Review by Win Wiacek
At the end of the 1960s American comics were in turmoil, much like the youth of the nation they targeted. Older genres such as horror, westerns and science fiction returned, fed by radical movie trends where another, new(ish) wrinkle also emerged: disenchanted, rebellious, unchained youth on motorbikes seeking a different way forward.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen, Captain America and others took the Easy Rider option to boost flagging sales. At Marvel, canny editor Roy Thomas green-lighted a new character who combined the freewheeling, adolescent-friendly biker-theme with the all-pervasive supernatural furore gripping the entertainment fields.
The all-new Ghost Rider was a haunted biker who could tap into both Easy Rider’s freewheeling motorcycling chic and the prevailing supernatural zeitgeist. This sturdy hardback and equivalent yet barely tangible digital compendium collects those earliest flame-filled exploits spanning August 1972 to November 1973.
The comics thrills, spills and chills begin with that landmark first appearance introducing stunt biker Johnny Blaze, his fatally flawed father-figure Crash Simpson and Johnny’s devoted girlfriend, the sweet innocent Roxanne Simpson. Plotted by Thomas, scripted by Gary Friedrich and stunningly illustrated by Mike Ploog, we see carnival cyclist Blaze sell his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father Crash from cancer. As is the way of such things, Satan follows the letter but not spirit of the contract, but when the Dark Lord later comes for Johnny his beloved virginal girlfriend Roxanne intervenes. Her purity prevents the Devil from claiming his due and, temporarily thwarted, Satan spitefully afflicts Johnny with a body that burns with the fires of Hell every time the sun goes down.
Over four episodes options are explored, resulting in a torturous Cold War détente between the still nightly-transforming Blaze and the Lord of Lies. Unfortunately, the finale offers a rather uncomfortable artistic collaboration of Ploog and Jim Mooney, after which the tragically undervalued Tom Sutton takes over the pencilling.
Before the next six-parter has ended poor Roxanne has been gravely injured, Ghost Rider is told no injury will end his life until his soul resides in Hell, and Friedrich has introduced a new horror-hero in Boston-based exorcist Daimon Hellstrom. It finishes with the official introduction of the Son of Satan, which reveals Hellstrom’s long-suppressed inner self to be a brutal scion of the Infernal Realm eternally at war with his fearsome father.
After that a fresh direction is explored by Friedrich, using more mundane menaces and contemporary antagonists such as the thuggish gang of biker Big Daddy Dawson. He kidnaps the still frail Roxanne, so just as well Blaze learns to create a spectral motorcycle from the Hellfire that perpetually burns through his body. It’s a most useful trick considering the way he gets through conventional transport.
One final note: backwriting and retcons notwithstanding, the Christian boycotts and moral crusades of 1980s and 1990s compelled the criticism-averse and commercially astute corporate Marvel to “translate” the biblical Satan of the early episodes into generic demonic creatures such as Mephisto, Satanish, Marduk Kurios and other equally naff, low-rent downgrades. However, the original intent and adventures of Johnny Blaze tapped into the late 1960’s global fascination with Satanism, Devil-worship and all things Spookily Supernatural. These aren’t your feeble bowdlerised “Hell-lite” horrors, so brace yourself, hold steady and accept no supernatural substitutes. Unless it’s the black and white versions of these stories and those from Volume 2 in Essential Ghost Rider.