Hell On Two Wheels: A Tribute To Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider, the daredevil stuntman with a skeleton head made of fire, debuted in Marvel Comics on this day in 1972, and despite being one of the most definitively '70s Marvel concepts, along with Power Man and Iron Fist, the character has retained a lasting appeal and remains endlessly fun.
Ghost Rider was created by Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, and debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5 with the alter-ego Johnny Blaze, a stuntman who sold his soul to the devil to save his adopted father’s life, and was forced to become a spirit of vengeance, hunting down the wicked and punishing them for their sins.
The creation of Ghost Rider has become a contested issue over the decades, with several court cases concerning the matter. The character shared a name with an earlier cowboy character created by Thomas and Friedrich along with Dick Ayers, later renamed the Phantom Rider, but Friedrich asserted a claim to ownership of the Johnny Blaze incarnation and eventually settled with Marvel out of court.
Along with Wolverine and The Punisher, Ghost Rider was one of the most popular Marvel Comics characters of the mid-1990s, when Johnny Blaze was replaced by the younger, cooler Danny Ketch, who he mentored and eventually discovered was his long-lost brother. The Ghost Rider aesthetic fit even better in the '90s than it had in the '70s, but like many things in comics during that decade, the boom was followed by a bust.
Ghost Rider is perhaps best known to the world at large as the subject of two Nicolas Cage movies of questionable quality. There is a gleeful schlock appeal to Cage’s stabs at the character, and while they’re nowhere near great movies, one can charitably say that they are at times surprisingly watchable.
In the late 2000s, Jason Aaron masterminded one of the defining Ghost Rider runs, mixing in elements of grindhouse and horror to bring the concept to its full potential. Along with artists Roland Boschi, Tan Eng Huat and Tony Moore, Aaron united the disparate threads of the Ghost Rider mythos into a tale of two brothers at odds, and an angel who usurped God.
After Aaron’s run, Marvel introduced a number of new Ghost Riders in Blaze and Ketch’s stead to try and reignite the franchise. The first was Alejandra Jones, a victim of human trafficking who trained her entire life to inherit the curse. She ultimately relinquished the power back to Johnny Blaze after saving innocent souls from the clutches of Mephisto.
Another new Ghost Rider was introduced in 2014. Robbie Reyes was created by Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore, and his origin and powers seemed to have little in common with the larger mythos. Unconventionally, Robbie drove a muscle car as opposed to a motor cycle; one that was possessed by the spirit of his devil-worshipping uncle Eli, and together they became the Ghost Rider.
Smith also oversaw a radical take on Ghost Rider in the Secrets Wars miniseries Ghost Racers, with artists Juan Gedeon and Tamra Bonvillain, placing all past, present and alternate timeline Ghost Riders into a death race situation at the behest of Arcade. The series stretched the concept to include a Ghost Rider who was a T-Rex riding on a fighter jet.
While there isn’t always a Ghost Rider, and the franchise often goes through fits and starts before finding a foothold, there will always be an audience for a skeleton man with fire face on a hellfire motorcycle, and in that way Ghost Rider has transcended the trappings of the era it was created in to become truly timeless.