Or – “The Most Unexpected Guest Star Of All?”
The Major Spoilers Anniversary blowout is winding down, but before we go, we need to examine a comic book that has defied my attempts to quantify or explain it for over two decades now. I’ve gone over the awesomeness that is the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider before, but seldom have I ever been as flummoxed and bemused as I was when I read this particular issue. It stands to reason that a superhero who get his powers from a literal devil would be a thorny storytelling problem, even in the swingin’ 70’s at Marvel, but this one takes the cake, and runs that conceit to it’s logical conclusion. You kind of have to see it to believe it!
Previously, on Ghost Rider: After the untimely death of his father, Barton Blaze, John Blaze was adopted by Crash Simpson, a stunt-rider even more successful than his late old man. A death-bed promise to his ailing mother kept Johnny from riding in the show, but he nonetheless trained night and day to become the best rider that he could, only to lose it all when Crash revealed that he had a terminal cancer. Using knowledge in his books and grimoires, Johnny traded his immortal soul for Crash Simpson’s life, saving his de facto father from death, just long enough for The Devil to get in an Outer Limits twist in the final hour. Thankfully, Crash’s daughter Roxanne Simpson knew just enough mojo of her own to protect Johnny Blaze from being dragged off to the netherworld, though not enough to keep him from being cursed to a hellish existence each nightfall. When the sun disappears, Johnny’s flesh sizzles away, and he becomes a living skeleton creature, riding the night streets and highways in search of redemption, even as his nemesis/sugar daddy Satan tries to finally take his soul from him. To that end, El Diablo has sent another hell-powered creature, this one a mind-warping monstrous thing called Inferno, whose main power is turning everyone in New York against his nemesis the Ghost Rider!
Jim Mooney may be best known as the artist of classic Superboy and Supergirl strips, but here he adds a surrealistic element to the adventures of our cursed cyclist, and his design for Inferno combines nightmare and super-villain into one bizarre package. Having discovered last issue that he can create an entire motorcycle out of his hellfire, Ghost Rider uses his wits to clear away the mob and get a shot at Inferno, and Jim Mooney gets to draw something that NEVER would have made the grade in Supergirl: Demon-On-Demon Leapfrog Violence!
Johnny Blaze can’t bring himself to mow down a mob of innocents, and thinks to himself that he has finally doomed his girlfriend Roxy to her own infernal fate. Roxy, for her part, has been captured by Shaitan and dragged to an ur-dimension where she has been shown the tortured spirit of her father, Crash Simpson. The Devil gives her a simple choice: Save her father, but damn her boyfriend to heck. Not nearly as used to this sort of paranormal wackjobbery, Roxy is forced to make a fateful choice…
This issue’s script is the work of Tony Isabella of Black Lightning fame, and Big T really knows how to wring the last bit of drama out of a situation. The over-the-top villainy of the creature who (as of this writing, anyway) is the greatest evil thing in the history of all evil things could get ridiculous, but here it stays firmly between “scary” and “Liberace.” Sophie’s Roxy’s choice leaves Johnny without any sort of protection against the Lord of Darkness, she realizes a second too late, and the terrible irony (in the Alanis Morissette sense, anyway) is that De Debbil didn’t ever HAVE the soul of her father in the first place!
Johnny’s flame-cycle disperses, and he takes a nasty spill, even getting hurt in the process, realizing that Satan has removed his powers and the invulnerability that comes with them. (He’s still a flaming skull-man, though…) Isabella’s script again comes very close to the edge of parody without teetering over, as Johnny steals a REAL motorcycle and vows that the greatest stunt-rider in the world isn’t going to go down easy, flame-powers or no! Satan arrives, clutching Roxy in his hand, and laughs that Blaze is nothing more than a LOSER! (Because, as anyone in the know will tell you, the taunts of teenage girls are the worst taunts imaginable in all the hoary nether-dimensions of the omniverse.)
FLARE IN THE EYE!!!!! Inferno should have several weight classes on Ghost Rider without his powers, but Johnny Blaze will not falter, hammering his foe repeatedly with all the power he can muster, beating on the demonic thingy until Inferno collapses to the ground. Satan, however, isn’t playing around, zapping Johnny with his full evil power and laughing that his triumph has come. “YOU ARE WRONG, SATAN!” comes a cry from the crowd as a bearded man steps forth. “Johnny Blaze’s only sin was despair…”
With a literal wave of his hands, the newcomer banishes the Superbeast, frees the crowd and removes the yoke of the Evil One from Ghose Rider’s neck. He smiles his beatific smile and vanishes into the crowds again, walking the earth until the time comes for his return. Yes, Faithful Spoilerites, we’re on the same track here, as we’re clearly given the impression that this is none other than Jesus himself (or some aspect thereof, I’m not always clear on the Trinity and such) stepping in to balance the scales that his evil counterpart knocked out of whack. Given the premise that Satan wanders around trying to entrap people into giving up their immortal somethings for his evil gain, it makes perfect sense for him to appear and counter those plans, right? My twelve-year-old self was vaguely troubled by this cameo, wondering if it wasn’t somehow demeaning for such a character to end up in a Ghost Rider comic book, and my adult self is even more entertained by how quickly this cameo (as well as the identity of “Satan”) was retconned away when someone with sense in their heads really considered the implications. Still, it’s a pretty awesome ending to Ghost Rider’s first arc, and as game-changing climaxes go, this one is at least original. Johnny and Roxy have a bittersweet breakup in the wake of her kidnapping by the FREAKING DEVIL, and you can’t blame her for leaving…
Ghost Rider’s status quo changes immediately after this issue (understandably, given the kind of earth-shattering events herein) and the emphasis on metaphysical good and evil, angels and demons is sidelined for several years worth of stories. I’m still torn as to whether the events of this issue are a brilliant extrapolation of the concepts introduced in Marvel Spotlight #5 three years earlier, or a horrifying ‘Jump The Shark’ moment for the entire Marvel Universe. This dichotomy is what really gives the book it’s zesty aftertaste, forcing the mind into a loop of “Yeah, but…” and “Well, I guess…” statements. For all the positives that it raises, there comes an equal problem that overshadows the whole discussion, not the least of which is where you would file our guest-star’s entry in the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe. Ghost Rider #9 goes where no comic has gone before (Jack T. Chick notwithstanding) and is easily worth 3.5 out of 5 stars overall on sheer story momentum. I mean, really, how ELSE would you banish an all-powerful, literal devil from the pit?
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: So, is it genius, or a complete cheese sandwich?