it’s time to pay up. Satan begins to consume his soul proclaiming “From this day forth… You will walk the earth as my emissary… And in the light… You will join me in Hades!” Apparently the plan was for him to be Ghost Rider and work for Satan during the night while burning in Hell during the day.
What wasn’t counted on was the timely return of Roxanne who, unbeknownst to Johnny, had been reading his books on the occult and learned that as long as one pure of heart loves Johnny that Satan could never truly claim his soul. This saves Johnny from burning but doesn’t save him from becoming Ghost Rider.
Only now he’s Ghost Rider without Satan’s control.
For a book that’s 40 years old, it holds up fairly well. One small issue is Roxanne’s willingness to throw a fit and storm out of Johnny’s life ‘forever’ at the slightest provocation but beyond that this is the foundation of some very entertaining storytelling and still enough room to expand on the origin, which was done years later.
One of my favorite things with these older Marvel titles is always the art. Especially the art in their ‘horror’ titles. Mike Ploog does the honors here and shows that he deserves more credit than he seemingly gets for his contributions to this character and to 70’s Marvel in general. Even though I was first introduced to this character through the 90’s reboot and that Rider is my all time favorite character, this version has always been considered definitive to me. I don’t know why, perhaps it’s just the solid simplicity of his design but the Blaze look, to me, is iconic.
Story-wise, it’s still entertaining and while it’s aged somewhat, it still holds an impact. Especially when you consider this one book would launch a 40-year run for a character with a flaming skull riding a motorcycle. The pacing is a bit off in some places and, like I said, Roxanne is a little inconsistent but that isn’t enough to make this a difficult read. I do recommend it, as well as the rest of this series which is available in Marvel’s Essential format, all collected in four easy to get volumes!