Sunday, June 27, 2010

'Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 1' is interesting
if inconsistent superheroic horror

Essential Ghost Rider, Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics, 2005)
Writers: Gary Friedrich, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman,
Artists: Mike Ploog, Jim Mooney, Tom Sutton, Herb Trimpe, Frank Robbins, John Byrne,
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

"Essential Ghost Rider Vol 1" reprints 500+ pages of the earliest tales of one of most bizarre Marvel horror characters. The series focuses on Johnny Blaze, a young motorcycle daredevil who sold his soul to the devil so that his adopted father wouldn't of a deadly disease. Johnny didn't think of the saying "the devil is in the details," so when his adopted father died anyway (just not of the disease), he tried to renege on his deal with Satan. Only the love of his pure-hearted stepsister saved him from being carried off to Hell. She couldn't prevent him from being cursed, and when the sun goes down (or when there is evil afoot, or when he is in danger... the curse keeps changing), Johnny is transformed into the Ghost Rider--a being with a flaming skull who rides a bike made from pure Hellfire.

Some things should remain childhood memories. The stories in "Essential Ghost Rider Vol 1", a book I look with great anticipation because I had such fond memories. In particularly, I remembered Ghost Rider fighting a WW I ghost biplane, and I remembered him fighting an Indian witch who had sold her soul to Satan like he had.

In some respects, the stories here match my childhood recollection. If taken on their own, each of Ghost Rider's adventures--most of which spanned two or three individual issues when first published--feature a curious mix of mystical gobbledygook, horror tropes, and superheroics. Out of all of Marvel's horror characters, the Ghost Rider is the most superhero-like, with Son of Satan--whose debut is also featured in this volume--coming in a close second.

However, when the stories are collected like they are here, a fatal editorial sloppiness becomes apparent, most obviously in the constant redefining of Johnny Blaze's curse and the repeated lapses in continuity as writers come and go on the series. The number of contradictions and "reinventions" that we see in the series are inexcusable over a mere 30 or so individual issues.

There's also an issue with the stories not aging well. They were products of the 1970s, and this is painfully evident in some of the stories, many of the characters, and much of the art. (The heavy 1970s feel is a blessing when it comes to the Witch Woman, though... she fills a pair of hotpants like no minon of Satan ever will again ).

Speaking of the art, it is the exceptional quality of the work produced by Ploog, Mooney and Sutton (the latter of which make for a surprisingly effective team) who save the book from getting a Four Tomato rating. Ploog's work is particularly excellent--not quite up to the level of his "Monster of Frankenstein" run but it's still very good. Mooney's run on the book brings out the superhero aspects of the title clearly, while Sutton helps bring out the macabre as he does on virtually every title he ever worked on.

My mild disappointment with this book may be that I approached the book with an attitude tainted by fond childhood memories instead of a neutral eye. However, the "Ghost Rider" series actually got better as it wore on, something which future volumes of this series have borne out, so maybe my negativity isn't all nostalgia. So far, Marvel Comics has released three volumes in this series, and I hope they will collect them all with the release of a fourth. (I hope to eventually post reviews of them all.)

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