In the early 1980s, one of my favorite comicbook series was Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider, which centered around itinerant motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze, a man cursed to share his body with a demon he could barely control.
Johnny Blaze first appeared in Marvel Spotlight #5 (Aug. 1972), and subsequently spun off into his own 81-issue series, which ran from 1972-1983. I first learned about the series when I saw #58 on a spinner rack at Perry Drugs. The cover showed a motorcyclist with a flaming skull visible in the rear-view mirror of a fleeing car occupied by two terrified men. I opened up the first page and read the “Stan Lee presents…” caption and thought it was “cute” that this flaming skull character was called Johnny Blaze.
I bought the issue, and every one after that until the series ended. I really liked how (especially as the series grew closer to the end) Ghost Rider developed into a metaphor of a man dealing with his personal demons. The more Johnny Blaze became Ghost Rider, the more the demon within him, Zarathos, was able to gain independent control when he was Ghost Ridering. As a result, the Ghost Rider went from being an extension of Johnny’s personality to someone Johnny had to fight in order to keep the demon from getting too far out of control. Zarathos was Johnny Blaze’s personal demon on both a literal and metaphorical level. Like the alcoholic tempted by “just one drink”, Johnny was often tempted to give in to the desire to become Ghost Rider because it was an “emergency.”
I eventually bought all the back issues, and I have to say what ended as a great book had a less-than-great beginning. Or rather, certain elements of the early stories could have been better. Johnny sold his soul to “Satan” (later retconned as the Marvel Comics’ character Mephisto) to save his stepfather, motorcycle stuntman “Crash” Simpson, from cancer. The bargain was struck, but Johnny forgot to say anything about Crash not dying in a fiery motorcycle accident later that same day.
Here’s one less-than-stellar part about the early issues: Later that night, “Satan” comes to collect Johnny’s soul, but is prevented from doing so by Roxanne Simpson’s virginal purity (so he gives Johnny the Ghost Rider curse instead). Puh-lease. The idea that sexual inexperience would make one so good and pure they could ward off “Satan” is laughable.
It’s also obvious that in the early days Ghost Rider was just a way to cash in on the then-popularity of both daredevil Evel Knievel and The Exorcist. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, but the later internal battle between Johnny and Zarathos made for better stories than those about a supernatural “superhero.”
Late in the run, we learned that hundreds of thousands of years ago, Zarathos was powerful and feared, until Mephisto orchestrated his downfall, and made the demon his slave. From time to time, he’d merge Zarathos with the soul of a human. Johnny Blaze was the latest to receive this “gift”, though in many ways it was an “up yours” to Johnny in retaliation for Johnny having gotten free of his contract.
In the end, Johnny was freed of Zarathos, and got a happy ending.
That wouldn’t last, of course. When Marvel launched a revised Ghost Rider series centering around teenager Dan Ketch in the 1990s, Johnny Blaze soon showed up. Dan wasn’t hosting Zarathos, but he and Johnny did have a connection. Eventually, a somewhat complex mythology involving a centuries-old Ghost Rider lineage would develop, most of which I only know about from reading a book called Ghost Rider the Visual Guide by Andrew Darling (I stopped reading the Dan Ketch series after 24 issues).
Johnny has since returned in several miniseries, some of which I’ve read, and some of which I haven’t, as well as an ongoing series that ran from 2006-2009. I read and liked the first storyline in that series, but I prefer how Johnny’s original series ended. He defeated both his literal and metaphorical demons, and got to go on with his life. Why saddle him with the Ghost Rider curse again?
Maybe Johnny Blaze had an impact on later writers, to the extent that they opted to use him again, rather than Dan or some other character.
By the way, I’m not the only one who felt that the internal struggle gave both the title and the characters a certain appeal. The final issue of the 1972-1983 run of Ghost Rider contains an essay by J. M. DeMatteis called “Travels with Zarathos or Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye.”
In that essay, DeMatteis, who came on board as writer with issue #74, wrote that one thing that drew him to Johnny and Zarathos is that the latter was, “the personification of man’s eternal grappling with the evil within.”
Exactly. Johnny’s internal struggle is one thing that made Ghost Rider great in its last several months.
DeMatteis also pondered where the series might have gone had it continued. He pointed out that Zarathos, personifying Evil, was the catalyst in Blaze’s transformation from self doubt to certainty and self awareness, perhaps even self assurance.
A movie version of Ghost Rider starring Nicholas Cage appeared in 2007. It conflated elements of both the Johnny Blaze and Dan Ketch series. It also made the non-supernatural Western Ghost Rider character of Carter Slade, who pre-dated Johnny Blaze, a part of the same mythos.
The movie had both good points and bad, and a sequel called Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance is due out next month. I haven’t read a single word about it (and, in fact, was unaware until recently that it was being released in just a few weeks), but when the 2007 film came out, I expressed a hope that Johnny Blaze and the Ghost Rider wouldn't just fight external foes in the sequel. I said I’d like the filmmakers to take more pages from the comicbook series and develop an internal conflict between Johnny and the demon Zarathos.
As in the comicbook, that conflict would create a conundrum for Johnny. The more he uses his abilities to help others and/or fight evil, the control Zarathos gains control over their shared form. And the more that happens, the greater the likelihood that Ghost Rider would deliberately hurt innocents. And to add to the conundrum, the first film established that Johnny wants to use his powers to help people/fight evil.
True, we don’t know if the Johnny Blaze of the film is possessed by a demon (Zarathos or otherwise), but I hope the sequel goes in that direction. It’d be a more interesting film than if he just fought bad guys.
Whatever direction this new film and/or other comicbook series takes, Johnny Blaze’s original adventures can be read in The Essential Ghost Rider Vols. 1-4. The stories are reprinted in black and white, but the volumes are affordably priced. There's some good reading in those books.
Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating
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