RETRO REVIEW: Marvel Spotlight #5 (August 1972)

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Or – “Is He Alive, Or Is He Dead? And Why Does He Talk Like Elvis?”

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I went to see Ghost Rider Friday night at our local theatre (a late-night showing marred only by overly loud sound and Nicolas Cage being 15 years too old for the role), and I was quite taken by the way they streamlined and simplified the origins of Johnny Blaze (while simultaneously cherry-picking the best bits of the OTHER Ghost Rider’s origin, powers and costume) and stunned that anybody ever thought Blackheart was a good character. Overall, it was an nice enough movie for homogenized Marvel Movie Product (TM and Copyright), but I was moved to go back to the source, to give those of y’all who haven’t seen it (or weren’t born yet) a look at the spark that lit the ol’ flame-head, and it’s… NOT what you might expect.

My history with Ghost Rider is tied into some of my earliest comic book memories. I clearly remember the day I bought Ghost Rider #81 at S&S Drugs in Beloit, Kansas. The power was out, so the clerk had to ring me up with a calculator rather than the register, and the cover price was a whopping 60 cents. I walked the few blocks (uphill both ways!) to the public park to read the book, a fascinating look at a young man’s struggle with his very literal inner demon, and his heroic escape with the help of the woman he loves. I was thrilled with this book, and it was only a couple of months later, when no new issues appeared, that I realized that it was the last issue. So, I went digging for back-issues, a quest that continued for nearly 20 years. This very book, Marvel Spotlight #5, was actually the first back-issue I ever specifically went looking for, mail-ordered from Mile High Comics for the seemingly astronomical price of $5 American, and it’s one of my prize comic possessions, even in it’s 2.0 condition. And it’s also a product of the 70′s, and that sensibility seeps through in every page.

The story starts with that seldom-seen literary device, the second person narration. “You are now… the Ghost Rider.” I suppose that The Sentry had to get it from somewhere. The art, from the first panel, is head and shoulders above the usual Marvel fare of the 70′s, it’s moody, evocative, and downright creepy, as we watch young Johnny Blaze cruising the streets aimlessly, trying to finda way to come to terms with his newfound night-time curse. Unfortunately, he manages to roll by just as a group of toughs performs an execution-style killing, and the thugs decide to chase him down in case he can identify them…

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My gawd, but that is a cool chopper. Johnny doesn’t yet have the ability to create his flame-cycle, the coolest ride he’s ever run, but it’s sad that this stylish machine is going to be quickly replaced with the goofy looking skull-cycle for about five years. (And the mystical bike in the movie bears more resemblance, once again, to the Danny Ketch Ghost Rider, a lesser take on the G.R. concept.) John calls on his old carnival skills to bluff the thugs, taking on a demonic voice, and leaping his bike over them with his stunt rider skills, escaping and heading for home as the sun rises. With the retreat of night comes the retreat of Ghost Rider (at least at this phase) and Johnny is left to do some very 70′s-Marvel-style Angsty McTortureson dialogue.

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Johnny’s old costume is also a brilliant piece of design work, nothing more than stylized black leathers and a silver belt, but it lasted over a decade with virtually no changes, and looks much better than the spiky monstrosity that he’s wearing now. One of the streamlined bits of the movie was the use of Barton Blaze, John’s father, as the impetus for his pact with Mephisto… that’s not the case here. Johnny flashes back to the death of his father, a stunt rider in Crash Simpson’s bike show, with his mother Clara having abandoned the both of them years previously, and the kindness with which Crash and his family treated young John afterwards.

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Crash and his wife Mona take Johnny in, adding a weird Freudian twist to his big ol’ crush on Roxanne “Rocky” Simpson, Crash’s daughter (and while Eva Mendes is hot enough to grill chicken on her abs, she’s never going to be Rocky to me.) Johnny’s life continues to be chockfulla tragedy, though, as a crash during rehearsal causes Mona to rush in to see if he’s okay, catching a face full of exploding motorcycle for her troubles. On her deathbed, Mona makes Johnny promise to never ride in the show, and he agrees. It seems a little weird for a woman whose entire family makes their living with a stunt show to have such hangups, doesn’t it? In any case he agrees, she dies content, but Johnny is young, and with youth comes the ability to split hairs…

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Johnny’s embracing of the LETTER of an agreement, rather than it’s SPIRIT, will come back in true ironic fashion soon enough. But discovering John’s abilities is enough for Rocky, as she now knows that her man isn’t the coward she suspected after her Mom’s death. After a few years, Rocky and Crash get the call that tells them they’ve hit the big time… Madison Square Garden! It’s finally the gravy train at last, cries Johnny, but Crash has equally bad news.

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Those of you who’ve seen the movie know this plotline, though they attached it to Johnny’s real dad. I can actually see two good reasons for the change, serving to get rid of the creepy “Ah lurves mah step-sister, Jerry!” vibe of the romance, and to focus Johnny’s tragedy into one movie-friendly event rather than a series of losses more suited the serialized nature of the comics. Something else that they changed was the nature of the interaction with Satan/Mephisto/Peter Fonda. In the movie, Johnny was sought out, and essentially tricked into the pact. But this comic was exemplary of Marvel in the 1970′s, where the edge was a bit more cutting, and kung-fu, blaxploitation, and the occult were infusing comic books with some odd new blood for the first time since the beginning of the Marvel Age 10 years prior. There’s no subterfuge in this story, folks, as our friend Johnny just calmly decides to make a deal with the devil.

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It was truly a simpler time, when a comic book that was still pretty much meant for young folks (though not the young kids of the 40′s & 50′s) could just throw in a pact with Satan (repleate with blood-painted pentagram on the chest) as part of a hero’s origin. Unfortunately for Johnny, Crash thinks that he’s going to die, and figures to go out in a blaze of glory, trying to jump over TWENTY-TWO cars to make his mark in history. When Johnny tries to convince him of the madness of it all, Crash calls him a coward and stomps off. Mister Blaze suddenly realizes that he has the word of the devil that Crash will be fine, and there’s no way that’s going to be a problem, is there? Well? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller? That night, Madison Square Garden is filled to the rafters to see the greatest bike show on Earth (and, honestly, because of the possibility of flaming death).

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This is why you never trust the devil, kids, or, for that matter, cheese vendors. Beyond grief, beyond rage, beyond sanity into that realm known only as “Dead Parent,” Johnny grabs his own bike, and pulls off the jump in Crash’s name, thinking he’s done some good for once. Rocky disagrees, thinking he’s somehow desecrated the memory of her father only minutes deceased, and slinks away, leaving the show to him. Worst of all, that night, Mephisto comes a’callin’, and Johnny’s got an outstanding marker. His soul is forfeit, and he’ll walk the Earth each night as a shade in big M’s service… at least, that’s the plan.

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Rocky’s purity of heart and love for Johnny drive the devil away, but the next night brings the horrifying realization… Though he’s not trapped in Hades, nor under Mephisto’s thrall, the first portion of the curse (the part where his flesh burns away, and he becomes a horrifying inhuman thing under cover of darkness?) sticks around. Being a bit of a vagabond anyway, Johnny does what he’ll continue to do for a dozen years in this brave new Marvel U: He hits the road with only the leathers on his back and a steel horse to carry him, giving himself a new nom de guerre as he rolls…

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It’s a very well-drawn story, and although the dialogue runs towards the florid, it’s Marvel in the 70′s, and I have to judge it as such. The basics of it all are here, with the most compelling part of Ghost Rider being the visual of the flame-headed man on the most-excellent chopper. Interestingly enough, though, Johnny wasn’t Marvel’s first use of the Ghost Rider name. If you’ve seen the movie, there are references to a previous Ghost Rider (with flaming skull and skeletal horse, giving the movie it’s most excellent money-shot of the two Riders crossing the desert), named Carter Slade. As you may or may not know, Carter Slade existed in the Marvel Universe, and did call himself Ghost Rider (as did his relatives Lincoln and Hamilton Slade), though he wasn’t satanic in nature. A cowboy all in white, Carter appeared in seven issues of a Marvel western comic called (naturally) “Ghost Rider” in 1967. But he himself was actually a revival of an even EARLIER Ghost Rider from Magazine Enterprises in 1950, the rights to which had expired. Decades later, when AC Comics started reprinting the old M.E. stories, they renamed the character The Haunted Horseman, then just The Haunter, while Marvel renamed him first Night Rider, then Phantom Rider. Whatever the name, the two visually identical characters were simultaneously (though sporadically) in print…

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Pretty striking character design it is, too. The Magazine Enterprises/AC Ghost Rider’s real name was “Rex Fury,” which ranks right up there with “Howitzer Explosionguy” as the most testosterony appellation of all time. I marked out for the whole “Carter Slade” subplot and it was nice to see that kind of nod to Marvel continuity in the movie, even if the character was changed pretty extensively. Most interestingly, in Johnny’s original run, he DID encounter a cowboy like the one in the movie, who rode on a flaming skeletal horse and whose curse was similar to Johnny’s own, seen (though shadowed) on this cover.

In any case, the overall effect of Marvel Spotlight #5 was remarkable, launching a successful “Spotlight” run for Ghost Rider, leading into his own series which ran 81 issues. It was also on the leading edge of a large swath of supernatural titles, which gave us luminaries such as Werewolf By Night, Brother Voodoo, The Son of Satan (!), Simon Garth the Zombie, and Manphibian. This issue manages to pack a lot of pathos and plot into 22 pages, and Mike Ploog’s art is lush and gorgeous. There’s a reason that it’s one of my favorite books of all time, and I’m giving the total package 4 stars. I believe that Marvel put together an Essential package of this and the following issues, and I highly recommend it if you want a good read.

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